The Transmigration of Bodies


Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World was one of the best novels I read in 2015 and, while The Transmigration of Bodies (again translated by Lisa Dillman) may not quite match it, that does not prevent it from being another exhilarating slice of Herrera’s magpie imagination. Here we are firmly in hard-boiled territory, though transferred to a city ravaged by the type of end-times plague normally associated with science fiction.

Its central character, the Redeemer, is a “fixer” whose job it is to “take care of stuff under the table at the courts:”

“The Redeemer prided himself on knowing about all the palmgreasing, hornswoggling and machinating in the city…”

He is sent out into the deserted city to resolve a ‘situation’: one family (the Fonsecas) have lost their son, Romeo, last seen being picked up in a van by members of another family (the Castros). In retaliation they have taken Baby Girl, and The Redeemer, as the go-between, must arrange the swap.

“So different and so the same, the Castors and the Fonsecas. Poor as dirt a couple of decades ago, now too big for their boots, and neither had moved out of the barrio: they just added locks and doors and stories and a shit-ton of cement to their houses, one with more tile than the other.”

The Redeemer must walk the tight-rope between the two families, diffusing the gang-war which could erupt at any moment, and coping with the new difficulties of the epidemic such as army road-blocks (not to mention locate a condom so he can sleep with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde). As a thriller, the novel works well: the ‘kidnapping’ is not what it at first appears (I’ll say no more) and there’s more than enough jeopardy to go round. Herrera uses the noir genre to create a story which gives every indication of bleakness (and has some great hard-boiled lines like “Unhappy people aren’t the problem. It’s people taking their unhappy out on you.”) but is strangely sunny in its conclusion.

This fits with a more general intention to use the genre conventions against themselves while ensuring the novel remains a tribute and not a parody. In our hero’s relationship with Three Times Blonde, for example, it is she who calls the shots, he who regards the fact she even looks at him as a “miracle.” (And also he who walks unexpectedly into her room). It’s perhaps why Herrera resisted the temptation to write in first person. The Redeemer does, however, exist in the borderland between the criminals and the law, with a conscience which is blunted but intact.

The Transmigration of Bodies, though literally true, is a little literary for a noir title, though it has the inherent cynicism of suggesting a soulless world. In fact, this novel shows that, even in the bleakest circumstances, we can be redeemed.

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6 Responses to “The Transmigration of Bodies”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I read Signs shortly after its release and remember being so completely captivated. The reviews I have read of this book makes me fear that it would be a mild disappointment and, even if it’s good, I don’t want to ruin the memory of my first encounter. Weird, I know.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s probably true, but it’s still a very good novel, just not a great one.
      And your attitude is not any weirder than my completist need to read even the worst novels of some writers!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    The idea of Signs didn’t particularly appeal to me for some reason, probably as a result of its mythic quality which was mentioned in a few of the reviews I read at the time. This latest one sounds different though, especially given the hard-boiled elements you’ve highlighted here.

  3. Richard Says:

    Look forward to reading this or–more likely–Herrera’s first novel sometime this year after being wowed by Signs Preceding the End of the World in 2016. Pleased to hear that there’s a hard-boiled/noir feel to this one even if you didn’t find it quite as enjoyable as its predecessor.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice review, which I absolutely agree with. It’s a good book, though not as good as Signs. Still a lot of fun though and interesting too, and you’re right that he balances the cynicism with a measure of redemption which is not an easy thing.

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