Yuri Herrera explores the actual and psychological crossings and translations people make—with their feet, in their minds, and in their language as they move from one country to another, especially when there's no going back

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Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World. Trans. by Lisa Dillman, And Other Stories, 2015.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.

Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld

In this grippingly original novel Yuri Herrera explores the actual and psychological crossings and translations people make—with their feet, in their minds, and in their language as they move from one country to another, especially when there's no going back.

‘Yuri Herrera must be a thousand years old. He must have travelled to hell, and heaven, and back again. He must have once been a girl, an animal, a rock, a boy, and a woman. Nothing else explains the vastness of his understanding.’ - Valeria Luiselli

‘Yuri Herrera is Mexico’s greatest novelist. His spare, poetic narratives and incomparable prose read like epics compacted into a single perfect punch – they ring your bell, your being, your soul. Signs Preceding the End of the World delivers a darkly mythological vision of the U.S. as experienced by the “not us” that is harrowing and fierce. The profoundly dignified, mind-boggling Makina, our guide and translator, is the heroine who redeems us all: she is the Truth.’ - Francisco Goldman

‘Herrera never forgets the turbulent and moving humanity of his protagonist: adroit, angry, ineluctable, Makina is destined to become one of the essential characters of Mexico’s new literature…Herrera creates a radically new language […] and condenses into a few pages what other authors need hundreds to convey.’ - Jorge Volpi

‘Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a masterpiece, a haunting and moving allegory about violence and the culture built to support and celebrate that violence. Of the writers of my generation, the one I most admire is Yuri Herrera.’ - Daniel Alarcón 

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera confirms his status as a storyteller skilled at creating intense storylines and using original language. It is as adept at depicting wretched conditions as it is of elevating the humble and everyday to symbolic dimensions. And that symbolism, to be sure, has something of the Kafkaesque.’ - Arturo García Ramos

 ‘It’s fair to say that Yuri Herrera follows in the footsteps of compatriot Juan Rulfo, perhaps the master par excellence of creating limbos, spectral spaces in which the characters—real Schrödinger’s cats—reside halfway between the living and the dead.’ - Javier Moreno

‘The book amazes with the precise and persuasive beauty of its words. New words are created or transformed in order to tell what cannot be told.’ - María José Obiol

Herrera’s first book to be translated into English tells the story of a border-crossing from Mexico into the U.S. Makina is a young woman asked by her mother to deliver an envelope to her brother, who crossed over into the U.S. three years earlier and has only sent a few cryptic pieces of correspondence since. The story opens with a man, a car, and a dog swallowed up by a sinkhole, a product of over-mining the land for silver (“These things always happen to someone else, until they happen to you,” Makina thinks). Her journey is presented starkly, like a fable: she first connects with three “top dogs” to help transport her, and one of them gives her an additional package to deliver on her trip as part of the deal, then proceeds to complete her task systematically. Indeed, the nine short chapters tell a very straightforward quest story, and Herrera plants dangerous criminals and vigilant border patrollers around every corner. But it’s the imagery, by turns moving and nightmarish, that makes this brief book memorable. A climactic scene occurs in an “obsidian place with no windows or holes for the smoke.” And at one point along the way Makina finds nothing but a barren locale populated by excavators digging in the earth, a place so alien and desolate it could be found in science fiction: “Whatever once was there had been pulled out by the roots, expelled from this world; it no longer existed.” This is a haunting book that delivers a strange, arresting experience.  - Publishers Weekly

Signs Preceding the End of the World narrates the journey of Makina, a young woman who braves crossing the border between Mexico and the USA in search of her missing brother. The novel’s title is apt, conveying the approach of the US-Mexican border as both the geographical and metaphorical end of Makina’s world as she knows it and alluding to the book’s apocalyptic nature with its overtones of mass exodus and undercurrents of violence.
Indeed, Signs Preceding the End of the World is filled with layers of meaning and symbolism, with Herrera’s brilliant command of visual metaphors effortlessly weaving together a host of narrative threads. Take, for instance, the opening scene of the novel, in which a sinkhole in the land opens up and swallows an old man, a car and a dog. ‘Slippery bitch of a city’, Makina says to herself, ‘Always about to sink back into the cellar’. Here, the precariousness of the earth conveys the instability of life in Mexico City, while Herrera’s double entendre in ‘A few houses had already been sent packing to the underworld’ reminds us that the city’s foundations are inextricably linked to the criminals of the Mexican underworld, with whom Makina must negotiate in order to cross the border.
In a landscape containing whole ‘villages emptied of men’, those that remain are equally marked by their sense of anonymity. Mr. Aitch – a local overlord – surrounds himself with henchmen known simply as ‘Thug .45’ and ‘Thug .38’ (a nod to the calibre of their ammunition). These men are literally defined by their weapons, becoming the very personification of violence. Mr. P’s name similarly adds a sinister veil of anonymity; instead, Herrera characterises Mr. P by the ‘long, thin knife’ hanging from his belt as he eyes Makina’s crotch, adding to the sense of sexual violence and menace that defines her journey.
Makina’s role as negotiator and messenger is vital in developing Herrera’s narrative. Symbolically, she earns a living as the village’s switchboard operator, connecting those who have left for the promised land of America with the loved ones they left behind. As Makina tells herself, ‘You are the door’. However, in her new role she shifts from the precipitator to the active messenger, and in doing so, the messages themselves become secondary to her crossing. This crossing – or leaving – is marked by Lisa Dillman’s striking translation of the Spanish verb ‘jarchar’ to the English ‘versing’. Here, the act of parting takes on an implicitly lyrical quality, and indeed Makina’s journey through the underworld seems to nod to the epic tradition, to Orpheus and Odysseus.
In a story about crossing countries, topography is unsurprisingly a major theme, with Herrera’s descriptions of the earth’s belly juxtaposed with Makina’s visions of ‘hills’ – real and imagined, grass and concrete. As she enters Mexico City, Makina is met with ‘hills of hills cementing the horizon’. The compound description is another example of Herrera’s linguistic flair, creating a sense of infinity and an uneasy tension between the naturalistic and the synthetic, ‘hills’ sitting uncomfortably alongside ‘cement’ to convey Makina’s unease as she travels from the rural to the urban. Herrera goes on to describe how Makina dreams of scaling eight hills in the search for her brother, demonstrating how her quest is not just a physical but a mental journey – a literal learning curve.
Makina’s journey is also a linguistic one. Herrera pointedly alludes to Makina’s ability to speak several Spanish dialects, alongside ‘anglo’; however in America she encounters a new language spoken by Mexican immigrants, an ‘intermediary tongue’ that is ‘a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born’. This new language mimics the immigrants’ metamorphic qualities – a key asset to their survival in a frequently hostile environment. The importance of adapting to the language of an alien land is emphasised by Herrera’s description of a police officer shouting abuse at a group of Mexican immigrants. The officer’s ‘tongue… all pink and pointy’ is put on a par with the gun in his holster and is furthermore reminiscent of Mr. P’s knife. Herrera’s message is clear – language is a weapon.
This novel explores shifting landscapes, tongues and attitudes, moving between geographical states and states of mind. It is at its most exciting when the journey is being anticipated and traversed, at its most protracted and anticlimactic when Makina actually arrives in the USA. However, Herrera makes up for this by his use of complex symbolism throughout, and his gift for transforming abstract idioms and metaphors into concrete images makes Signs Preceding the End of the World a worthy examination of what it is to ‘cross the border’. - Debjani Biswas-Hawkes

