CORRUPTION INCARNATE: Yuri Herrera’s ‘The Transmigration of Bodies’, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, translated by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories, 2016)

By Ailsa Peate

Walking through the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool a few weeks ago, I came across a poster featuring a group of people. I instantly recognised the group as a Mexican mariachi band, and, approaching the poster, I found it to read #enfrentarelextraño (#facethestrange) underneath the image. Each of the mariachi band members had their heads replaced with various items: a bottle of what looks like José Cuervo tequila, a burrito, a red chilli, a tortilla crisp, a maraca, and a cactus. All that was missing from our UK associations with Mexico was a poncho and an Old El Paso fajita kit. Mention José Cuervo to a Mexican – a fan of tequila or otherwise – and they’ll tell you it’s cheap rubbish: anyway, you should try mezcal instead!; burritos aren’t a common feature on menus in Mexico; and maracas, sadly, come from Brazil. As far as the chilli, tortilla crisp, and cactus go, well, it’s doubtful that the artist considered whether their image – attractive, fun, and colourful as it is to look at – could be offensive to a population with a huge range of cuisines and a climate that can be equally as humid and cool as it can be dry and sweltering. What is “strange” in this image (and the others available to view on Instagram account @face_the_strange) is the replacement of heads with objects that are humanised by the (remaining human) body attached to them. What is not “strange” in this image are the chosen objects themselves – somewhat predictable stereotypes. In this instance, Mexican identity is presented in the UK exotically, as a kind of harmless tropical kitsch.

Nevertheless, views of Mexico are by no means always so innocuous. The international rhetoric surrounding Mexico has recently been particularly negative; Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has seen Mexicans notoriously labelled as “having lots of problems […] They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists” into the U.S. Trump has since gone some way to backtrack on this statement. However, it is perhaps not difficult to see how those lacking knowledge of contemporary Mexico could assume such inaccuracies to be true: In the last two years, impunity and corruption on the part of the country’s PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) government have become increasingly debated andprotested against after multiple massacres and “disappearances”, such as in Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, and Nochixtlán. Additionally, drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has often made front-page news with his recapture after 15 years evading Mexican police forces, his subsequent escape from Altiplano Maximum Security Prison, and his second recapture after agreeing to an unforeseen interview with Sean Penn and Mexican telenovela star Kate de Castillo. Furthermore, amongst many other violent and murderous acts against both politicians and women, this year we witnessed the murder of Gisela Mota, shot on her second day in office as Temixco’s mayor. Current president Enrique Peña Nieto’s dream of a functioning neo-liberal Mexico has slid away, and collusion, obfuscation, cover-ups, distraction, and impunity are prevalent in today’s Mexico, the president himself often the focus of protestors’ frustration as he is commonly understood to promote political impunity.[1] Violence in the country is dizzyingly high.

Criminality and corruption in Mexico are by no means an entirely recent phenomenon; the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre in Mexico City in which 30-300 people were murdered (the lack of precision surrounding the number of deaths at the event again revealing the country’s history of obfuscation) has encouraged a half-century of debate on the climate of political power and impunity in Mexico. Furthermore, the most recent investigations into then-President Echeverría, on trial for genocide for his involvement in the massacre, were scrapped due to expiration of the statute of limitations surrounding the Tlatelolco case. Moreover, the outpouring of violence linked to the drugs trade in the country appears to only increase as evidenced on the front pages of designated ‘Police and Crime’ supplements in newspapers, as hasthe number of sexually violent murders of women since the early 90s in episodes that appear so disproportionate and inexplicable as to have gained notoriety as the so-called “femicide phenomenon”. Ciudad de Juárez on the border with the U.S., in particular, has been posited as a “femicide machine” by author and journalist Sergio González Rodríguez.[2] With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 came an influx of new textile factories on the Mexico-U.S. border. As a result, women became employed more frequently, and thereby became more visible. They outstepped the shadows of the biologically essentialist gender norms recognised by Mexican theorist Octavio Paz in his seminal text The Labyrinth of Solitude (Spanish: El laberinto de soledad, 1950), others maintain that since the implementation of NAFTA traditional Mexican masculinity (associated with strength, virility, and violence as expounded upon by Robert McKee Irwin in his 2001 monograph Mexican Masculinities) has been under threat, resulting in an increased number of murders of women: approximately 44,000 in the last three decades, though no official statistics exist. This is again demonstrative of the culture of collusion, structural violence, and impunity in Mexican society. Considering that journalists have been kidnapped and murdered, even beheaded, for attempting to expose large-scale governmental corruption, @face_the_strange’s mariachis with their heads substituted for stereotypical Mexican food items seem particularly crass.

