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Life and Death on the Border: A Review of Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons

By Des Barry.

Kingdom Cons review

Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, translated by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories, 2017)

Narco-corridos are written and sung by musico-gangsters in praise of cartel bosses like El Chapo Guzman; or to celebrate the extremities of cartel life; or to recount the heroic death one of its soldiers with a nombre-de-guerra like R5. Corridos are catchy tunes on accordion or guitar, polka punctuated by the odd burst of machine-gun fire. The lyrics are pretty bloody and, some of them, pretty bloody chilling. The first narco-corrido that I heard – probably like many other gringos – was by Los Cuates de Sinaloa, performing The Heisenberg Song to the opening credits in the second series of Breaking Bad. You can find hundreds of narco-corridos on YouTube, some with subtitles. Some are “official” videos produced by and for particular cartels.

In Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons, Lobo is a poverty-stricken street singer with a genius for composing spontaneous corridos. He sees the King, the head of a borderland cartel, in a cantina called The Port: “Lobo felt envy, the bad kind first and the good kind after, because suddenly he saw this was the most important day of his life.” Lobo sings a corrido inspired by the presence of the King. A drunk in the bar orders Lobo to sing more, which Lobo does, and the King lavishes upon him his rapt attention. When the drunk refuses to pay the musician, the King “put his gun to him as tho feeling the man’s gut, and fired”. He takes the musician’s dues from the dead drunk’s wallet and hands Lobo his justly earned wages. Filled with awe for the King’s charisma, and his impunity over the killing, and recognising the bounty that would befall him if he were to become the cartel’s court musician, Lobo goes to the King’s palace. He persuades one of the guards who was at the bar to let him pass through the gates. “You saw he liked my songs. Let me sing for him and it’ll be good for you, watch.” The guard warns Lobo: “He better like you… Round here, you blow it, you’re fucked.”

The palace headquarters of this cartel-kingdom is close to an unnamed border. All three of the short novels by Yuri Herrera, translated into English by Lisa Dillman, inhabit this shifting territory, that is far more psychological – or mythical, in the Greek sense – than geographical. After publishing Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, And Other Stories have now added Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera’s first novel. The territory of all three novels may be reminiscent of the real border between Mexico and the United States but, in Herrera’s works, that territory is more like the hypnagogic borderland between sleep and dream, where the real, the imaginary and the archetypal collide to engender sex and violence, insight and confusion. The palace of Kingdom Cons occupies an elusive imaginal realm where courtiers have lost their birth and baptismal names to become the Jeweller, the Traitor, the Gringo, the Commoner, the Girl, the Heir, the King. When Lobo is absorbed into the kingdom as corrido-writer for the cartel, his name disappears and he transmutes into the Artist. His job is to sing praises for the actions of the King, with a side-line in commissions for high-ranking subordinates among the courtiers. On his acceptance at court, the Artist is gifted the Girl. Women at court are given over to the service of the men. The Artist finds sex and a bed and even the first stirrings of love.  

To have status in the world at large, The Artist knows that he needs to belong to the court. Those who approach it simply to beg favours of the King are worthless in the eyes of the courtiers. They are from the outer world of beggars: “maggot-meat.” The Artist was once one of these non-people, living in a cardboard box in an alley and busking on street corners to get enough to eat after his parents abandoned him and went North. The King is a seductive benefactor and he instructs the Journalist to take the Artist’s recordings to DJs and studios in the city to make some commercial recordings for him. But, for the first time in the book, the Artist witnesses the limitations of the King’s power when the studios and DJs turn down the Artist’s corridos. The studios are under pressure from the press and government not to broadcast corridos that laud the cartels. The Artist responds with contempt for the DJs, and for the studios that don’t recognise his talent and artistic honesty. So he’ll be an outsider, outside the norms, like the King and his court. As a result, his corridos take on more power and sophistication, and the King draws him deeper into his confidence.

Herrera’s prose is sparse and authoritative. The original Spanish has a poetic beauty that Dillman has rendered with clarity and licence in order to conjure the musicality and earthiness of the original. The novel has the simple trajectory of a bildungsroman rooted in place, but Lobo’s story intersects and illuminates complex global, social, political and psychological currents in a way that is visceral, emotional and personal. The stakes inside the palace are the highest. The workings of the kingdom are run under a strict set of rules, with a strict hierarchy – everyone needs to know their place and stay in it. All the Artist has to do is to keep singing the corridos that please the King; this will continue his entitlement to food, women, drugs and alcohol – whatever he wants. It’s in the palace, around the King, that everyone feels completely alive. Until they’re dead. With a knife through the head, or torn apart by bullets. Once inside the court, there is no escape to the outside world. The longer the Artist stays in the palace, the more aware he becomes of the tensions and weaknesses among the players, their envy and rivalry, their suffocating limitations and fears, their viciousness and venality. When the Artist falls in love with the Commoner, unreachable, above his station, he questions the price of his songbird captivity. How long can he keep the favour of the King before he blows it and he’s fucked?

