Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera, review by Bruce Jacobs
Although it is the last of Mexican author and editor Yuri Herrera's loosely connected border trilogy to be translated into English, Kingdom Cons is the first in the series. Short, allegorical and centered in the world of northern Mexico cartels, it is the story of an uneducated street singer and composer of corridos, popular ballads about peasant oppression and the heroes who free them. Drifting through cantinas "offering rhymes in exchange for pity, for coins," Lobo finds his hardscrabble life miraculously changed when a narco jefe drinking with his honchos kills a drunk refusing to pay Lobo for a song. The jefe then takes the young musician back to his fortified, opulent mountain compound to become his bard--celebrating in song his exploits and benevolent outlaw generosity.
Surrounded by bejeweled sycophants and lieutenants who "thrust their shoulders back with the air of those who know that theirs is a prosperous dominion," Lobo transforms into "the Artist," and the rest of Herrera's characters become personifications of their social or occupational positions. The King rules; his concubine the Witch manipulates him; her daughter the Commoner seduces the Artist; the Journalist provides the Artist with books containing new words for his songs; and the Heir conspires to usurp the King.
The other two volumes of Herrera's trilogy (Signs Preceding the End of the World, winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, and The Transmigration of Bodies) are centered on the actual border between Mexico and the United States and on those who are mired in the political and legal no-man's land of living on both sides. The allegorical characters in Kingdom Cons, however, are caught in the metaphorical borders that separate the rich from the poor, the powerful from the weak and the mercenary from the artistic. While the King rules his criminal empire through fear and violence, the Artist learns that survival rests on his talent and empathy with his audience: "He sung his song with the faith of a hymn, the certainty of a sermon, and above all he made sure it was catchy." The King wants flattery and adulation, but his kingdom wants to be entertained. Blurring the difference ultimately leads to the undoing of the Artist's cushy life in the compound.
In Kingdom Cons, Herrera has created a mythical hierarchy of power where only an artist might elude the jealousy and retribution of those trapped in the struggle to be on top. This is not just a drug cartel hierarchy, nor is it a Mexican mythology. Rather, it illustrates the difficulty of living on borders wherever they may be found.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.