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Kingdom Cons rises above a mere tale of lost innocence

Yuri Herrera's writing reinvents its own territory, with streetwise mischief and canonical splendour.

The perimeter of paradise is both crossed and double-crossed in Yuri Herrera’s concisely charged novel Kingdom Cons, in which this territory embodies its genealogy as a borderland: from the Old Persian pairi (“around”) and diz (“to form a wall”).

Already well-known to Spanish speakers, the Mexican author’s landscapes are made of edges and thresholds, where spoiled lives carry a tune and poetry atones for spleen and spite. Anglophone readers have been introduced more recently to this borderland bard thanks to the independent publisher And Other Stories, with Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) and The Transmigration of Bodies (2016), novels both monumental and minimal in their treatment of subjects such as border-crossing, corruption and community.

This most recent book, which is in fact Herrera’s debut, is set in an unnamed town in northern Mexico swollen by contact with the United States – specifically within the feudal drug-trafficking system, where Lobo, a street-singer abandoned by his parents with nothing but an accordion (“This is your bread”), survives by performing corridos, or ballads, in cantinas. Homeless in the hostile streets, he finds his “antidote to chaos” in the melodies he makes of the cries, rants and threats around him.

Like romances, corridos tell stories through song. They became popular with a mass audience during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), when the polka-rhythmed verses lifted morale and spread play-by-play accounts of battles to the wider population. The mutation began around the 1970s, when the songs began to service drug trafficking along the Mexico-US border and turned into narcocorridos (drug ballads), endorsing cartel kingpins, praising murder, coercing gang allegiance and inciting the poor to join the drug world.

So, when a druglord named the King comes into Lobo’s cantina and makes a gesture of appreciation by shooting a drunkard who is slurring a joke at the pauper singer’s expense, Lobo senses that a sudden meaning has been bestowed on his life, a title given to his nameless days.

He pursues the King back to his kingdom, named the Palace, which “exploded from the edge of the desert in a vast pageantry of gardens, gates and walls. A gleaming city on the fringes of a city in squalor . . .” This gangster’s paradise is complete with the house Gringo, the Manager, the Doctor (“the Court’s Número Uno stitch-it man”), the Jeweller, Pocho the cop who turned, the Journalist, the Witch, who is the King’s side-healer, and the headstrong Heir. Lobo is assigned a young lover named the Girl, a fellow street-kid-turned-cartel-­protected-property, who shows him the ropes: at the Palace, eat as much as you can, sleep as much as you can, and stay out of the way.

And so, Lobo becomes a drug-land troubadour known as the Artist. The Manager takes him to the studio to record his corridos, compiled and composed from small talk overheard in the Palace, such as the braggart who snipped off the cheating thumbs of a drug mule so that he would lose track counting his cash, or another who collects teeth from his whack-jobs and lines his dashboard with their smiles.

All goes well until the Artist falls in love with the Commoner, a woman with “a deliberate face; there are faces that seem accidental, but not this face whose parts all rhymed”. It is his first encounter with someone trying to get out of the Palace.

When cartel rivalry delivers corpses to the Palace doorstep, the Artist’s songs become highly sensitive, as they are also “runs” made in the name of the King: messages transmitted. The network of palatial corridors and the repertoire of cartel corridos become the crossings and double-crossings that frame their paradise.

Danger presents itself with immense, unexpected pity against the backdrop of the narco-empire: “The Artist wished that the man was not carrying a knife, not because he thought [he] might hurt him but because he held it as tho it were all he had left.” (All of Herrera’s “thoughs” are clipped of their UGH, left as vulnerable as the knife-holder.)

Kingdom Cons rises above a mere tale of lost innocence or a drug-land eulogy, specifically because it is the language and not the narrative that powers its subject. Herrera’s writing reinvents its own territory with simultaneous streetwise mischief and canonical splendour. At times a Renaissance quill, at other times a tattooer’s needle, his syntax misbehaves masterfully, and Lisa Dillman proves herself once again exquisitely loyal to his lyrical disobedience with this translation, its prose so alive that it recalls Roland Barthes’s description of “language lined with flesh”.

In short, as brevity is Herrera’s strong suit, this is a corrido for no master.

Yelena Moskovich’s debut novel, “The Natashas”, is published by Serpent’s Tail

Kingdom Cons
Yuri Herrera. Translated by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories, 112pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

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Boundaries, in wine as in politics, are as random as the people who invent them

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots.

In gruesome times, as this little landmass drifts politically ever farther from the European coast, sparkling wine news gives drink for thought. Louis Pommery England is not actually terribly English; it’s a collaboration between Pommery Champagne and Hampshire’s Hattingley Valley, although the grapes, they hasten to assure us, are as British as Brexit.

Are they, though? I don’t wish to be difficult, but Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are French imports. All those sturdy Hampshire vines, bearing the plump fruit of this splendid, soon-to-be-isolated island, had to come from somewhere. How long must a vine root in English soil to be considered native?

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots. Champagne may be one of the glories of France, drunk by Napoleon, famously, in victory and in defeat, but it was also adored by the Russians, whose vast and chilly acreage helped ensure his downfall. Some 50 years after the retreat from Moscow, Roederer Champagne was selling 650,000 bottles a year to the nation that destroyed Napoleon’s dream of continental domination.

And Roederer itself presents a problem, from the patriotic perspective, when you consider that the first Roederer was not a Monsieur but a Herr. We all know how Champagne suffered during two world wars: the soil that nurtures Pinot Noir was soaked in blood. But when you live 200km from the Franco-German border, it isn’t only troops who march in: like Roederer, the houses of Krug, Bollinger, and Deutz were all founded by German immigrants. On a recent visit to Deutz, I kept mispronouncing “Dertz” as “Doytz”; I was unconsciously associating it with Deutsch, the German for German. William Deutz founded his winery in Aÿ, next door to his compatriot Bollinger’s house, in 1838, the year of Victoria’s coronation. The new queen’s mother, paternal grandparents and future husband were all German; her grandfather, King George III, was the first of their house whose mother tongue was English. How long must a royal family root in English soil to be considered native?

 “Our name pushed us to find distant markets where people were less intensely anti-German,” says Jean-Marc Lallier, the sixth generation of Deutzes since William. One of those markets was not so distant. In the late 19th century, 80 per cent of Deutz exports went through its English agent, which means they were sundowners all over the empire on which the sun never set.

In Deutz’s pretty château, full of ancestors’ portraits, I taste Hommage à William Deutz 2010: 100 per cent Pinot Noir, all from two vineyards just outside the window. “My grandfather made a William Deutz that was 90 per cent Pinot Noir,” says Lallier; “he was very austere, not funny and not very sexy either, and his cuvée was a bit like him. In 1966 my father made it a Blanc de Blancs. Pure Chardonnay in Aÿ, heartland of Pinot Noir: Grandfather was furious!”

Their modern Blanc de Blancs, the gorgeous Amour de Deutz, comes from Grand Cru vineyards a few kilometres away. I gaze out at William’s Pinot, so similar to England’s and yet so different, and drink, with sadness, to the understanding that political boundaries are as arbitrary as the people who invent them, and that in the human as in the vinous sense there is, in fact, no such thing as an island. 

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist