Corridos are by their very nature narrative forms. This does not, however, always translate to good narrative fiction, especially when authors attempt to transform corridos into novels or films. Pedro Ángel Palou’s Zapata falls under this category because, much to the discredit of Zapata’s memory, the corrido Palou writes reeks of populism that only supports extant national myths; it is writing at the service of traditional post-revolutionary ideology which, we should never forget, stemmed from a system that Zapata openly disagreed with and that ultimately murdered him. Other such attempts include Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez Reverte’s La reina del sur, a never-ending novel about a narco-pilot’s girlfriend who goes into exile in Spain, revolutionizes the drug trade across the Strait of Gibraltar, and becomes the most powerful cartel leader in the world upon exacting vengeance for her lover’s death in a gun-slinging scene that would make Ang Lee or Quentin Tarantino proud. Despite the aid of culiche author Élmer Mendoza, La reina del sur has two major problems: it reads like a tired Hollywood caricature of Mexico and, as with many of Pérez Reverte’s novels, artistry is subverted by flashy but fruitless action.
This is not to say, however, that there are not some really good corrido books out there. Mendoza’s own novel, Un asesino solitario, not only surpasses Pérez Reverte’s in every important aspect (readability, interest, coherence, poetics, etc.), but it also does so in about one-third the time. Plus it draws on Mexico’s great tradition of novelas negras like Rafael Bernal’s El complot mongol and recent history, most notably the 1994 assassination of Colosio. Likewise, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s Idos de la mente also translates the corrido well, following the ups and downs of a norteño band that seamlessly incorporates the corrido‘s musicality into the text. In addition to these two upside examples, I’d like to throw one more on the pile, a book that I just read thanks to the recommendation of my good friend, José Ramón Ruisánchez: Yuri Herrera’s Trabajos del reino.
The plot is simple enough: a young musician is discovered by the local drug kingpin and brought under his protective wing as the kingdom’s minstrel. Within the walls of the Palace, the Artist becomes privy to courtly intrigues as courtesans vie for ascendancy. Unlike many narco novels and films, where drug trade and violence constitute the key moments of development, Trabajos del reino hinges on more subtle, less spectacular events. And, the novel is, as many great novels are, suggestive of hundreds of other untold stories. As the Artist meanders through town and the the court, he–and we by extension–glimpses other stories that may well make it into a corrido some day, like the young man who fakes his own kidnapping and calls his parents for ransom. They respond that he’s useless and offer to pay half the ransom to have him killed; he accepts the deal, uses the money to buy liquor and drugs, and then “fulfilled his part of the bargain.”
But what strikes me most about this novel is the role Herrera assigns to art in the construction and destruction of the drug cartel. He understands the power of fictional narratives, whether they be literary or musical or political, and teases out that relationship through the musician. The King brings the Artist on board presumably to garner popular support; the musician’s work is, as it has been for centuries, one part artistry and one part propaganda. When local radio stations refuse to play the Artist’s narcocorridos on the air because of governmental and social pressures against normalizing criminal behavior, the King responds that it doesn’t matter because they can move the songs clandestinely in the streets, “which is where we do all our business anyway.” Later, when the Artist pens a song that inadvertently demystifies the King, popular support wanes and an opportunity for overthrow presents itself. Instead of shoring up a kingdom built on bullets, loyalty, and influence, words bring it down.
Herrera’s style is crisp, clean, and lyrical. The novel’s marked norteño accent and humor are recognizable to anyone who has spent time along either side of the border. The anecdotes behind nicknames are fantastic; my personal favorite was for the bato dubbed Santo (because all the animals love him). In the end, the corrido this novel spins is not of great capos or bloody shootouts, but rather all the smaller, less glamorous jobs that underpin the world that makes the front page. Definitely a worthy read.