I really enjoy the retelling and reimagining of familiar stories. I like that by shirting perspective, considering the viewpoint of a minor, or a peripheral character opens a story to new tellings, prioritises different concerns and positions readers to reconsider the ways in which they presume it is normal for power to be exercised. Herrera’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet does just this. Resituated in a plague-ridden Mexico (a plague on both your houses), The Transmigration of Bodies follows The Redeemer, a fast-talking negotiator, who has to clean up the mess that arises from the deaths of two young lovers from warring families.
The novella plays with genre, and is Gibsonesque in the way it brings together a dystopic city suffering from a mosquito-lead plague, and the crime noir aesthetic of the hard-boiled hero, whose primary concern is dealing with the nonsense between these warring factions, so that he can get his end wet with his ridiculously attractive neighbour.
Pro-tip for would be Redeemers: Do not hit on your neighbour. She is not interested in you and you’ve just made her feel unsafe in her home. This story-arc is a hetero-masculine fantasy, not gritty reality.
The story is well paced, it is elegantly written. The convention of using pet-names for characters, rather than their birth names is disconcerting, creating both a wall between the reader and the characters, while creating an illusion of intimacy. (It’s literally how I live my life. So many of my friends don’t actually know what my name is.) This, along with the focus on immediate concerns, such as managing the people with whom one lives and works, as well as the claustrophobic setting – apartments, abandoned buildings, streets and laneways – gives the story a sense of myopia, of focus on the urgencies of the everyday. The tensions between the warring families are juxtaposed with a nationwide epidemic that has kept people barricaded in their homes, and terrified of each other.
The background environmental and health devastation in Mexico takes on a new resonance in 2018 (the book was written in 2013, and translated into English in 2016). The threat of a wall between Mexico and the United States is a synecdoche for a series of political and social divides that are happening at both national and international levels. The story speaks, perhaps to a broader concern, that of isolationism meeting exceptionalism: what happens to our communities when individuals, families, and groups are convinced of their special, exceptional status? What happens when they feel entitled to that status? What happens when they conflate that exceptionalism with purity? Does it lead to a sense of broader (although still limited) solidarity, as in the myths that underpin nationalism? Or does it hierarchialise, perpetually separating out until there is the “most” exceptional? The exemplar of exceptionalism, that which must be kept sequestered from others, from the threat of infection, from the threat of impurity. In The Transmigration of Bodies, our protagonist, the Redeemer, shows readers that this purity is imagined and that our attempts to divide and isolate communities will be futile at best, and devastating at worst.