The second novel in a trilogy, following the excellent and equally distressing Signs Preceding the End of the World (And Other Stories, 2015), also translated by Lisa Dillman, Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies features the traits of a typical detective novel: alcohol, sex, drugs, urgency, intrigue, and violence. Given the ontological nature of crime narratives, the genre is associated with a need to understand society and expand our knowledge (as typically the reader, along with the detective, unravels the mystery central to the plot in order to reveal the mastermind behind it). Crime fiction has long been used as a tool for authors to reflect and comment upon societal disillusion: for example, as the Wall Street Crash of 1927 is seen to have inspired the bleak background of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, it is therefore possible to see the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre as a catalyst for Mexican authors of detective fiction to create a figure able to pursue justice. Nonetheless, Mexican cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis questioned the purpose of the crime genre in Mexico by asking:

who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd […] if no one knows (officially) who was responsible for the killings at Tlatelolco?[3]

A resounding question to ask, yet one that is negated by the outpouring of Mexican crime fiction since the massacre, the implementation of NAFTA, and the enactment of the War on Drugs in 2006, regarding which there remains a large amount of dialogue concerning who is responsible for the deadly consequences of all three cases. For example, the works of Paco Ignacio Taibo II (whose Héctor Belascoarán Shayne series [1976-1993] is available in English translation by William I. Neuman, Bill Verner, Carlos Lopez, and others), Elmer Mendoza (the Edgar Mendieta series [2001-present], translated by Mark Fried), and BEF (the Detective Mijangos series [2011- present], no translation yet available in English) all feature detectives who fight to restore justice and order to Mexican society.

Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies are missing any official detective figure, their protagonists not associated with the justice system, and coming from society’s underbelly. Though using a realist style as is typical of the crime genre, Herrera’s narratives pose existentialist questions about the contemporary issues of violence and criminality in Mexico, and one’s place within that system. Clearly, despite Monsiváis’ reckoning, many authors and readers do care about unveiling mysteries in fiction, perhaps because providing such an answer allows the reader a kind of enjoyable control over a corrupt environment, reflective of their own reality.

Transmigration rgbFrom its title, The Transmigration of Bodies betrays the novel’s focus on death, and the existentialist core of Herrera’s writing. Mexico’s relationship with death does not only stem from ongoing problems with narcoviolence, misogynist responses to neoliberalism, and governmental collusion. El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which takes place beginning 31st October annually over a three-day period, celebrates the departed. The festival has also become part of popular culture in the UK and elsewhere, the latest James Bond film, Spectre, having its long opening sequence set in Mexico City during the festivities, adding a tint of exoticism and intrigue to the film’s introduction; bars beginning to promote deals linked to the celebrations; tattoos featuring sugar skulls becoming popular; and even a World Record’s attempt for the most people painted with skulls on their faces as possible. None of these examples are, of course, anything to do with Day of the Dead tradition, and Dillman’s translation of The Transmigration of Bodies provides the English-speaking reader with much greater insight into Mexican attitudes towards death than our current experience which popularly features drinking, dressing up, and painting our faces; rather the 3,000 year-old tradition honours dead relatives and La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skull), seen as the symbol for the festival, is a modern version of the Lady of the Dead, to whom Day of the Dead celebrations have always been dedicated. Considering this ancient practice of celebrating the deceased, it is therefore not surprising that due to Spanish colonialism in Mexico, Catholicism became so popular. Violence and death became normalised, revered, and sanctified through biblical representations of torture as well as through exhibitions of body parts as relics. Furthermore, though the country is no longer as Catholic as it once was, secular saints such as Santa Muerte (another name for the Lady of the Dead) and Jesús Malverde have become popular (representations of Malverde even making it as far as an episode of Breaking Bad), and are often honoured by families who have lost loved ones in relation to narcoviolence, or by those involved in the drugs trade. In daily life, news television programmes and the supplements in newspapers, which specifically deal with criminal activity, feature explicit imagery of violence and corpses, much more graphic than that presented in UK and U.S news publications. Teresa Margolles[4], a visual artist and morgue worker from Culiacán in Mexico, is famed for using parts of bodies (for example, blood, fat, skin, and even the water used from hosing down corpses in pathology labs) in her displays that were once involved in violent crime.[5] Her work, similarly to Herrera’s, demonstrates the consequences of Mexico’s systemic violence.

