Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera (tr. Lisa M. Dillman). And Other Stories. 112pp, $13.95.
The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (tr. Lisa M. Dillman). And Other Stories. 112pp, $13.95.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (tr. Lisa M. Dillman). And Other Stories. 128pp, $13.95.
In the often-staid world of literary translation, it is rare to come across the true shock of something new—sentences like “a few houses had already been sent packing to the underworld, along with a soccer pitch and half an empty school” or “Three Times Blonde’s pants rode her all over.” Sentences that let their readers into a strange new view of the world. But this is what Yuri Herrera has taught us to expect in his books, and with the publication of Kingdom Cons, his trilogy-of-sorts is brought to a close at the very moment that it brings language itself into question.
The novel starts with an artist named Lobo who has been plucked from a grubby bar in the worst part of Mexico and plopped down in the modern-day equivalent of a royal palace, his new job being the court minstrel—as in medieval times—who has to perform corridos at the pleasure of the drug lord, who himself is less a lord and more a king. He is not alone: around him are dozens of courtiers and servants and bit players of all sorts. “So tell me how you write a corrido,” the Journalist asks him. “You just tell the story, that’s all?” The singer replies:
“The story tells itself, but you have to coax it . . . you take one or two words and the others revolve around them, that’s what holds it up. Cause if you’re just saying what happened, why bother with a song? Corridos aren’t only true; they’re also beautiful and just.”
The necessary “one or two words” are provided by an endless parade of commoners who have arrived with stories to tell and requests to make: “He heard tell of mountains, of jungles, of gulfs, of summits, in singsong accents entirely new to him: yeses like shesses, words with no esses, some whose tone soared up so high and sank so low it seemed each sentence was a journey: it was clear they were from nowhere near here.”
Sentences that soar and sink, that resemble journeys, that hint at being “nowhere near here”: this is the strange magic that Yuri Herrera’s three short novels—Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Transmigration of Bodies, and now Kingdom Cons—offers his readers as they wend through realms of dispossessed peoples, where law and order have been disordered and every character is seemingly at the mercy of all the others. The wilderness of Herrera’s prose is thoroughly intentional; it mirrors the world it describes, a world of “smug cut grass” and “walls dripping with dark sweat.” But there is an undeniable beauty to the King’s court of Kingdom Cons, where Lobo momentarily believes he has been welcomed into a paradise.
It is a paradise that Herrera’s readers might well expect. Throughout these three volumes, particular details have hinted at a mythos akin to Dante’s Divine Comedy. And just as “the private little inferno” mentioned on the first page of The Transmigration of Bodies points toward the book’s positioning within the trilogy, so does the border-crossing theme of Signs Preceding the End of the World render visible Herrera’s vision of purgatory. The paradise proposed in Kingdom Cons, though, is grittier than the transcendent one that Dante envisioned, and the Girl granted to the Artist is no Beatrice. People still die here, often in gruesome ways, and the King himself is not immune to the outside forces that subsequently force the Artist back out into the real world and into his old persona. But for the short span of the book, Lobo’s silver tongue and golden voice grants us all a glimpse of what heaven might look like to some:
To say homeboy, daydream, decanter, meadowland, rhythm. To say anything.
To listen to the sum of every silence.
To give a name to the space full of promise.
And then to fall silent.
As at the end of Dante’s Paradiso, the author—like the narrator—is forced to accept “how pale now is language and how paltry / For my conception! And for what I saw / My words are not enough to call them meager.” The same could easily be said of Herrera’s corrido of a novel, a space that allows people the chance to sight something beyond humanity.
Whenever a translator sits down with the prose of a wild, inventive, energetic new stylist intent on upending language, struggling with a sharp-toothed Tasmanian devil of a sentence that has mangled and uprooted the language it was originally written in, there is the possibility that an editor unfamiliar with the original language will be wholly convinced that the sentence in question should in fact be massaged into some preconceived image with all its straightforward, easily-swallowed, ultimately false clarity. Too often the long spears of English are driven into the strange animal’s hide; the creature is bled dry, disemboweled, and taxidermied. Anybody who wants to lay eyes on it can go to a museum and stare at the unmoving thing in a diorama with a little explanatory placard helpfully positioned at waist height. See the Tasmanian devil, teachers tell milling groups of schoolchildren on a field trip. It’s almost extinct and you’ll never be able to find a real one in the wild. Go on, look for yourself.
But every so often there comes along a translator like Lisa Dillman. She suits up of course, with heavy gloves and a mask—but she also brings some scraps to keep the animal happy. She comes, she throws the food, and once the Tasmanian devil has had its fill she can stroke its back and figure out how it does what it does. In other words: she looks at one of Herrera’s far-flung sentences, figures out an equally strange English—and she has convinced her editor she’s right.
Dillman’s editors and publishers at And Other Stories were an integral part of this ecosystem of radical translation; the publishing house’s philosophy has consistently been to resist the easy impulse to “smooth out” unusual language for a hypothetical “ordinary reader.” And Other Stories, in particular, often takes pains to hire editors who are able to preserve all the quirks and charms of the book’s original language. For Kingdom Cons, the house’s philosophy has ensured that Herrera’s editors have allowed the text to radiate with all its strangeness. And because most English readers lack the linguistic chops to read Yuri Herrera in his original Spanish, it is thanks to their and her bravery that we can experience a linguistic realm where curse words sit cheek by jowl with ten-dollar words, where a style we had never imagined, let alone seen in English, convinces us that we’re entering a new land far more dangerous and far more beautiful than any domesticated museum diorama
These three novels—of which Kingdom Cons is the last to be published in translation, but the first that Herrera wrote as he established his reputation in Spanish—describe a world on the knife-edge between metaphor and reality. It is hard to imagine the violence and brutality at the heart of each story in such staid locations as Oslo or Beijing; they are firmly rooted in that uneasy border between Mexico and the United States. But the archetypes that Herrera conjures up—the King, the Commoner, the Witch, the Artist—make it possible for us to enter this strange space. The true genius of Herrera’s story, and his prose, is to free all these characters of our preconceptions and presumptions, and to give them all the strangeness and individuality that Lisa Dillman gave his sentences. He makes each of them and each of us “a single drop in the sea of men with stories.” These drops do not merely contribute to an oasis in some barren desert; they add up to a flood that completely reshapes our mental landscape. It shows us a new reality the run of authors would neither care nor dare to render.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is the Digital Coordinator for Music & Literature Magazine and a translator from French. His recent and upcoming translations include Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus, Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins, Thomas Clerc’s Interior, and Jean Genet’s The Criminal Child. He is currently translating the complete stories of Hervé Guibert.
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