Yuri Herrera’s debut novel Kingdom Cons, translated this year from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, reads as a fairy tale:
He was a King, and around him everything became meaningful. Men gave their lives for him, women gave birth for him; he protected and bestowed, and in the kingdom, through his grace, each and every subject had a precise place.
But the book just happens to be slyly dressed in fairy tale clothes. The “King” is a drug lord, his “court” a cartel, and his “kingdom” a palatial residence too pretty to be so close to Mexican-American border violence.
Colombia has put out its fair share of drug cartel novels, her authors’ imagination still reeling from the violence witnessed and experienced in the '80s and '90s. After the fall of Pablo Escobar, the world’s first drug lord "star," the Colombian cartels lost their power and Mexican cartels came to the stage. Since, drug lord novels have solidified in form and tone, and they tend to have the same shape, the same clipped sentences, the same knots of intrigue.
Kingdom Cons is captivating in that Yuri Herrera has seemingly wandered off into the deserts of the genre and has come out on another shore of a different planet. While the classic story of an all-powerful drug lord warring against other cartels as well as an inside conspiracy is still present in Kingdom Cons, crime is mentioned with a side-glance, the role of power is beheld at close attention, and the language itself is short, poetic, elliptical.
In this novel, every character is referenced by their office -- the Witch, the Commoner, the Journalist, the Jeweler, and of course, the Artist. Narrated by the Artist, a composer of corridos who gets taken under the wing of the King after playing boozy, heartfelt songs for him one night in a dark tavern, the story occupies itself with philosophical questions of beauty, the role of the artist in society, and the stasis of a palatial life in a kingdom where everything is preternaturally assured through violent sleights of hand happening just offstage, out there, somewhere beyond the kingdom.
In what's probably my favorite passage in the novel, the Artist wonders:
What’s out there? What lies beyond it all? Another world standing, face to the sun? A wave with edges rippling out after a stone hits the water? (Could life be a stone hitting the water?)
...What’s out there? What lies beyond the walls of things?
Like this, like this, there’s nothing.
Turn your back on this smug cut grass and choose your own mirror: raise it to your eyes and see:
A chilling glimmer, a tiny spiral asking for a chance, a secret obscured in its own dark light. The whole world can be seen in this mirror, each detail a reversible code. Pieces and more pieces falling over themselves asking to be touched, ever-changing skin.
In Spanish, Herrera’s writing flows on, unstoppered and peppered with as much beauty as slang. Dillman’s translation is masterful, striking both beauty and street twang, with as much vehemence as the original:
[The Girl] too, had been saved by the King; rescued from a hovel by the bridge and brought to the palace. Now the Girl named her enthusiasm with words newly learned:
"It’s amped here, singer, it’s trick as shit; man, it’s all sauce; it’s wicked, slick, I mean this place is tight; people here come from everywhere and everybody’s down."
How she thirsted for happiness, but the Artist could see in her eyes that she also yearned for other affections, for things not found in the Palace.
Fairy tales tend to depict power, signify morals, and in their symbolism carry in stealth the cultural systems desired to be upheld. It is a stroke of genius on Herrera’s part to perceive that the songwriters of new -- who orbit around cartels --and the storytellers of old who orbited around kings parallel in this: their role as legend-makers and idolaters of power.
When Pablo Escobar still ruled in Colombia, singer-songwriter-accordionists were fervently sought after so they could play at cartel parties, compose songs detailing cartel exploits, and tell of their lavish lifestyles. In fact, at Pablo Escobar’s burial, the song intoned by the mourning crowd was his favorite ranchera, "El Rey," most famously performed by Vicente Fernandez: "I don’t have a throne or a queen, not anybody that understands me / But still I keep being the King."
The characters change -- but the song remains the same.
Catch Yuri Herrera reading from 'Kingdom Cons' and in conversation with Caille Millner on Saturday, July 1, at Green Apple Books on the Park (1231 Ninth Ave., San Francisco).