An unsettling portrait of criminality and violence in Mexico, The Transmigration of Bodies is a noir nightmare from which the reader struggles to look away. Herrera confronts the more distressing elements of contemporary Mexico and the nuances of Mexican identities, creating a platform for discussion and a wider remit for debate on the ongoing explosion of violence in Mexico. During a scene in which an argument takes place over who should have claim to the corpse of a young woman named Baby Girl, one character reflects:

Normally, it’s the dead that are rotten, not the living.

This simple yet striking observation betrays Mexico’s problems of criminal and political collusion, and the striking lack of humanity of those who perpetuate this culture, and this dark, bleak outlook is maintained throughout the novel. We begin with The Redeemer, or El Alfaqueque in Herrera’s Spanish original, alfaqueque having the religious and historical connotations of being a person who would rescue Christian slaves from Muslim countries in the 14th century. Dillman’s translation immediately evokes connotations with Christ the Redeemer, symbolically positioning the Redeemer as the novel’s hero. Despite his Christian pseudonym, The Redeemer makes his living as a fixer. Violence is no stranger to him as he runs across the novel’s unnamed city making illicit arrangements for dubious characters. Tones of disillusionment and futility underpin the novel, as we join the Redeemer during the outbreak of an epidemic spread by mosquitoes in Mexico. Groggy and full of mezcal, preoccupied by the swarms of mosquitoes outside his window and the people vomiting blood in restaurants, The Redeemer takes in the situation from inside his sparse flat and laments:

Lock yourself up or this fucker will take you down, because we’ve unleashed some serious wrath.

A double-encoded proclamation, the swarming epidemic threatening the lives of the country’s inhabitants can be interpreted as the violence and collusion that continues to rage through Mexico, and the containment is the disillusionment felt by the powerless majority in the country. Later The Redeemer notes:

            It was terrifying how quickly everyone had accepted enclosure.

There appears to be no way out from the epidemic, and by accepting their containment, rather than fighting against the disease, the problem only gets bigger. Like everyone else, The Redeemer accepts his enclosure within a violent society, and contributes to its viciousness. He continues his work as a fixer, as a dispute between two families means he must venture out into the city. He thereby contributes to and perpetuates his own containment in the system, and this is further underlined by the novel’s disillusioned, repetitive ending. Described as a man who “ruined suits the moment he put them on”, it is clear that The Redeemer has no place in “normal” society, and, it is his incongruity (even evident in his Christian name as opposed to the underhand dealings he has) which makes him a character of substance. The lack of typical detective figure, the unsure ending, and the mingling of realism with existentialist questioning renders Herrera’s novel an example of genre trouble, a notion which engages with the notions conveyed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble (1990). Here, Butler questions incidences when one does not fit into the predetermined model of male or female, deeming gender trouble to constitute “the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity.” Such a concept of subversion can equally be applied to Herrera’s work, and I posit that the two novels in his trilogy of neo-noir detective figures acts as an example of genre trouble, undermining the genre’s strict conventions, and drawing the reader’s attention to questions surrounding subjectivity, collusion, and violence.  

Despite the epidemic raging outside and the pressure for The Redeemer to carry out a corpse exchange of the children of two rich families in the city, Herrera’s story also finds a platform for pitch-black humour. The vast majority of the dark comedy in the novel comes from the fixer’s disastrous relationship with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde, who is also an outlet for discussion of representations of women in Mexican literature at a time of heightening gender violence and femicide.

