Do you ever read a book and like it, a bit, but also dismiss it, as you’re reading it, as slight, only to then find it loiters in the precincts of your head to such an extent that you wonder, was I wrong about it? Was it better than I thought it was? Should I go back and maybe re-read it? That’s exactly the experience I had with Yuri Herrera’s first book, Signs Preceding the End of the World. I think Herrera’s first book to be translated into English was better than we originally gave it credit for.
His second, The Transmigration of Bodies, is different to his first, in some ways. It’s slightly shorter for one thing (and Signs… was itself quite short) but it’s also harder and slightly stranger. James Lasdun, writing in the Guardian, compared the feel of it to a videogame or a graphic novel – the latter of those comparisons feels apposite. You know how, in a slightly more grown up graphic novel, certain things are taken for granted? How there’s an expectation that certain things – character development, nuance etc – can be taken for granted? We’re on a journey and it’s all about how we get there? That’s what The Transmigration of Bodies feels like.
In terms of plot, there’s a character known only as the Redeemer who is the kind of fixer you sometimes see in noirish novels (he’s a sort of violent gumshoe, someone who can be relied upon to get things done, even if some of the things that need doing are not strictly legal) – and he becomes entwined in a set-to between two rival gang factions, each of whom have lost a child within an unnamed city currently in the grip of a terrible mosquito-driven epidemic. To say that the unnamed city and the mosquito-driven epidemic are as much characters as the Redeemer lets you know both how robust some of the scene setting is and conversely how flimsy some of the characterisation, not that that matters overly.
The Redeemer makes his way from the arms of a buxom neighbour (known only as Three Times Blonde) via various heavies, big bosses, violent buddies and snitching doormen, in a way that undercuts the actual narrative (you’re not reading this for resolution, you’re reading this to be swept up in Herrera’s odd worldmaking). The easiest way to approach the book (and decide if it’s an experience for you) is to wonder if a Mexican recasting of Sin City strikes you as something that is appealing. If it does, The Transmigration of Bodies is very definitely for you.
Any Cop?: If you can put all of your own hang-ups aside and take Herrera as you find him, he’s a thrilling writer. Just don’t expect him to flatter you or console you or wipe you off after he’s finished with you.