Yuri Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (2015) and “The transmigration of bodies” (2016) were the first of his novels to appear in English translations but “Kingdom cons” – it was first published in Spanish in 2008 – forms the first in what is a kind of trilogy. It marks Herrera out as a powerful new writer and an insightful contemporary voice.
Passages of Herrera’s writing would not be out of place in a journal penned by a young Bob Dylan: minimalist in intent but full of verve, a lively prose sparkling and running like cool, fresh water from the author’s well of imagination.
If the world is a record on a turntable with a diamond stylus, thinks a character, then ‘maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover’.
The plot concerns a drug-trafficking ring in a land that is never specified but oblique references to a border and a country – it is called ‘the other side’ – to where illicit substances are smuggled makes Mexico the obvious location.
The story carries no overt moralism but characters are generically named to indicate their essential function: the King (the narco boss); the Journalist (handling public relations and the media for the King); the Heir (the nominated successor to the boss); the Father (a corrupt priest).
The protagonist is personally identified by way of possessing his own name, Lobo, though he adopts a sobriquet – the Artist – once he’s established in his role as the composer and singer of corridos, ballads extolling the achievements of the cartel’s supremo.
“Kingdom cons” is far more than a tale of feuding drug lords.
The King’s power is maintained through violence but supported by media manipulation, religion and artistic endorsement, and it serves as an allegory for the fraudulent nature of government and the plight of the dispossessed whose poverty enslaves them.
The King lives in a compound (the Palace), fortified by an electric fence, and he rules like a ruthless feudal baron ‘in a vast pageantry of gardens, gates and walls. A gleaming city on the fringes of a city in squalor’.
Lobo is different. He knows the score, having grown up on the streets after being abandoned by his parents when his father put an accordion in his hands and taught him on to play it. ‘Now hold it good’, he said, ‘this is your bread’.
He seizes an opportunity to become the King’s troubadour but success does not spoil him. He questions his situation and helps a young girl (the ‘Commoner’) who wants to escape from the gangster-run Palace. He loves the Commoner, knowing that deep inside him is a determination ‘to return to her blood, in which, like a wellspring, he’d recognised his own’.
This is not a lengthy novel – just over a hundred pages – but it packs a punch and reaches closure not by way of a conclusive ending but by achieving a point of finality which is coherent and stable.
“Kingdom cons” by Yuri Herrera is published by And Other Stories.