Begin by unsettling. Let the reader know they should be wary, ready for realism to collapse. This is the mood of the opening scene of Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World. The first line, "I'm dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched," is an impossibility, consciousness of one's own state in death, unless the book takes flight into fantasy, perspective from the afterlife. Makina is not dead, but the earth around her is collapsing, a sinkhole opens, threatening to take her in. Her Mexican town, called only Little Town, is built over mines, sloppily covered, and openings of the earth are not uncommon. Makina barely flinches, a trait of hers, accepting "the earth's insanity." That this sinkhole is more than the physical is the greatest warning that, when we move on in the novel, we shouldn't take its reality for granted, as stable. The earth doesn't just swallow a man, car, and dog, but "the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby." This is a gravity greater than earth's norm. Incidents, phrasings that suggest the novel could shift to another realm continue. They are pregnant with potentiality, and tension of potentiality is one of life's great pleasures, even, especially, in the discomfort that comes with it. It creates only one of the ways that Signs Preceding the End of the World holds you in rapture.
The certainties around Makina are few. She's a woman, seemingly young, in Mexico, with a mother and brother. Her brother left for the US to claim land that local thugs told the family was left to them by a man, possibly the father who abandoned them. He hasn't returned, and Makina, with the help of the town's three gang leaders, is crossing into the US to find him, intending to bring him home. That Signs is a book of movement, of crossings, plays into the feelings of unsettledness. The presence of constant moving is in the language that Herrara uses. In Lisa Dillman's translator's note (and what a wonderful thing to have, if only more books included one), she details her translation of "jarchas" as "to verse," a version of leaving. When Makina "verses," as she often does, she is leaving a situation, but with a sense of the linguistic, a poetic bridging from one moment to another, more than a physical departure, more than an ending.
Signs is a novel of language, meant to be translated because it is so aware of the journeys language takes, from one to another, and within their boundaries. Makina is at the center of that, working as the switchboard operator for the only phone in her village. It's a job of relaying messages, but also makes her a speaker of tongues, knowing "native" and "latin" tongue, while also speaking "anglo," and more importantly, knowing "how to keep quiet in all three." She is aware that how people say things matters as much as what they say. To the knowing power and transformations of a trickster figure, Makina adds goodwill and kindness, looking out for others, even those that have wronged her.
It's possible to see Makina as passive in her interactions with others. When encountering "a hood whose honeyed words she'd spurned," who others said "offed a woman, among other things," she doesn't react, didn't seem to when he pursued her, so the condemnation, the anger, is left to us, as she doesn't give voice to it. She doesn't react to much, neither physically, nor verbally, but it is not detachment. It's a reserve, a deep and protected interior -- it's up to the reader to see the self that she preserves. In this pocket self, Makina is slick, seeing and escaping troubling situations, conversations full of manipulations of power, without seeming to do much at all, but we know that Makina can "smell the evil in the air."
This way of hers isn't out of the realm of realism by any means, but were she to have a vision, to show more tricks than what is normal to the world, it wouldn't be shocking. Makina is a character to admire, and even fear a little, or to be awed by when she does act, as it is with power. To get across the border, she takes a bus to a border town, where she'll stay with others, room overflowing, looking to cross, where they may save themselves or be taken advantage of. She notices two men, one who "didn't brush against her but felt her up with his breath." There it is again: something unsettling, ephemeral, but so close to base experience that it is familiar, too. Makina herself brings out the strength of physical consequence: he sits next to her, lets his hand glance against her thigh, and she grabs the hand, breaks his middle finger. The conversation with him after is incredibly badass, and utterly honest, simple, and calm. Later, she sees the men again, and with compassion tinted by the same coldness and simplicity, warns them that the people looking to help them cross will trick them. She'll move like this the whole way, under threat, but protected, a threat, but stepping out to help others. Her language too, in a moving, sweeping vision of immigration, comes to save people.
This slippery world lives in her way of being, in the language of versing, in the dislocations of place, and in the descriptions of the physical realm Makina moves in. Snow is called "weightless crystals raining down." That's accurate, of course. Snow is made of crystals, they are practically weightless, but the combination of those two, and more importantly, the "raining," a verb I've never seen applied to snow, makes it other at the same time, fittingly so, as this is Makina's first time seeing snow. Signs Preceding the End of the World is a novel of liminal being: snow and rain, water in two forms, exist in the same sentence, at the same time; Makina's languages overlap, conversations happen in anglo and latin at the same time; she journeys between two lands, both so clearly known to one another, yet so other.
Moving to the other side and returning will change a person, or change the original place. "[W]hen he came back it turned out that everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters were no longer his brothers and sisters." When she crosses, it could be into another world entirely -- underneath, that use of "alien" to apply to people from another country lurks. She is meeting aliens; she is an alien.
But her life never fully slips from our world, remains outside of the usual perception of our lives, flickering at the corner of our eyes. That she is risking her life to save her brother cannot be forgotten. As she plays detective, seeking him out in the world of immigrant workers, legal and illegal -- "around the edges of the abyss," the back doors of restaurants as her entrance -- we know that the truth of his fate will be impossible for his family to ignore, whatever it is.
When his life's path is uncovered, it too is in rhythm with the strange, shifty, beating heart of the novel, where, at least for those of us whose lives couldn't resemble those in the novel, see another reality, ever overlapping our own. Herrera and Dillman build this sensation carefully, felt even by those aware of these other experiences. For all of this, stitching the novel together, are those protected depths of Makina, the emotions she carefully guards. When she parts again from her brother, we see why she lives this way:
He leaned in toward her, and as he gave her a hug said Give Cora a kiss from me. He said it the same way he gave her a hug, like it wasn't his sister he was hugging, like it wasn't his mother he was sending a kiss to, but just a polite platitude. Like he was ripping out her heart, like he was cleanly extracting it and placing it in a plastic bag and storing it in the fridge to eat later. - P. T. Smith