Though there remains a rather large gap in the Mexican literary canon with regards to female authors of crime fiction, those who do write the genre are changing genre norms, and are causing both gender and genre trouble in a male-dominated medium. Iris García Cuevas’ works are shocking representations of violence as seen through the eyes of victims of femicide (Sueño de arena, 2013, translated here as Deserted Dream by Kathryn Morgan) or are   amnesiac thrillers about lost identities [36 toneladas], and Patricia Valladares Tan frío como el infierno, 2013) Mexico’s first detective novel to feature a female lesbian protagonist penned by a woman. Three Times Blonde (named so, due to being naturally blonde, as we learn), is our introduction to femininity in the novel: curvaceous, sexual, bright, and inquisitive. Purely sexual – Dillman’s translation proving for English language readers Herrera’s capabilities as an author of erotic fiction – the relationship between Three Times Blonde and The Redeemer delicately taps into Mexican machista attitudes:

This might be the last woman I’m ever with in my life, he said to himself. He said that every time because, like all men, he couldn’t get enough, and because, like all men, he was convinced he deserved to get laid one more time before he died.

Though this excerpt does not demonstrate the extensive sexual violence experienced by women in Mexico who are victims of femicide, its jokey nature betrays the extent to which attitudes towards women as objects and men as deserving of women’s sexual interest are engrained in contemporary Mexico. The subtlety of Herrera’s comment also underlines the worrying acceptance of gender violence in the country, a development of themes that run throughout Signs Preceding the End of the World, in which, amongst other issues, female protagonist Makina struggles with a language written by men, for men.

A short novel of 101 pages, Dillman’s creative translation of stark Mexican slang communicates The Redeemer’s resolve as he tries to coordinate the corpse exchange, the tragic plot immediately reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, and the sentiment of loss comparable to that in Sam Hawken’s Missing. The Redeemer’s strange, perverse task of successfully delivering corpses to two warring families takes him across the city’s social spectrum, during which Dillman provides rich, unsettling descriptions of strip clubs, military check-points, plush homes of rich families, and pharmacies; each location filled with despair, disillusionment, and violence. Just as in Herrera’s original, Dillman increases sentiments of panic, containment, and apprehension throughout this bitter, neo-noir tragedy, communicating that today, anxiety in Mexico is at breaking point.

Readers who are fans of contemporary Mexican literature will see echoes of Rogelio Guedea’s Colima trilogy (2008-2012, the first novel now available in English as The Brothers Corona, translated by Peter Broad), a dark, uncertain detective series, Iris García Cuevas’ fast-paced and thrilling amnesiac/narco novel 36 toneladas (2011, not available in English), and Roberto Bolaño’s internationally-lauded femicide saga 2666 (translated by Natasha Wimmer, who won the PEN Translation Prize for it in 2009): Herrera’s tone is breathless and immediate as everything spirals out of The Redeemer’s control, both at work and at home. Fans of Blade Runner will recognise themes of decay and profound sentiments of anxiety. Distressing and powerfully written, fiercely and vibrantly translated, and encouraging reconsideration of the violence which overspills onto the novel’s pages, The Transmigration of Bodies is deserving of its awards and plaudits, including Dillman’s translation winning the 2015 English PEN Award. The text leaves the reader with a sense that, despite all of the violence, criminality, and despair on display, humanity does prevail in some unlikely places. Nevertheless, Herrera’s deft mixture of realism with overtones of existentialist questioning does not allow the reader any respite from looming uncertainty. Herrera’s superb novel shows a shattered, anxious society; although the author’s darkly humorous penmanship allows the reader some small escapes. That said, we are always recaptured, and brought back to reality with a soul-crushing bang, as impunity, criminality, and violence go on to repeat themselves in a terrible reincarnation of Mexico’s recent past. Its English-speaking audiences considered, The Transmigration of Bodies is a necessary, unrelenting, and disturbing representation of a reality many of us do not consider.


[1] You can see reactions to President Peña Nieto’s ongoing term in office here.

[2] Sergio González-Rodríguez (2012), Femicide Machine. Semiotext(e): Los Angeles

[3] Quoted in Braham (2004), Crimes Against the State, Crimes Against Persons, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis

[4] For more on Margolles’ work, and well as on Mexico’s historical and religious cultures of death and violence, see Julia Banwell’s monograph Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death (2015), University of Wales Press: Cardiff.

[5] You can see some demonstrations of Margolles’ work and read further interpretations of her work here and here.

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