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In Yuri Herrera's hard-boiled 'The Transmigration of Bodies,' dirty work is providence

“The border used to be an actual place,” wrote poet Albert Dios, “but now, it is the act of a thousand imaginations.”

In 2015’s brilliant “Signs Preceding the End of the World,” Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera proved himself to be one of the brightest and fiercest of those imaginations, almost preternaturally attuned to the surrealistic, even mythic potential of border literature. Like Carlos Fuentes before him, Herrera depicted the border as a kind of porous frontier, a threshold no less metaphysical than physical. The book, his first to appear in English, remains a career-making effort, the elevation of a topical struggle to the warped heights of his tragic vision.

In his new novel, “The Transmigration of Bodies,” Herrera pivots from border fabulist to noirish raconteur, bringing his considerable allegorical powers to bear on another facet of contemporary Mexican culture: Namely, its legacy of violence.

A mysterious plague is ravaging an unnamed city. While its terrified inhabitants cower indoors, two ruling crime families — the Castros and the Fonsecas — trade body blows on the newly empty streets. “So different and so the same,” we are told of these neo-Capulets and Montagues, “poor as dirt a couple decades ago, now too big for their boots.” When Castro’s daughter and Fonseca’s son turn up dead, the city thrums with retaliatory tension.

Enter the man known only as the Redeemer, a damaged Winston Wolf-like fixer whose “talent lay not so much in being brutal as in knowing what kind of courage every fix requires.” He is hired by Dolphin, the capo of the Fonseca clan, to initiate an exchange of bodies while mitigating the chance of further reprisals. “This ain’t about revenge,” Dolphin says, “just about getting even.”

Like any good noir, a veritable murderer’s row of femmes fatales, unsavory goons, and heart-of-gold hustlers is enlisted (Three Times Blonde, the Mennonite, the Unruly, Neeyanderthal), each furthering — or further obfuscating — the Redeemer’s journey toward a peaceable transfer. Herrera’s gift for evoking the grit and gleam of the city’s various locales — from nouveau riche estates to gigolo clubs — creates a smoky, sexy, ominous backdrop for our hero’s myriad encounters.

For all his street-smart bluster, though, the Redeemer maintains a sense of decency throughout the proceedings that elevates him above gumshoe caricature. When he finds the corpse of Baby Girl, Fonseca’s daughter, he tries to look her over “with a professional eye, but it was hard since what he really wanted to do was hold her hand. So that was what he did.” The occupational obligation “to efface set-in-stone truths” belies his commitment to a single capital-t Truth: the necessity of personal dignity in the face of perpetual violence. “When did we stop burying those we love with our hands? he thought. From people like us, what the hell can we expect?” This private creed acts as a philosophical foundation for the book’s cautiously hopeful conclusion.

Herrera’s prose, deftly translated by Lisa Dillman, is lean and hard-boiled — and often caustically poetic — though underpinned by a sort of wry self-awareness. If Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are present here, so too are Roberto Bolaño and Quentin Tarantino. There is always something of a smirk beneath the sizzle, a genre consciousness that assures us Herrera has read that book, seen that movie.

This skillfully skewed mimicry turns out to be a blessing and a curse. Herrera’s familiarity with the conceits and gestures of crime fiction ensures we experience the huge (and hugely enjoyable) range of what the genre has to offer. But there is also an occasional sense of flatness, a pervasive cartoonish pluck that isn’t quite commensurate with the violence it hopes to interrogate. One recalls the unflinching stare of, say, “The Part About the Crimes” from Bolaño’s landmark “2666.” There are many ways to consider a problem via literature, of course; some methods are merely more effective than others.

“The truth is,” the Redeemer says near the novel’s end, “maybe we’re damned from the start.” To which Three Times Blonde icily replies, “What truth?” In a brilliant and beguiling body of work, Herrera continues to take dead aim at this question. For all the apocalyptic strangeness of his settings — permeable borders, plague addled cities — his stories mold something rich and fundamental from the stuff of prosaic life. Beneath the Redeemer’s seeming despair, a heart — Herrera’s, one suspects — beats thickly.

If, as our hero has it, “dirtywork is providence,” this sinister, satisfying book is its catechism.

Illingworth is managing editor of The Scofield.

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The Transmigration of Bodies

by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman

& Other Stories: 112 pp., $13.95 paper

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
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