Yuri Herrera’s English-language debut, Signs Preceding the End of the World, translated by Lisa Dillman, begins, and ends, quite literally, with a glimpse of the underworld. On her way across town, Makina, a hard-nosed switchboard operator, witnesses a street caving in. It looks like the work of the supernatural, but the town sits above “tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust,” and sections are prone to sink into the hollows below. An unfortunate man and a dog plummet into darkness, and Makina narrowly avoids getting swallowed up herself. This darkness trails her the rest of the book. It is never clear which shadows are to be trusted, which are in fact, or merely resemble, solid ground. As far as signs go, this one is fairly clear. But it does not precede an ending so much as a beginning. At the moment the earth “lurches,” Makina is carrying out a mission for her mother. She must cross the border to the north to deliver a message to her brother. He has gone off to the nation of “anglos” in order to reclaim a piece of land allegedly left to the family, and not returned.
Before attempting the long and dangerous crossing, Makina must visit several local Godfather-types, who have promised to ensure her safe passage. (One smiles “with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around your leg.”) This is not a labyrinth out of Kafka but a process that only a country supported by a culture of corruption—and violence, the reader intuits—can expedite. Favors beget favors, and Makina’s mother is owed. Makina is an able candidate for the errand, sharp and unflappable, almost superhero-tough, but empty, like a vessel. At her work in the Village, she directs calls but does not answer them. “You are the door,” she reminds herself. “Not the one who walks through it.” But it seems that her mother, and perhaps the local bosses, too, recognize an elusive aspect of her character that she herself does not understand, something in her that might even flourish beyond the border. Why else would she be sent on this mission if they didn’t suspect she might not come back? (The necessity of the trip, otherwise, seems hardly worth the effort.) Makina catches a view of herself in that funhouse trick of back-to-back mirrors: “She looked behind but found only the never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.” Doubts be damned; very soon she is on her way.
The journey north has the vertiginous feeling of being both ascendant and descendent, as though Makina were navigating the inferno and the paradiso at the same time. This duality, the ambivalence of constantly opposing forces, pervades much of the book. It is one of the many borders Makina finds herself straddled between, faced with the decision of what it means to cross. She fears what she might lose of herself on the other side. There is also the possibility that she might not come back at all. The journey itself is sketched with the insistent haziness of myth or legend. A fitting description comes late in the book of “a sleepwalker’s bedroom: specific yet inexact, somehow unreal and yet vivid.” It is an oral history of the present that the reader can imagine being told and retold in the Village, like the stories of so many others who have gone north in search of a more prosperous life. The clearest view we get of the country comes through the window of a bus, traveling to the border town: “She knew what it contained, its colors, the penury and the opulence, hazy memories of a less cynical time, villages emptied of men.” It is tempting to want to know what that less cynical time might have looked like and why things have changed, but the nature of the form is allusive: in Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of Mexico is not passed on but traced by its fault lines. The physicality of loss, the texture of a corroded culture, is buried somewhere beneath unreliable ground.
Things are different on the other side. What jumps out is an almost biblical bleakness, as though the world itself were beginning anew. “First there was nothing,” that section begins. The unfamiliar land itself presents an ample canvas for invention. But for Herrera, the crossing is as much about the construction of myth as it is about its deconstruction. Herrera plays with this idea most directly when Makina encounters “homegrowns,” Mexicans like herself, who have immigrated to “anglo” territory. They have become servers, dishwashers, maids, “playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders.” They are standing members of the underclass in a segregated, consumerist country. But it is their language above all that embodies the contradiction inherent to their condition:
They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link. . . . More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. . . . In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.
It is hard not to quote from this section at greater length. Really, it’s one of the most necessary in the novel, because it suggests that it is only from this intermediary place, between languages, between worlds, that the old stories can be rewritten—and Signs Preceding the End of the World is an attempt to do just that.
For Lisa Dillman, the book’s translator, Herrera’s linguistic call to arms to poses a host of interesting problems. The novel itself is written in language rooted on both sides of the border, the “nebulous territory for what is dying out and what is not yet born.” In practice, this means finding a way to convey Herrera’s invented Spanish in intelligible English. A handful of such anglo-latinisms recur in the book. The most frequent is to verse, which functions like to leave or go. (As Dillman notes in her translator’s afterword, the original Spanish neologism, jarchar, refers, by way of Arabic, to couplets that were added to Arabic or Hebrew poems, intended to bridge culture and language, in Al-Andalus, present-day Spain.) Dillman also verbs nouns and “pins sonorous tails from back there” so that root, as a verb, for example, cleverly becomes rootle, making it seem as though the woman digging through Makina’s purse has been invited to have a look around. At a broader level, the diction is a playful mix of high and low, with frequent poetry-slam–like assonances, as though the book were meant to be read aloud to a quiet beat; it is at times slangy, at times arch, at times an odd confusion of both: “I’m going for my bro,” Makina says. “He’s the stupid sap who went over for a little land.”
When it works and when it doesn’t, though it usually does, Herrera’s language teaches the reader how to inhabit the text’s dislocated geography, and Dillman should be commended for arriving at this distant target. It would be hard to pin a word or phrase to a place without finding one to contradict that verdict on the next page. Her translation does what the best translations should do, namely, grow the bounds of English so that it feels larger than before, more lexically and syntactically diverse, strange, unexpected. That her prose is often striking and beautiful makes it all the richer.
Transference across borders and between languages can be marked by a beginning and an end: the moment when something stops being one thing and becomes another. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Herrera interrogates the nature of that change, its inevitability, its often brutish force, as it sweeps through a time and a place and a people. It is a force that Makina, now beyond the border, sees acting on her and the world around her:
[The snowflake] looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a place, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world—some countries, some people—could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile.
The reader wonders what this dissolution will mean for Makina. But here, despite its best intentions, the novel does not dig deep enough into the dirt of human consequence, even if we understand her fate. Her fear is described but not adequately felt; the slow change that we expect in her is lost in a hurried conclusion, underground. In its hundred-odd pages, Signs Preceding the End of the World manages to be many things at once: an allegory, a dark myth, an epic, a compelling meditation on language. In the end, however, Makina and the reader are left with the darkness. - Adam Z. Levy

