Book purchases surged at the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic. We were home, with lots of time on our hands, and novels about pandemics, particularly, dystopian, seemed like an escape that was relatable. A way of coping when we had very little options at hand. There were quite a few to pick from: The Plague by Albert Camus, sold out quickly, and Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh was trending on social media. Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies (Mexico 2013, published in English in 2016) flew under the radar. But there I cannot think about a more prescient story about our current pandemic.
The Redeemer is a messenger. He works for dark forces, but his aim is far from violent. He is to mediate the exchange of people, alive or dead. More aptly named in the original Spanish, El Alfaqueque, meaning a man who is tasked with rescuing captives and prisoners of war, is a character that works in the open, and yet, we know so little of him. What does his business card say? Is being a Redeemer his main job or a side hustle? What personal tragedy pushed him to embrace this role?
A pandemic caused by a mosquito has everyone on lockdown. Businesses are closed, people are scared. Those afflicted can’t escape a sinister end, be it slow or long to come. The Redeemer, more than the fear of death at the mercy of a tiny mosquito, has more pressing urges. And these urges, along with his ethical duties, take front stage. And isn’t life like that? If we come to ponder on it, what were the first items off the shelves at the beginning of the pandemic? In the Redeemer’s world, water, food and face masks are also scarce. Human contact is also scare. Love is hiding. Love takes a back seat to survival. But the flesh longs for what the flesh longs for, paraphrasing a popular saying in Spanish. And The Redeemer is craving some love in the arms of a Three-Times-Blond neighbor. (Why is she Three-Times-Blond?)
But even biological thirsts take a back seat to ethics. Because The Redeemer may be a shady character who, on the outside, seems to care little about his fellow people dropping like flies, but he does care about life. Or about the sanctity of death. Is it any different? So he goes across time trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of two young people who are held captive by opposing clans, and how they ended up in that pickle. All while trying not to escalate a conflict, and find an open pharmacy (the latter proving possibly more challenging). And he tries to do the right thing as his personal life continues to get in the way.
The story is interesting, thrilling and relatable at face value. But if you look a little bit beyond that, you will see a pretty accurate look into the future (since it was published in 2013) of how as society we handle pandemics, how we value life, and doom. This world is slipping down the cracks and life and death seemed so knotted together we can no longer find that threat to hang on to. Are we our fears? Do we chose love? Do we chose just survival?
Supreme storytelling, and beautiful command of language. As usual, Herrera shies away from cold academic language going for vernacular. Even spelling takes a back seat to conveying that honestly raw feeling of who we are and how we chose to express ourselves. A made-up story has never felt truer, real-er, us.