This slim novel, described as a ‘noirish tragedy’ on the back cover, takes place in an unspecified city in Mexico. A plague has descended on the town, rendering the streets deserted. At the same time, two rival gangs, the Castros and the Fonsecas, have in their possession the bodies of the daughter/son of the rival gang, Baby Girl and Romeo. The novel’s main protagonist, The Redeemer, a local fixer, is asked to arrange an exchange of bodies between the two families to avoid further violence and bloodshed. This is the premise of the plot which then charts The Redeemer’s path through the twists and turns towards this goal, accompanied by the tough nurse Vicky and two hoods, The Neeyanderthal and The Mennonite.
Now, as pointed out in every commentary of the book I have read ( and I do recommend James Lasdun’s Guardian review), the novel is aware of genre and antecedents and as I read it I had scenes from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet going through my head continually as if on ticker tape. The Redeemer himself, a melancholic, cynical loner, escaping life’s miseries in mezcal could have been a cousin of Rebus, never mind Raymond Chandler. And the plague itself- references to Camus’ La Peste/ Old Testament retribution on a society mired in immorality and violence? All these resonances were there, drifting through my head while reading the book in the soaring temperatures of last Sunday afternoon.
Both James Lasdun and the translator, Lisa Dillman, in an article in Literary Hub, write interestingly on Herrera’s skill in evoking these references. Lisa Dillman looks particularly at the challenge of translating the polysemous names in the Spanish original into English equivalents which evoke the same range of meaning. So the Spanish original el Alfaqueque, deriving from the Arabic fakka al – aseer, meaning to emancipate, ransom and redeem becomes The Redeemer. However the painstaking work involved in translating names is just one part of the translator’s job: I admired Lisa Dillman’s skill both in finding a convincing vernacular for dialogue and the Redeemer’s interior thoughts as well as for the translation of striking images. We have both writer and translator to thank for ‘ a dense block of mosquitos tethering themselves to a puddle of water as tho attempting to lift it’ and a ‘rictus of icy panic spread across the passengers’ faces’. And with ‘rictus’ we have a clever interleaving of a plague lexis into the text, a lexis scattered beyond context to remind us of the all pervasiveness of that threat: as the Redeemer and Three Times Blonde are caught in a power cut he says ‘that was what it felt like to incubate, to settle in with yourself and hope the light stays off ‘ and ‘on previous days he’d spotted several puddles covered in whitish membranes’.
I also take my hat off to Lisa Dillman for her rendering of the sex scenes: the Redeemer strikes lucky early on in the narrative with his neighbour Three Times Blonde and rendering the voice of the protagonist’s male gaze here must have been challenging. This may just be of course my jaundiced view, as I found this the least appealing part of the narrative for me. Just a bit tired of reading about sex ever present in the male mind. Felt the same about the skilled writer Junot Diaz.
But I did enjoy the language and economy of both the writing and the translation in this novel and I’ve just discovered that Yuri Herrera and Lisa Dillman received the Best Translated Book award for his previous novel ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’-with a female protagonist. It’s on the list.