I had not heard of the writer before, but it’s a name I won’t soon forget. Yuri Herrera has, so far, written three short novels, the second of which, Signs Preceding The End of The World, has now found its way into English, in a translation that I found fantastic, published by And Other Stories. I don’t naturally know how close Dillman kept to the text and how much of the original is found in this English version, but she found a language that is strong, unique and fits the text, its story and its quirks to a t, which makes me think she did a good job. The book itself is a rich story that feeds equally off myth and realism, with its closest sibling (in my limited reading of latino literature) not the postmodernism of Roberto Bolaño, despite the thematic similarities especially with 2666; instead, the book that most came to mind is the one Mexican masterpiece pretty much everyone has read in one translation or another: Juan Rulfo’s spellbinding novel Pedro Páramo. It also reminded me of something odd in amazon’s current TV show Narcos, a slightly unpleasant American rewriting of recent Columbian history. It starts off with a disquisition on magical realism, but, as far as I have seen the show, does not offer any of it to its viewers, instead it’s a mixture of docudrama and realistic action. In this context, the way Herrera’s novel digs into myth, into the layers between life and death, consciousness and dream, appeared even more stark to me. But even without the contrast, this novel is captivating. After I finished it, I found it hard to believe that it was as short as it is. In it, we go to hell and back, we see how war and poverty and warp and hollow people out, and how threadbare, ultimately, the connection is that we have to our homes, no matter how strongly felt it might have been. Herrera discusses, in other sections, the border issues between Mexico and the US, offers a suggestion involving a broader sense of home and identity and takes a long, hard look at fear and necessity. This is very clearly among the best novels I have read all year and probably in the last 5 years, too. Herrera’s skill as a writer is beyond remarkable and Lisa Dillman’s translation is similarly good. Do yourself a favor and read this book. This is the most direct, unguarded recommendation I have given out all year. Go, now.
Yuri Herrera has so far written three novels. All three deal in some way with the drug traffic, and the problems in Mexico that arise from it. All three decline to offer a stark realism, although the third one comes closest. All three play with the idea of narrative, of writing. There is a sense of a grasping for a national literature that both deals with the scourge of drug trafficking and transcends it. Trabajos del reino, the first book, is equipped with a protagonist who is a poet or singer, who slowly enters the ranks of power. Thus, Herrera can offer his readers a variant on that old Mexican genre: the dictatorship novel. These books, from García Márquez to Roa Bastos, Miguel Asturias and Ramón del Valle-Inclán, have long been considered a central part of the canon of latino literature, part of the way that literature has related to issues of nationbuilding. To speak with Lyotard, if I may, is it possible to say that over the decades since Asturias and Valle-Inclán, all these petits récits have added up to fairly large and grand narratives themselves, somewhere between the great European ideologies, much as its great proponents, from García Márquez to Vargas Llosa, have to be, I think, described as being somewhere in between those ideologies. Herrera’s book, by dropping the focus from a statesman, even a despotic one, to a drug kingpin, offers critical commentary on this genre, as he, at the same time, I think, attempts to use its strengths and implications for a putative récit about Mexico. The third novel’s protagonist is a lawyer and its focus is even narrower and local, and it involves a writing of history and law that needs lawyers not poets or singers. In between those two books is Signs Preceding The End of The World. It starts off as the smallest of books: the realistically told tale of Makina, a young woman who sets out to bring her brother home. In order to be able to cross the border, she strikes a deal with local drug kingpins whose reach extends far into the US and whose tales of a mythical heritage beyond the border were the original incentive for her brother to leave home. She carries with her a message from her mother and a package from the kingpin. The book is told in the third person, from the young woman’s point of view. We are never privy to all her thoughts, the effect is more that of a chorus, telling us about the big beats in her emotions as they relate to the events around her.
The rhythm of the novel fits that impression, with an almost stakkato-like sequence of sentences, although this is no formal system. Sentences vary in length and melody, but the beats keep recurring. This delivery is significant because it takes us out of a too realistic reading of the events and draws attention to all the instances where the novel addresses its own form or the question of narration in general. Even within the constraints of a very short novel that has a long story to tell, Herrera’s focus never wavers when it comes to these issues. When people speak, Makina almost always reports to us precisely observed details about how they speak, how their manner of speech reflects on their persona or the situation. Again and again, stories and observations come back to this. One story, on the surface meant to show how people can change once they come back home from a longer stay in the United States, is, at the same time, a story about communication, quite literally, about speech, about signals and many more details like that. Late in the novel, writing is used as a weapon of defense against institutional racism, names are exchanged and truth is repeatedly debated. I say it’s striking, but it’s more than that. It’s also a continuation of Herrera’s themes, but instead of having one singer tell a ballad of the drug life, this is a kind of decentralized story. Told, yes, by one person, but the novel spreads out all the speech and the awareness of it to all members of the chain that leads Makina from her village to where she ends up. As my evasive formulations show, I am loath to reveal details about what happens exactly, because I don’t want to take away the joy of discovering the book from any of the people who are reading this review, but I will reveal that it is indeed a quest, and one where the Hobbits do not return to the Shire. The form of the quest focuses all the elements of speech, gives them shape and meaning and coherence. All the urgency that spurns Makina, it transfers to the discussions of orality and narrative and writing. One issue that recurs again and again is the question of language. Whenever someone speaks for the first time, the novel makes sure we know whether its “anglo tongue” or “latino tongue” – but its linguistic world view is far from a simple binary. At some point, roughly halfway through the book, Makina describes the speech of the locals as “a shrewd metamorphosis.”
In general, despite the border being obviously the most apparent metaphor, the novel doesn’t care much for sharp distinctions. People are almost what they are. Friends are sometimes not quite friends, enemies not quite enemies, and the border that can destroy a young man is sometimes not the border between the US and Mexico, but the aerial border (of sorts) between the US and Afghanistan. The book toys with the idea of land, something that can be literally dug up and stolen – how deep goes identity? And then, the book offers us other oddities, among them neologisms, the central one of which is rendered by Lisa Dillman as “(to) verse” which means something like “to leave.” Dillman herself explains her coinage in a lovely and quite long and extensive translator’s note at the back. The original word in Herrera’s Spanish text was “jarchar,” a neologism derived from the Arabic. Neologisms and other mildly alienating tactics keep the readers on their toes, bar them from settling into easy identifications, and simple realism. That’s necessary because, except for a few passages here and there, the mythology of the novel, despite its importance for the book, is not expounded on at any length, really. By pushing his readers into a constantly angular sort of metafictional mood, he allows them to find all the subtle (and less so) references to the 9 levels of the Mictlan underworld, and appreciate the many levels of Makina’s quest. By engaging Aztec mythology, Herrera also opens a conversation with the narratives of Mexican nationalism, its limitations and possibilities, its overall scope. Of course there are the many small questions, such as: what does it mean when you are Mexican in the US? What if you can pass? What is the meaning of “home”? But more generally, Herrera’s touching on themes of life and death, of the impermanence of identity and the possibility of stories to resist that process of fading away. Herrera offers a petit récit and a Grand Narrative at the same time, undercutting the importance of both. And more importantly, he offers a magnificently written book. Look, all the details of speech and narrative, all the little linguistic and rhythmic details are not what really holds that novel together – it’s Herrera’s plain skill at telling a fantastic story. I have recently remarked on novels that are intellectually interesting but lack a storyteller’s heart – well, this little novel can do both, and with an apparent ease that makes me crave for more work by this extraordinary writer. A great novel. Go, read. - shigekuni.wordpress.com/

