Thursday, 16 July 2015

Yuri Herrera from narcosphere to immigrations

Full title: Signs Preceding the End of the World
Author: Yuri Herrera
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 128 pages, hard cover
Publisher: And Other Stories (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

I watched this documentary the other night, called Narco Cultura. It's about this Mexican popular epidemic of cultural products grown around drug cartels and the lives of drug traffickers south of the American border. This taste for outlaws and their adventures has birthed a literary offspring of its own. It's called Narcoliteratura or, even better to an English-tuned ear that’s familiar to the notion of the Latin American Boom, Tragic Realism. It deals with the same topics as the larger Narco Cultura phenomenon: violence, criminal acts, small-town glories based on fear and territorial claims, all forming what might be called a narcosphere, where everything revolves around the handling and using of drugs, plus the implications of such undertakings.
Yuri Herrera's novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World, takes the genre and goes with it to a certain extent. The novel starts in a poor Mexican village where everything seems to be regulated by small cliques debating their turf. In the village there's this young woman, Makina, who has a problem to solve: she needs to cross the border to find her brother. It soon becomes apparent that the operation is easier said than done. She wouldn't stand the slimmest chance of succeeding by herself, so she has to go the 'natural' way, i.e. the way of the criminal factions that run the businesses of her home place. They're up for the task, since they have a whole network in place: men to facilitate the crossing, men to provide accommodation, men to protect her and men to introduce her to other men, who can also introduce her to other men, who can etc. etc.
The network works perfectly but there's one grand obstacle: the lure of the place Makina is going to. Her brother, as it turns out, has settled north of the border. We don’t know exactly where, because none of the places in the novel is called anything recognizable. The search for a brother who doesn’t want to return gives the young woman a bigger problem to deal with and a bunch of thoughts to mess up her mind.
To Yuri Herrera, this novella offers the opportunity to do many things. For instance, to practice the dynamics of a typical narrative scheme: protagonist, antagonist, dispatcher, helpers, destination, denouement. All these plus many other elements of Proppian morphology are identifiable at a mere glance. Textbook Formalism, to put it otherwise. Herrera hasn't made it a hard task for his readers to find these elements and enjoy their familiar feel.

Yuri Herrera. Source: Malinche
Then, at a conceptual level, he's got the chance to explore North-American mestizaje, and especially its tex-mex variety. He does so in a poetic manner that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa. Like her, Herrera contracted a passionate leading character who's given this unique opportunity to put her in-betweenness to the test. There's a scene (recognizable, I'm sure, to people in the US-Mexico border area) in which a frustrated cop, the usual patriot-cum-chauvinist who uses authority to express his scorn for 'illegal aliens.' The scene is powerful. It forms what's likely to have been intended as the climax of the novel. The cop has forced a group of Mexicans to kneel in front of him and he mocks one of them who was carrying a volume of poetry. The cop rips a page out of the book and demands that the would-be poet write down something in English. The man is lost for words, humiliated, embarrassed, mortified. And here's where Makina, who speaks well the "Anglo tongue," intervenes and recites a chant of the humiliated immigrant.
“We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take our jobs, who dream of wiping our shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.”
The words of the barbarian put the cop to silence. A battle is won. A symbolic one, of course, but one all the more important as it is on foreign territory.
Then there's another passage where Herrera gets even more Anzalduesque, exploring the picture of the border people, the Chicanos, speakers of two tongues, makers of two cultures, people of complexity and simplicity all in one bundle. It's the protagonist speaking again:
“More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongues is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. But not a hecatomb. Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one. In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugate latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.”
All this is said and done against the background of narcoliteratura's own turf. The criminal life of the Mexican as well as American undergrounds loom over all these episodes with the weight of a cloud about to burst and crash everything underneath. But nothing bad really ever happens. The text is peppered with traffickers and pushers and all manner of mischief-makers, but the essence isn't there. Crime is not the major purpose. The novella deals with criminality as a liminal space: a sort of in-between that allows passage of people and destinies, highlighting only as much as it's needed to understand the passage of other things: of cultures and cultural allegiances, of politics and political dirty works; but most importantly, of stories and storytelling.