Archive for the ‘Yuri Herrera’ Category

A Silent Fury

July 17, 2020

Yuri Herrera’s latest book, A Silent Fury, (translated once again by Lisa Dillman) is, as the sub-title tells us, about the El Bordo Mine Fire in which eighty-seven miners lost their lives. That this happened over a hundred years ago (on 10th March 1920) might make us wonder why Herrera, whose novels have exposed and explored the crises of contemporary Mexico, should now look back in time to recount an event of which records are incomplete and unreliable:

“Traces of this history are few: the Pachuca 1920-66 case file, a handful of news stories, and a metal plaque that talks about something else.”

And yet, that is the point: Herrera is less interested in the disaster itself than in the aftermath, both the immediate aftermath in which the mine was sealed to starve the fire of oxygen while at the same time preventing any survivors (and there were survivors) from escaping, and the inadequate investigation which followed into the events of that day.

It is uncertain when the fire started but it was six o’clock in the morning that the alarm was raised and by seven the cages were being sent down to allow the men to get out. By midday however, the superintendent for the company, an American, J F Berry, was certain all the survivors had escaped, the number of dead was ten, and the fire was out – while at the same time announcing that they would seal the El Bordo shaft to ensure that “the fire was completely extinguished.” In fact, it’s possible that the shaft was sealed as early as twenty past seven – twenty minutes after the rescue attempts had begun. There’s no way of knowing now how many of those left in the mine were alive when the shaft was sealed, but it’s certain that some of them were as seven were still alive when it was opened six days later.

The cover-up begins with the investigation which is limits itself into how the fire started, not how eighty-seven men died. The judge:

“…did not instruct him [the public prosecutor] to determine whether the administrators had been criminally negligent in ordering the shafts sealed while there were people still alive inside, as, indeed, there were.”

Those investigating the fire did not go into the mine until it had been cleaned (and, in some areas, miners had begun working again) and, unsurprisingly, found everything in working order. It was now not possible to discover how the fire had started, but it was conveniently suggested that it had been caused by a worker:

“What’s certain is that the inspector fulfilled his directive: he looked at some things, neglected to look at others, and unreservedly exculpated the mine owners and administrators.” 

Herrera cannot tell the story entirely in the words of those involved, as, for example, Svetlana Alexievich does, as these words for the most part do not exist, hence the ‘silent fury’ of the title. This phrase occurs in the narrative itself with reference to the seven survivors:

“They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

Their unrecorded words represents a wider omission, not only of the investigation, but of history itself. It’s said that history is written by the winners, but above all history is written by those who can write, and, for much of it, that limits us to a small but powerful class who are particularly ruthless at protecting their own interests. This not unique to Mexico, or to the 1920s, but continues to this day, as we can see, for example, in what happened at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989 where ninety-six football fans lost their lives. Those responsible, and their allies, used a similar tactic of blaming the supporters and any prosecution was quickly ruled out. It’s not the most recent example, either, as the Grenfell fire demonstrates. As Herrera tells us:

“Silence is not he absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

It could be argued that this is not the job of the novelist, and, in the UK, when fiction writers turn to non-fiction it is often of a personal kind. Yet what Herrera is doing here is reclaiming the story for those who were previously voiceless, and who better to do that than a novelist.

The Transmigration of Bodies

January 14, 2017


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.

Signs Preceding the End of the World

October 13, 2015


A novel about people smuggling set across the US – Mexican border could hardly be more immersed in documentary realism, yet, from the beginning, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World feels like something other-worldly – not dissimilar to the way in which the cactus strewn plain of the cover takes on the appearance of an alien landscape when set against its black sky. This is not accidental – from the religious, doom-mongering intonations of its title to the chapter headings which would not be out of place in an epic fantasy (The Water Crossing; The Obsidian Mound – though it is first chapter title, The Earth, that most implies a journey off-planet), Herrera is keen to demonstrate that his novel is more than a story of Mexican poverty and the American Dream.

The narrative itself is shaped like a quest, with our protagonist, Makina, sent to find her brother in America. From the first page we are made aware that even the earth itself cannot be trusted as a sink-hole opens up beneath Makina’s feet:

“I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sink-hole until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.”

The subsidence is caused by the underground tunnels which silver mining has created beneath the village, a reminder of the damage greed can do. But it’s in the language (wonderfully translated by Lisa Dillon) that the timeless nature of the narrative is revealed: in such generics as the place name, Little Town; in the phrasing of Makina’s mother’s request (“Go and take the paper to your brother”); and in the permissions Makina must receive before leaving, visiting the three most powerful men in the village. Again the language is both straight forward and portentous: “Off to the other side?” (Also: “You’re going to cross.”)

In an afterward, Dillon discusses the challenges of translating a novel which uses language ranging beyond standard Spanish. Her solution, which is partly related to the type of phrasing in evidence above, also included creating words, for example ‘verse’ meaning ‘to leave’. By avoiding current English language vernacular, she has ensured that the translation will not date and also enhanced the strangeness of the novel (I mean, the way in which it makes the familiar feel strange): although this is very much the story of Makina travelling to the USA to find her brother, these features create the sense of an underlying story which exists outside of a particular time and place.

The story itself is filled with enormous tension, from her river crossing and her near-capture by border police to the search she must undertake for her brother when she reaches America. Herrera’s decision to break it into nine chapters increases rather than dilutes this tension; the gaps between mimic the disorientation Makina often feels. But make no mistake, Makina is our heroine, relentlessly searching for her brother and perfectly able to stand up for herself, as we witness before she even reaches the border:

“Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so that he’d know her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh, and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he’d touched her with almost all the way back to an inch from the top of his wrist.”

Perhaps her finest moment comes after she has discovered what has happened to her brother (a fully satisfying and thought-provoking solution to the mystery of why he never returned) in a confrontation with a racist policeman whom she baffles with what can only be described as the power of literature. Yet, in spite of this, Makina remains an essentially realistic and believable character, and it is Herrera’s ability create in a way that is both credible and archetypal that is at the heart of what makes this novel great. Perhaps he best sums up his own style when Makina thinks to herself in the final scene when she descends to an underworld where she will, in one sense, lose her life:

“This place is like a sleepwalker’s bedroom: specific yet inexact, somehow unreal and yet vivid.”

When a writer is able to create something that feels like both dream and reality we can probably call it truth.