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a short novel, recounting a simple story: a young woman, Makina, travels illegally across the Mexican-American border to give her brother a message from their mother, Cora. Her passage is arranged by the criminals who run things in her hometown, Little Town: one jefe can arrange her crossing, another -- for a price -- can provide the information that might lead her to her brother. The price: "All I ask is that you deliver something for me, an itty bitty little thing".
       Makina's brother went to America in the hopes of claiming some land that might be theirs, the property of, perhaps: "the man who had been her father before he disappeared a long time ago". Now, a couple of years later, they've heard almost nothing of what happened to him, having just received a few short notes from him:
Two or three and not two, or three; Makina couldn't say for sure because after the first the one that followed and maybe one more were the same old story
       The novel begins with Makina barely escaping death, the earth itself opening up in Little Town in the opening paragraph, with her left standing -- barely -- at the edge of the abyss. Talk about 'Signs Preceding the End of the World' .....
       Makina is the local telephone switchboard operator, in a town that isn't even close to having cell phone service yet. She speaks the necessary three languages -- native tongue, latin tongue (Spanish), and anglo tongue (English) -- "and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too". She's an intermediary who knows her place, the perfect messenger.
       Determined Makina manages to stay on an even keel, even as her odyssey is an often nightmarish and dangerous one; Herrera's matching laconic calm is particularly effective in leading her through these borderzones that extend far beyond the simple geographical lines.
       The novel is full of shifting identities and places, from the body that at first sight appears to be a pregnant woman (but isn't) to the different characters that move through this broad in-between land. And also, for example:
They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it is like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.
     More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. But not a hecatomb. Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift.

       Herrera's use of language and tone (in Lisa Dillman's attentive translation) amplify this sense of in-betweenness and difference, including with the simple substitution of more common words -- 'tongue' for 'language'; 'shucking' for sex -- or 'anglo' to cover the entire American spectrum (as the United States -- and Mexico -- are also never identified as such).
       Identities shift with the geography -- regardless of intention. Makina's brother came across the border to stake a claim -- to the very basis of national identity, a piece of land. Instead, he becomes entirely another, in one of the novel's many effective sleights of hand. So too Makina can not remain a mere go-between, even though when she left she had been certain: "She was coming right back"; in the end she is presented with a file and finds:
There she was, with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I've been skinned, she whispered.
       The journey Herrera leads Makina on is Dantesque not only in its hellish turns but its lyrical, precise language. It is the telling that makes the tale so effective, as even as it is based in the Mexican-American experience Herrera reaches to the universal with a deliberate vagueness to many of the details. The rich imagery then stands out all the more effectively as well; for such a short work -- and quick, easy read -- Signs Preceding the End of the World packs an incredible punch (of may small, hard jabs).
       Signs Preceding the End of the World is a very fine novel, and a wonderful example of truly creative writing (and translation, with Lisa Dillman helpfully explaining some of her process in her afterword). - M.A.Orthofer

Born in Actopan, Mexico, in 1970, Yuri Herrera studied in Mexico and El Paso and took his PhD at Berkeley. Signs Preceding the End of the World (Señales que precederán al fin del mundo) was shortlisted for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize and is being published in several languages. After publishing Signs Preceding the End of the World, And Other Stories will publish his two other novels in English, starting with The Transmigration of Bodies(La transmigración de los cuerpos) in 2016. He is currently teaching at the University of Tulane, in New Orleans.

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange - The earliest known Arabic short stories in the world. Crocodiles have pearls in their ears; statues move and speak

  Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, Trans. by Malcolm C. Lyons, Intro. by Robert Irwin. Penguin Classics, 2015.

Read an excerpt of this book

On the shrouded corpse hung a tablet of green topaz with the inscription: 'I am Shaddad the Great. I conquered a thousand cities; a thousand white elephants were collected for me; I lived for a thousand years and my kingdom covered both east and west, but when death came to me nothing of all that I had gathered was of any avail. You who see me take heed: for Time is not to be trusted.' Dating from at least a millennium ago, these are the earliest known Arabic short stories, surviving in a single, ragged manuscript in a library in Istanbul. Some found their way into The Arabian Nights but most have never been read in English before. Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange has monsters, lost princes, jewels beyond price, a princess turned into a gazelle, sword-wielding statues and shocking reversals of fortune.

