Unusually there is no poetry selection among this year’s Brave New Reads. Yet with prose as poetic as Yuri Herrera’s, who needs poetry? In fact, the exact choice of words were not his, translated as they were from the author’s Mexican Spanish to English – or as the novel would put it, from latin to anglo – by Lisa Dillman. The Translator’s Note at the end provides some insight into the challenges translation presents. According to Lisa Dillman the original prose is ‘often infused with understated affection and tenderness’, its style ‘elegantly spare’, the use of language ‘nothing short of stunning’. It is tribute to the meticulousness of her translation that such qualities shine through into anglo.
you want to be haunted by it for yourself
Language itself is one of the novel’s themes. Its sassy, yet tender-hearted young female switchboard operator protagonist Makina, operates phones in native tongue, latin tongue and the ‘new tongue’ of those who have crossed to the North. She ‘knew how to keep quiet in all three too’. The word verse is frequently used as a verb meaning to exit. In the Spanish, jarchar, from the Arabic kharja, it was inspired by concluding verses of Arabic and Hebrew poems of the thirteenth century. They would tell of a transformative exit, often a lover’s goodbye, in a feminine voice. The whole novel turns out to be just such an exit for Makina when she heads to the North (the word America never used).
The novel’s nine-chaptered structure draws on the rich literary heritage of the Meshika (known to us anglos as Aztecs) who told of nine underworlds to be passed through following certain kinds of death, each underworld the losing of something, a transition to something less human, something new. Underworld in general is a theme. An ominous opening passage sees a sinkhole open, swallowing ‘all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by’. Underground trains ‘ran round the entire circulatory system but never left the belly’. Tunnels lead out onto a deserted baseball arena where anglos ‘play a game to celebrate who they are’ and a top dog latin godfather plays out his own sport.
And that haunting final chapter. But you don’t want me to tell you about the final chapter, you want to be haunted by it for yourself, along with all one-hundred-and-seven pages of this concise, yet epic tale. And if you are reading this before 10th June, you will want to attend the Meet the Author event too. If you then visit a bar in Mexico, you’ll want to order an authentically unpasteurised and delightfully alliterative pecan pulque. Alas, not served in the Norwich branch of Marzano.
Review by Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers is a Writers’ Centre Norwich member who is grateful to the Brave New Reads selection procedure for exposing him to literature, good, bad and amazing, he would not have otherwise discovered. When not reading potential Brave New Reads, he reads about neuroscience, linguistics, neurolinguistics, cognitive psychology, philosophy, running and North Korea.