Dispatches from the Front: On Narconovelas
Cervantes counts as one of the few writers in the Spanish-speaking world who were able to subvert fashion, undermining the clichés and plot constrictions of a popular genre—in his case, the chivalric romance—to create in Don Quixote a perdurable and universal work. The same can be said of Juan Rulfo, who with Pedro Páramo (1955) upended the novel of the Mexican Revolution. With three novels to his name, the 42-year-old writer Yuri Herrera seems intent on carrying out the similarly necessary task of vaulting over the walls of the narco novel.
In Trabajos del reino, Herrera approaches the subject in an unexpected way—the arrival of a corrido composer at the intimate circle of a drug lord is told as the story of an ancient bard meeting a medieval lord:
He admired him in the light of the limits of the day that filtered through a hole in the wall. He’d never been this close to these people, but Lobo was sure he’d looked on the scene before. Somewhere, the respect the man and his people inspired in him was defined, the sudden sensation of the importance of his finding himself so close to him. He knew his way of sitting, eyes raised, the shine. He observed the jewels that wrapped around him, and then he understood: this was a king.
Here metaphor functions in a surprising way and, with no need to reproduce the jargon of the characters, Herrera creates a radically new language—just as Rulfo did with the speech patterns of Los Altos (the highlands) in Jalisco—and condenses into a few pages what other authors need hundreds to convey: the panoply of loyalties and betrayals that surrounds the bosses; the vileness, clumsiness and fear of the sicarios; the irredeemable corruption of society at large; and, especially, the way art becomes an accomplice of crime. A narco novel and an implicit criticism of narco novels, Trabajos del reino is a surprising literary jewel.
Five years later, Herrera exceeded all expectations with the even more surprising Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Signs That Precede the End of the World, 2009). Some elements from his first novel reappear: the wise deconstruction of colloquial northern Mexican Spanish; the mixture of different levels of reading; the creation, with just a few brushstrokes, of memorable characters; a plot that can be read in several keys, from realism to allegory. But Herrera makes use of his resources even more skillfully, refining them to extremes of narrative efficacy and linguistic beauty, as if the grandsons of Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo had become wetbacks at the outset of the turbulent new century.
Señales que precederán al fin del mundo is not a narco novel, or perhaps it is, but only in a tangential way. Narrated in the manner of a fable, it is about the border between Mexico and the United States, but it is also about any border. The book chronicles the adventures of Makina, an astute, free-spirited and temperamental girl who has to travel the world in search of her disappeared brother. The homage to Rulfo, whose town of Comala is inhabited by the dead, is no accident: Makina survives in the macho world of the North like one of the rogues from the picaresque novels of the Spanish Golden Age. She escapes multiple misfortunes and finally achieves her objective, which will ultimately transform her, much to her sorrow, into someone else. Her odyssey contains mythic elements derived from both the Western European and Native American traditions, like her wading across the Rio Grande recalls crossing the river Styx (the other side is always the land of the dead). But Herrera never forgets the turbulent and moving humanity of his protagonist: adroit, angry, ineluctable, Makina is destined to become one of the essential characters of Mexico’s new literature.