THIS must be one of the most curious books I have ever reviewed. It is the first English translation of a manuscript found in a library in Istanbul in 1933. Or rather half a manuscript: the contents page promises 42 stories and we have 18, and its title given here is the subtitle, the actual title page also having been lost.
It claims to be derived from “a well-known book”, and although the manuscript might be dated from anywhere between the 14th and 16th centuries, internal evidence from the stories has led those who have studied such matters to claim they might date back to the 10th century. It is tempting to concur with Salah al-Din al-Munajjid that this might be the lost book of 380 stories put together by al-Jahshiyari; but that irksome detail that it was “taken from a well-known book” might mean this is someone else’s redaction of al-Jahshiyari’s still lost book. What is clear is that it influenced the One Thousand And One Nights, and that it is a good contender for being the earliest Arabic story collection we have.
It is a profound oddity, but an absolutely intriguing one. You cannot read these stories expecting them to be akin to Children’s And Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm or Pu Songling’s Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio or Somadeva’s Ocean Of The Stream Of Stories. The tales here have an odd roughness, a making-it-up-as-you-go-along quality – in one, Talha, The Son Of The Qadi Of Fustat, the hero of the story sleeps with the sorceress at the beginning of his quest, then sleeps with her 39 accomplices, then with the sorceress again, only to find she is still a virgin. I suppose sorceresses might be able to accomplish such things. But in others, such as The Story Of Sul And Shumul or The Story Of Miqdad And Mayasa, the tale is interwoven with poetry, suggesting a more literary audience.
The stories do have a common set of linguistic markers. Many begin “They say – and God knows best – that…”, an equivalent of our “Once upon a time”. As the narrative switches between characters, the phrase “so much for them, but for” introduces the new part of the yarn. Beautiful faces are usually moonlike in their radiance, and some of the similes will surprise the reader – a good singing voice is like almond paste, for example. Many of the stories have a frame in which a caliph is unsettled and insomniac, and demands of his vizier that a person be brought to entertain him, usually with tales of far-off lands, women in glass boxes, djinns, ifrits, moving statues and tales of unexpected coincidence. They often have a melancholy edge, with the treasure seeker or prince being reduced to penury, and the fear of the “Destroyer of Delights and Divider of Unions”; in other words, Death. The treasure-seekers find vast wealth tempered with melancholy admonitions about its transitory value.
Some radically challenge our moral and literary norms. In The Six Men: The Hunchbacked, The One-Eyed, The Blind, The Crippled, The Man Whose Lips Had Been Cut Off And The Seller Of Glassware – and, by the way, it isn’t just his lips they had cut off – a typically ennui-ridden caliph calls for stories, and the variously maimed are brought to him. At the end of each of their stories of humiliation, in which getting a sound thrashing is customary, 
the caliph laughs and rewards them. One can’t help thinking of Simon Cowell.
The Story Of ’Arus al-’Ara’is is a sustained piece of misogyny, predicated on the idea of a caliph so distraught at the death of his infant daughter he requires a late night jackanory about how all women are intrinsically wicked and duplicitous.
Literature from outside the Arabic tradition also has its moments which might make a modern reader squeamish. Chaucer has scenes of degraded, lovelorn fools; the Icelandic sagas are full of sordid and silly antics. Objectionable depictions are not the preserve of any one culture. Sadly, they are ubiquitous.
That said, this weirdly compelling book also contains a precursor to Idries Shah’s Mulla Nasrudin stories, with holy fools who outwit the sanctimonious, and one bizarre piece about how Hatim al-Bahili met a monk, Simeon, who had been a friend of the prophet Daniel and a disciple of Jesus, and who begged Allah to let him live to see the coming of Muhammad. It includes an early piece of Islamic paranoia – that Jews and Christians conspired to keep the name of the Prophet out of the Old and New Testaments. Did a theological proposition become embroiled in a folk tale about faraway lands, or did theology retool an old tale for its own ends?
This book is an astonishment, and I can only commend Penguin for their ongoing work of introducing non-European literature to a wider audience. Long may it continue. - STUART KELLY

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange contains 18 stories from the Arab world, originating in the 10th century, which have survived in a single manuscript in a library in Istanbul. While a German volume appeared in 1933, this elegant, block-bound Penguin edition is the first English version of these tales, in a delightfully unstuffy translation by Malcolm C Lyons and with a sensitive introduction to their cultural and literary context by the Arabist Robert Irwin.
Six of these stories were later included in the Arabian Nights, but the rest are new to us. Composed to fascinate and titillate, they are neither folk tales nor morality tales but early and enjoyable examples of pulp fiction, and should, Irwin contends, properly be classed as literature. And make no mistake, they are both marvellous and very, very strange. Featuring monsters, jinn, feckless princes, capricious princesses, wily viziers, concealed treasure and dramatic reversals of fortune, they offer a glimpse of a world whose oddness has simply been accentuated by the passing of the centuries.
The variety of the tales – a mix of comedy, fantasy and derring-do – is instantly appealing, as is their headlong narrative drive. Unlike the stories of the Arabian Nights (in which Scheherazade’s talking for her life is the thread on which the collection is hung) they have no unifying frame, and profess no didactic purpose. If there is a common element to them it is that they are almost all concerned to a greater or lesser degree with sexual or romantic love. They seem sensual, capriciously violent and more than a touch repetitive, rather like a medieval Fifty Shades of Grey.
Take “The Story of the Forty Girls and What Happened to Them with the Prince”, in which a Persian prince stumbles across an enchanted castle run by a sorceress and her troop of warlike female cousins. Divested of their armour, the girls prove to be “more beautiful than the houris of Paradise”, and queue up to enjoy his favours (naturally they are all virgins). Finally the sorceress offers herself to him, forbidding the prince – who is impressively not yet exhausted – from approaching any of the others again on pain of being imprisoned, tortured and loaded with iron chains; conditions to which he cheerfully agrees. That’s 40 couplings, and then some, since the sorceress, having miraculously regained her virginity, presents herself for a second deflowering.
“The Story of Sul and Shumul” is more idealistic but has a similar Groundhog Day quality. Here the lovers, two teenage cousins, are fiercely chaste, preferring “to talk and recite poetry” all night, after which they part “with no suspicion of indecency attaching to them”. They are, of course, star-crossed, for no more obvious reason than that Sul seems incapable of pulling himself together and proposing to Shumul. Whenever he receives a letter from her (and there are many, written in the high-flown poetic style to which both are partial) he falls down in a faint. In fact Sul spends so much of the narrative wheeling between tears and verse that Shumul’s exasperated father exclaims: “I don’t know whether he wants this marriage or not.”
We look in vain for the signs of an early modern psychology in the actions of the vacillating, fainting Sul: his behaviour, like that of the priapic Persian prince, is the product of an erotic literary convention. This is also true of the book’s many beautiful but scheming female characters, for Tales of the Marvellous is undeniably misogynistic. As a character in AS Byatt’s story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” (1994) observes, the sad fact remains that for the most part women in such pre-modern Arabic stories “are portrayed as deceitful, unreliable, greedy, inordinate in their desires, unprincipled and dangerous, operating powerfully (apart from sorceresses and female ghouls and ogres) through structures of powerlessness”.
In other words, women who are judged by their bodies must live and die by their bodies. Perhaps the best example here is the gloriously psychopathic Arus al-‘Ara’is, the antiheroine of “The Story of Arus al-‘Ara’is and her Deceit”, who meets a gory end after a vicious career as a femme fatale. Arus uses sex as a deadly weapon, copulating with mortals and jinn alike, and killing her lovers when the occasion demands. Yet she sets herself up as a seductress only because, as a young girl, she is herself tricked and seduced by a man, and she remains remarkably frank throughout about her propensity for dishonesty. At the beginning of the story we meet one of her former victims, a jailbird who has been imprisoned for assaulting a woman and attempting to rape his own mother. Tellingly, Arus is still presented, within the tale’s moral framework, as the more wicked of the two.
Equally terrifying is the monomaniacal Mahliya in “The Story of Mahliya and Maubub”. A Christian Egyptian princess, Mahliya goes to mass and displays conventionally demure forms of piety. But no sooner has she set eyes on the dishy Maubub in church than she begins to pursue him obsessively, insinuating herself into his tent disguised as her own vizier, and later becoming so jealous when she suspects him (wrongly, as it happens) of infidelity that she crucifies his messengers. In what must count as a particularly unfortunate instance of a lovers’ quarrel, the two finally confront each other on the battlefield, where Maubub prepares to attack his beloved with an army that includes lions and elephants, while Mahliya has mustered “4,000 buffaloes with their horns covered in iron and their necks protected by collars of Chinese steel” – and, aptly, 5,000 wildcats. Unsurprisingly, Mahliya wins.
In spite of such over-the-top passions, there is often a mournful countercurrent to these baroque tales. It is especially evident in those stories that involve a search for hidden treasure (matalib, the “science” of treasure hunting, was an established genre of writing, and there was even a guild of medieval Egyptian treasure-hunters, motivated by a wish to discover what had happened to the fabled wealth of the ancient Greeks and Romans). In Tales of the Marvellous the treasure hunter typically has to grapple with cryptic clues, magic spells, guardian monsters and death-dealing automata. We might well wonder, like the 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, why anyone who “hoards his money and seals it with magical operations, thus making extraordinary efforts to keep it concealed”, would also “set up hints and clues as to how it may be found by anyone who cares to” – nevertheless, the stories are rollicking illustrations of the principle that who dares, wins.
“The Story of the Four Hidden Treasures” is fairly typical in being an Indiana Jones-like romp, in four quests, for fabulous riches guarded, among other grotesques, by a bird with a body bigger than an elephant’s, lascivious mermaids and moving statues that function in every way like robots. As well as boasting some eerily convincing details – on spending the night with the mermaids, the treasure hunters find that “the only difference between them and our own women was that their skins had the roughness of small shells” – the tale gives us a poignant insight into the medieval Arab obsession with a lost past. As those robotic statues suggest, medieval storytellers thought of advanced technology not as something that might be realised in the future, but as one of the secrets that vanished with the ancients.
As a result, these perky quest stories finally leave us with an uncomfortable sense of the transience of human achievement. The point is driven home when the treasure hunters on the Second Quest come across a corpse with a tablet of green topaz at its head, bearing the inscription “I am Shaddad the Great. I conquered a thousand cities; a thousand white elephants were collected for me; I lived for a thousand years and my kingdom covered both east and west, but when death came to me nothing of all that I had gathered was of any avail. You who see me take heed, for Time is not to be trusted.” The tale concludes with this pitiful vision of human life as brief, frail and hopelessly invested in ephemera.
Like all pulp fiction, however, the stories in this collection are, above all, fun, and when approaching them, in order to avoid what the social historian EP Thompson has called “the enormous condescension of posterity”, it is as well to suspend both our contemporary sensitivities and our disbelief. Here Irwin shows us the way. His introduction alludes matter-of-factly to an incident in which, as a young man visiting a Sufi shrine in Algeria, he “once encountered a jinni in the form of a cat”. What a pity that tale isn’t included here. - Elizabeth Lowry

The Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim – having defeated the Mamluks in two major battles in Syria and Egypt – entered Cairo in 1517.
He celebrated his victory by watching the crucifixion of the last Mamluk sultan at the Zuwayla Gate. Then he presided over the systematic looting of Cairo’s cultural treasures. Among that loot was the content of most of Cairo’s great libraries. Arabic manuscripts were shipped to Istanbul and distributed among the city’s mosques. This is probably how the manuscript of Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange ended up in the library of the great mosque of Ayasofya.
There it lay unread and gathering dust, a ragged manuscript that no one even knew existed, until 1933 when Hellmut Ritter, a German orientalist, stumbled across it and translated it into his mother tongue. An Arabic edition was belatedly printed in 1956.
In the 1990s, when I was working on my book The Arabian Nights: A Companion, I came across references to this story collection and, since it sounded very like The Arabian Nights (or, to give it its correct title, The Thousand and One Nights), I thought I ought to have a look at it. The stories in Tales of the Marvellous were indeed as fantastic and exotic as those in the Nights, and I felt as other scholars might feel if they had come across a missing part of The Canterbury Tales or a lost play by Shakespeare.
The stories are very old, more than 1,000 years old, yet most of them are quite new to us. Some years later, I suggested to Malcolm Lyons, the translator of a recent edition of the Nights, that having completed that mighty task, he might consider translating Tales of the Marvellous. He sounded unenthusiastic and I thought no more about it. Then, last summer, he emailed to let me know that he had completed the translation. Now it has been published, meaning these stories can be read in English for the first time. 
Although the title page of this medieval Arab story collection has been lost (as have more than half the original stories), the opening sentence of its introduction declares that these are al-hikayat al-‘ajiba wa’l-akhbar al-ghariba, or Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. “Ajiba is an adjective which means ‘marvellous’ or ‘amazing’ and its cognate plural noun, aja’ib, or marvels, is the term used to designate an important genre of medieval Arabic literature that dealt with all things that challenged human understanding, including magic, the realms of the jinn, marvels of the sea, strange fauna and flora, great monuments of the past, automatons, hidden treasures, grotesqueries and uncanny coincidences.
The Qur’an frequently calls on believers to marvel at the wonders of God’s creation, for they are filled with clear signs for “those who will reflect”. And, of course, the Qur’an itself is one of God’s marvels. Extraordinary things were signs of God’s creative power. To marvel at God’s creation was then a pious act.
Several of the stories in Tales of the Marvellous are explicit about the hunger to see or hear about amazing things. The story of Said Son of Hatim al-Bahili begins with the Umayyad Caliph telling his vizier: “I want you to bring me an Arab seafarer who can tell me about the wonders and perils of the sea and do it now. It may be that it will cure my sleeplessness.”
In the third of the four stories devoted to treasure hunting, the leader of the expedition says to the narrator: “I am a man who searches for marvels as you do.” Later, when a centaur tries to bribe the leader not to demand to see the magical crown, he replies: “We only want to look at marvels and to see what we have never seen before, and if we see the crown we can put it back in its place.” In The Story of the King of the two Rivers one of the things that recommends a maidservant to the princess is the servant’s fondness for the unusual. 
This means that the text we have is older than the oldest substantially surviving manuscript of The Thousand and One Nights (from the late 15th century), which Antoine Galland took as the basis for his translation of the Nights in the 18th century. The authors and compilers of both Tales of the Marvellous and The Thousand and One Nights are anonymous.
Not only do the two-story collections resemble one another in the variety of their contents, but they have a handful of stories in common including the intriguingly titled The Story of Abu Muhammad the Idle and the Marvels He Encountered with the Ape As Well As the Marvels of the Seas and Islands. However, the chronological priority of the versions in Tales of the Marvellous is important, since it will provide future researchers with insights into the ways that the compilers of The Thousand and One Nights worked with older materials and elaborated on or condensed what they had before them.
Tales of the Marvellous differs from The Thousand and One Nights in all sorts of odd ways. The author(s) of Tales of the Marvellous had a special devotion for the Prophet’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and at the same time respect for the Umayyad caliphs of the 7th and 8th centuries. Several times in Tales of the Marvellous Allah intervenes directly to rescue a hero or heroine in peril. Christian monks feature frequently in Tales of the Marvellous and a historical figure, Muhammad ibn Suleiman, plays a leading role in three of the stories. Why, I do not yet know.
More generally, the fantastic is even wilder and more prominent in Tales of the Marvellous than it is in the Nights. The sheer mad inventiveness of The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle, with its jumbling of Muslim, Christian and pagan beliefs and rituals would take some beating. Here we have a mechanical vulture, visionary dreams, conversation with a pagan god, magical transformations, thrones of wrath and of mercy, an enchanted gazelle, a herder of giant ostriches, lustful jinn, speaking idols, a queen of the crows, a weeping lion, a fortress guarded by talismans, a crocodile with pearls in its ears, the sacrifice of virgins to the Nile and much else.