Yuri Herrera

Herrera’s fictional world reflects the brutal reality of the world on the Mexican-US border. It doesn’t ignore the romanticism that Lobo feels for that world, but neither does it expose some of the most horrific aspects of that territory, staying as it does in the realm of metaphor and symbol. Other writers have explored the particular aspects of that horror. In this magazine, Richard Marshall in his essay Borderlands has written of Sergio González Rodríguez’s nonfiction books The Femicide Machine and The Iguala 43. Just a few quotes reveal devastating accounts of the depravities of the torture and killing of innocent women in Ciudad Juarez over decades, and the murders of forty-three Iguala students in 2014. These books analyse in depth the real-life atrocities committed in the breakdown of civil society under the impact of the ongoing drug wars. In fiction, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 has a harrowing retelling of the murders of Ciudad Juarez’s women. In the world of narco-corridos, the relatively recent emergence of a form of corrido known as the Movimiento Alterado features songs that glorify torture, beheadings and murders on behalf of the cartels. Herrera’s fictional kingdom is an evocation of how human beings are drawn into acting like courtiers in thrall to a charismatic leader.

Cartels are extreme versions of what exists in the worlds of business, religion and politics in any country. The Artist’s actions have echoes worldwide – whether in the United States or Europe or Asia or Africa – in the willingness to surrender autonomy to powerful charismatic leaders and thus to risk, or to embrace, a descent into barbarism. While becoming aware of the horrors perpetrated in the Mexican drug wars, it’s impossible to ignore memories of the photographs that documented torture at Abu Ghraib; that after 9/11 in the USA, lawyer Alan Dershowitz was making a case for the legality of torture; that drone killings that strike innocents are still commonplace. Most recently, Donald Trump has advocated the reintroduction of torture techniques that were finally outlawed by the Obama administration.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the behavioural analysis that so often seems relevant is Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich examines the propensity that human beings have to ally themselves with something, or someone, perceived as more powerful than themselves, and then identify themselves with her/him/it, and to internalise the ideology of dominance in the belief that “we’re in the gang, and the gang will always have our back”. Until it doesn’t. In the border territory where consciousness meets the unconscious – that is so increasingly evident and at play in politics of the irrational kind – the ego can dissolve or fragment, and the willing or culpable can lose their identity to become transformed into the Artist, the Traitor, the Witch, the Commoner, or the King. Like these characters, we can be possessed by archetypes, become these archetypes, find ourselves feeling vibrant and alive with this semi-conscious power that is connected to a bigger whole, which can, at its worst, develop into a form of mass delusion even if it works against our best interests. We watch in fascination as Donald Trump appears to be destroying civil society in the United States, to undermine the fabric of reason, how he projects the fear and uncertainty of what he’s unleashing in America onto what lies beyond his country’s border with Mexico, how he’s convinced that building a wall will keep out the chaos that he seems blindly unaware of setting in motion inside his own domain, inside his own country and inside his own mind. In this internal psychological borderland, reason and civility disintegrate. It’s chilling, but it’s also thrilling – we can’t stop watching. This is the psychological territory that Herrera brings to life in Kingdom Cons and his short novels to date; and where he intimates a way to survive it.

In Signs Preceding the End of the World, the signs unfold on the borderland of consciousness between life and death reminiscent of Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, one of Herrera’s literary antecedents; that zone where, ultimately, we all live. Reading Kingdom Cons after Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies is like discovering the foundation on which the other two novels are built. Kingdom Cons can also be read as the story of a writer discovering his craft – his unique and poetic style – and the possibility of art providing insight to transform the individual in the midst of the world’s horrors. It is literature speaking against horror. As an approach to Herrera’s literary world, Kingdom Cons would be a perfect place to start. For those already familiar with the richness and poetry of Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, it’s an essential addition, and a key component, of Yuri Herrera’s distinctive and brilliant oeuvre.


Des Barry

Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta, 3:AM Magazine and in anthologies including Sea Stories and London Noir. He’s putting the final touches on a Faustian novel set in New York City. His alter-ego David Enrique Spellman wrote Far South, published by Serpent’s Tail. He tweets from @farsouthproject.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 8th, 2017.