The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (La Transmigración de los cuerpos, 2013) translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2016) And Other Stories (2016) 101 pp
Earlier this year Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World won the Best Translated Book Award. I whole-heartedly supported that decision (see my review here). That book was inventive, invigorating, and as profound as a myth, while exploring the darkness of the immigrant experience. In The Transmigration of Bodies before Signs, Herrera again alludes to myth and keeps his inventive approach — injecting vivacity by way of hard boiled crime fiction — this time to explore violence in a plague-ridden Mexican town.
The word transmigration usually comes to us packed like this: “transmigration of the soul.” Herrera cuts out the soul, however, and focuses on the body. The living individuals in this novel are physical beings, flawed, always on the verge of getting sick and of getting each other sick. The dead, well, they just lie in a “hard and yet formless” silence, existing, so the narrator says, for the sole reason of representing “something that doesn’t exist.” But something that did.
The hard-boiled narrator here is a man we know only as The Redeemer. He’s mostly caring for his own body as the book begins, at least, to the extent it is convenient for him. The plague has taken its toll on the city streets, and people are trying to stay in doors. Masks are standard issue. The mask is a bit inconvenient for The Redeemer, but he’s okay staying in since one of his neighbors, Three Times Blonde, is also holed up. Recognizing this is perhaps his only — and last — chance with her.
But there are matters outside that he has to deal with. Two warring families each have a dead body belonging to the other. The Redeemer is called upon to broker a trade, or what he calls “grimreapery.” Herrera takes us, then, through a grim, labyrinthine world that had me thinking of Roberto Bolaño.
For me, The Transmigration of Bodies is not as strong or compelling as Signs Preceding the End of the World. That book was incredibly original in its work with Dante and Mayan mythology. The Transmigration of Bodies is less original with its hard-boiled strappings that have it categorized as a dreamy neo noir, and, from that perspective, it does feel quite familiar, which isn’t to say it isn’t exciting in its own right. Herrera and Dillman should be praised for the linguistic playfulness they bring to the form.
But if this is a bit weaker that Signs, that is not reason to despair and think there is some downward trend going on here. These two books apparently form the first duo in a loose trilogy, and I’m very excited for the third part.