From its opening pages, when gaping asphalt swallows a man, a car, a dog and “even the screams of passersby”, this marvellously rich, slim novel is working on many levels. The lethal sinkhole is located in a generic silver-mining town in Mexico, “riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored from five centuries of voracious silver lust”. But the violent underworld it reveals is both mythological and dirty-real, a place of wandering souls and taciturn gangsters.
Navigating this perilous terrain is Makina, a “smart and schooled” young woman who survives the sinkhole as she does every pitfall in the book, thinking of herself as “the door not the one who walks through it”. As she notes laconically: “These things always happen to someone else until they happen to you.” Sent by her mother to bring back her more gullible brother from across the US border, where he has been lured by the false hope of land from a long-absent father, she journeys from “Village” to “Little Town” to “the Big Chilango” – Mexico City – and thence by bus to the Rio Grande, crossing the roiling green river in an inner tube and running the desert gauntlet of people-smugglers, vigilantes and border patrols.
In the Village, Makina runs the switchboard with the only phone for miles, speaking three languages – an Amerindian “native tongue”, Spanish or “latin tongue”, and English, called “new tongue” or “anglo”. A medium between those who have “crossed” to the US and those left behind, she is herself a messenger. In her journey across the border, she not only carries an appeal from her mother to her brother, but also a suspect package from the criminal underworld’s Mr Aitch, a “reptile in pants” who is an opportunistic drug lord – “the type who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”. In its maternally inspired quest, and its evocation of shifting borderlands between the living and the dead, the novel bows to Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, the Mexican ghost-town masterpiece that inspired Gabriel García Márquez. But while Rulfo charted the emptying of the countryside for the city, Herrera’s lyric tale evokes the wave of migration from Mexico to the US also memorably explored by Carlos Fuentes in The Crystal Frontier.
Herrera’s great achievement lies in elevating the harsh epic of “crossing” to the “other side” to soaring myth. There are allusions to Odysseus, Orpheus and the Styx, the river of Greek mythology that was a border to the Underworld; as well as Mesoamerican stories of shapeshifting and rebirth. Makina, who fords a Rio Grande “filled with invisible water monsters”, is part superheroine. Rushing to her brother’s aid, she almost flies, as she “felt her feet not touching the ground, as if she could float”. She seems to repel bullets: one from a rancher’s revolver enters her side but exits between two ribs. Yet her invincibility is grounded in a steely flair for handling herself in a macho world of oglers and predators, where men are defined by their weapons as “Thug .45” or “Thug .38”. One boy on the bus, with “peach fuzz and journey pride”, falls to his knees as she yanks back a finger of his groping hand. The desert bears traces of daily apocalypse, in discarded “rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin”. A pregnant woman resting under a tree turns out to be a “poor wretch swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards”.
Across the US border, a satirical eye is cast on supermarkets (“It’s really lonely here, but there’s lots of stuff”) and baseball: “One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right?” At times this feels schematic, yet a chilling climax contains emotional truths about the estrangement from their families of those who leave their homeland, and how many Latinos without papers are induced to join the US army as the price of becoming “legal”.
Although this compelling heroine travels light, intent on “coming right back” for her younger sister, the US has a siren call. She is drawn to the “intermediary tongue” of her compatriots living in the north, which inhabits “a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born”. Yet Herrera’s metaphors grasp the freedom, and the alarming disorientation, of transition and translation. Faced with shedding her name, home and tongue, Makina whispers to herself, “I’ve been skinned.”
Makina carries a “latin-anglo” dictionary that frustrates her, being written “by old men and for old men, outdated the second they left the press”. Translator Lisa Dillman has found a language both blunt and lyrical for Herrera’s many neologisms, notably jarchas, a verb he created from a Mozarabic noun meaning both “exit” and (in Arab Andalusian verse) “end couplet”. Rendered as “to verse”, meaning to leave, this word, like the novel itself, “creates its own strange poetry.
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Source: The Guardian