When I was a teenager one of my favourite authors was Eugene Ionesco – I was much more into theatre/ playwriting at that time than I was into reading novels. One of his most famous plays “Exit the King” depicts a belligerent king who sees his kingdom and followers literally disappearing around him. Yuri Herrera’s novel “Kingdom Cons” shows a similarly absurdist sensibility and medieval-in-nature drama to discuss contemporary existentialist issues. But rather than focus on the perspective of the tyrannical ruler, Herrera’s protagonist is an artist/musician named Lobo who ingratiates himself into becoming a part of the court of a “king.” In reality this king is the leader of a drug cartel, but the descriptions of his followers (a witch/heir/doctor/commoners) and the manner of their business all hark back to a mythic time centuries ago. The gritty realism of gang warfare is mixed with a language that invokes vast royal kingdoms grasping for power. Lobo seeks to find his place and maintain the authenticity of his songs amidst these bloody battles to maintain control.
This is a very short novel and Herrera’s writing leaps between vast cerebral subjects to peculiar tangents. I was really up for an absurdist take on gang violence and the artist’s sensibility, but unfortunately this book didn’t come together for me. It felt too erratic and passed too quickly. Lobo’s struggle about how far he should compromise in order to gain the favour of the king and enjoy everything that goes with privilege is compelling: “he kept telling himself that to lie for Him was worth it, it was”. But this doesn’t develop as substantially as it could. It’s let down further by the sense that as an artist Lobo sees himself as fundamentally better than everyone else around him: “The only special one was him.” This really put me off his character and I found the arc of his journey sadly devolved into an unnecessary quest to save his lover.
The question of an artist’s role in society is compelling, especially when artists are under pressure to manipulate or use their artwork for political purposes. This issue was explored so powerfully in the novels “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes and “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien which used real historical incidents within their stories. I think it would be possible to meaningful explore similar themes in a fantastical or absurdist landscape, but Herrera doesn’t quite accomplish this in a novel so brief and cryptic. It felt particularly disappointing to me since I’ve heard lots of great things about this writer and was so eager to try one of his books. But even though “Kingdom Cons” didn’t work for me, I’d still be interested to try reading his earlier novels.