Metempsychosis, or “the transmigration of the soul,” was a thematic wink in 20th-century fiction. Proust used it, in the opening paragraph of Swann’s Way, to joke about inserting himself in what would become a seven-volume künstlerroman. In Ulysses, it comes as a silly pun from the mouth of Molly Bloom (“the reincarnation met him pike hoses”). Later, at the end of the century, David Foster Wallace made it again a punchline, as in the case of his most famous character, Madame Psychosis. It all reminds me of Freud’s prosaic conclusion about non-tendentious humor: it whispers an otherwise unnameable anxiety. If these writers teased about the movement of the soul across boundaries, maybe it was because they were nervous about not having one.
But if the soul is dead, the pun still lives in 21st century Mexico. This much is hinted by the title of Yuri Herrera’s excellent neo-noir, The Transmigration of Bodies, out this month and translated by Lisa Dillman. If those names sound familiar, it’s because Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World won this year’s Best Translated Book Award. A taut, myth-drunk story about a young woman who crosses the Mexican-American border, thereby changing states (in more than one sense), Signs introduced Herrera as a novelist of political serious and rhythmic intensity. With any luck, this new trilogy — of which Transmigration is the first to be written and second translated — will transcend the present instrumentalization of “the border crisis” in American politics.
Like a True Detective that doesn’t suck, Transmigration is a hard-boiled fiction that wades in literary and philosophical allusion. It tracks, detective-like, the exchange of two dead bodies, between warring families, in an unnamed Mexican town, one beset by a mosquito-borne illness that threatens its population. An allegorical cover for the virus of Mexican violence, this communicable disease is like something out of Saramago, if lighter worn. The plague, which the town’s characters wear masks to avoid, is an atmospheric threat. Brought from an alien territory (Egypt is mentioned more than once), it absolves the novel’s characters of responsibility even as they spread it around.
Operating in this dark milieu is the Chandler-esque Redeemer, the novel’s hard-drinking, lascivious protagonist, an attorney who now settles petty disputes between criminal families. A soulless paragon of both Herrera’s astonishing economy with characters (the novel is exactly 100 pages) and noir archetype, the Redeemer, we’re told, “excelled at nothing but the ability to diminish malediction: to free folks from cell blocks, or their own promises.” He merely advocates, in other words, for a cast of devils.
And like the Redeemer, the cast of Transmigration do wonders with little airtime. The novel’s femme fatale, Three Times Blonde, is a shut-in who lives in the same building (“the Big House”), only — against the grain of her type — she’s risk-averse, terrified of the disease. (Her demand that the Redeemer buy condoms is one of the novel’s running jokes.) There is also the Neeyanderthal, a violent-if-gentle giant who mourns the death of his brother by car accident.
That such “accidents” are routine is another of Herrera’s cruel jokes. A city of accidents is guiltless, a territory beholden to a zero-sum game. When the Redeemer finds himself in charge of the corpse of Baby Girl — one of the dead to be exchanged between crime families — the futility of Mexican violence mixes with national myth:
Everything was so quiet you could hear Baby Girl’s silence, as tho she’d absorbed every sound in the room. It was hard and yet formless, that silence. How to describe what isn’t there? What name can you give to something that doesn’t exist yet exists for that reason precisely? Kings of the kingpins, those who had invented the zero, he thought, had given it a name and even slipped it into a line of numbers, as tho it could stay put, obedient. But once in a while, like at that moment, there before Baby girl, zero rose up and swallowed everything.
Dark, entertaining, the world of The Transmigration of Bodies is nonetheless one without dignity, a domain where there is nothing for the Redeemer to redeem. Here a body becomes a unit of exchange, a thing that changes hands yet never transmigrates. Somehow, Herrera’s fiction has crossed over and avoided this fate. Maybe this is because his lesson is portable, like a soul without a body, and undeniable, like a corpse in an empty room.