Borders and Exile: On the Recent Translation of Yuri Herrera’s First Novel, “Kingdom Cons”

IN YURI HERRERA’S three slim novels, elderly men get swallowed into a suddenly gaping earth, deadly epidemics spread through itinerant bubble-gel vendors, and ambitious young drunks sing corridos in the courts of violent kings. Although not strictly linked, together these books create a world of ecstatic crisis, a world in which an unreachable other place, a secular beyond, plays foil to the flesh-and-blood present. His protagonists remain cool, always in control, blending gilded cartel aesthetics with the clipped wit of hard-boiled crime fiction to create a nuevo noir style all his own. On the surface, Herrera writes about people along the border between Mexico and the United States (inspired, one can guess, by his time spent in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez), but his real subject is a border condition, a state of exile, an existence between two extremes — this side and the other side, narco and gringo, life and death.

The latest of the three novels to appear in English, Kingdom Cons, released in June by And Other Stories, was actually Herrera’s first novel, originally published in his native Mexico in 2004. And it feels like a first novel, especially when read after the two superior novels that succeed it: his second book, The Transmigration of Bodies, and his dazzling third, Signs Preceding the End of the World, appeared in English in 2016 and 2015, respectively. All three have been translated by Lisa Dillman, who provides an afterword on the translation of Signs, where she lists the many complications of translating Herrera’s unique patois — a language made from a mix of places and traditions and ways of being, which is to say, a language that rises from the dust of the earth and particulates in the clouds like rain; a petrichor language, hanging in the air with the oddly pleasant fumes of regeneration.

“Tijuana is not Mexico,” wrote Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye. “No border town is anything but a border town,…

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