The narrative is one long carnival of extravagant fantasy. The Story of ‘Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Seas and Islands features an Arab Medea who uses poison and sorcery to slay the men and jinn she sleeps with (and she sleeps around a lot).  In Said Son of Hatim al-Bahili, a jihadi expedition heads out to India where it encounters not only the armies of the pagan Indians, but also a monk who remembers his times with the Prophet Daniel and with Jesus, but who has since converted to Islam, and he utters many cryptic prophecies. Then the Muslim expeditionary force travels on to lands farther east to discover the Valley of the Ants and the Valley of the Apes.
As I have read and reread these stories, I have slowly become convinced that the person who first wrote them down in the 10th century did not just collect them from other sources, but in some cases he or she actually composed them. Several of the stories show signs of having been driven by inspiration and written down in great haste. For example, in The Story of the Talisman Mountain and Its Marvels, only belatedly does the storyteller remember to bestow a name on the savage mamluk.
The Thousand and One Nights contains one long story about a quest for treasure, The City of Brass, in which the governor of Egypt sends an expedition out to find the sealed copper vessels which contain the jinn captured centuries ago by Solomon. Otherwise, treasure hunting does not really feature in the Nights. But Tales of the Marvellous contains four short stories devoted to treasure hunting and in three of those stories the leaders of those quests are professionals.
The fictional treatment of treasure hunting evolved in parallel with non-fictional treatises devoted to the same subject. In medieval Egypt, professional treasure hunters had set themselves up as a guild. Many of the “professional” treasure hunters were really con men who preyed upon the gullible. Additionally, many treasure-hunting manuals are so full of wondrous accounts of magical spells, death-dealing automata and stories about ill-fated earlier seekers that they should really be reassigned to the category of entertaining fiction.

In fiction, as in purported fact, one needed more than a good map and a shovel in order to unearth ancient treasures, for the treasure hunter might expect to encounter guardian monsters, killer statues and magical traps, and that is indeed what the participants in the quests included in Tales of the Marvellous do encounter. These perilous adventures can be compared to those of Indiana Jones, though the supernatural features more prominently in the medieval stories.
The treasure hunting stories bear witness to the awe experienced by the medieval Arabs when they contemplated the wonders of antiquity and asked themselves what had happened to the wealth of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as of the Pharaohs and Persian emperors.
As the stories of dangerous automata suggest, medieval storytellers envisaged advanced technology not as something that would be achieved in the future, but rather as something whose secrets were lost in the distant past. In Tales of the Marvellous, death-dealing automata guarded the treasures sought by the protagonists of the quest stories.
Unusually in The Story of Julnar, the sorceress Queen Lab is mistress of a group of singing automata. Statues were dangerous. In several of the tales in Tales of the Marvellous demons enter the statues and speak through them. Stone monks guard treasure in the first of the four treasure-hunting stories. A statue on the Talisman Mountain has the power to immobilise ships. Such things, neither alive nor dead, are intrinsically uncanny.

Treasure-hunting stories are full of marvels and excitement, but, as with the Nights story The City of Brass, they also carry a lot of moralising about the transience of worldly wealth and the vanity of earthly power. One gets the sense that the treasure hunters are not so much seeking tangible treasures as they are on a quest for adventure and strangeness. The story of a quest for treasure turns out to be the story of the quest for a story. -  Robert Irwin 

We are all familiar with the story of One Thousand And One Nights, the tale in which the beauteous Scheherazade starts a story every night only to leave it at a cliffhanger to forestall her execution at the hands of her husband, the king.
In fact, for most of us, the stories about Aladdin, Sinbad et al are the only experience we have had of the Arabic fairytale, which means that for lovers of the exotic, there is a new treat in store.
A cache of 1,000-year old stories was discovered in a library in Istanbul in 1933 and they are now appearing in English for the first time.
Fantastical, but universal themes: Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange [PH]
Tales Of The Marvellous And News Of The Strange is a collection of 18 stories, six of which appeared in some version in One Thousand And One Nights and all of which are as exotic as the mysterious East.
There are beautiful women who enchant their men and go on to treat them dreadfully, old crones who do likewise (perfidious females feature pretty largely in this collection), slaves, fantastical animals, magicians, viziers, thwarted lovers, mermaids, statues that come to life and much, much more.
Though fantastical, the themes are universal: love lost and found, men reduced from riches to rags and back again and various all-powerful emirs and sultans who grant favours on the one hand and ruin their courtiers without a second thought on the other.
I normally avoid reading the introduction to a book until I have finished it on the grounds that so many give crucial plot twists away, but in this case I would recommend it.
The stories are so alien to the modern Brit that the reader needs a little guidance. 
There are also missing patches in the manuscript which the introduction tries to explain and the one gripe I have is that the first tale, The Story Of The King Of The Two Rivers, has so much missing it made no sense to me.
However if you want to read stories that have such lines as: “Master, take and keep this unique pearl, who has no equal on the face of the earth.
No one who can see her can look at her enough.
All the kings of the sea have asked for her hand but she did not find any of them acceptable,” then curl up with a box of Turkish delight and enjoy. This book is for you. - Virginia Blackburn
“I’m longing to be back in the Middle East and specifically the Emirates,” says Robert Irwin, the British Arabist and author of six novels. “I’ve been several times from the 60s, when it was part of the Trucial States, and I’ve always loved it. I’m beginning to feel almost homesick.”
He’s speaking a couple of days ahead of his series of lectures that start on February 7 at the Dubai International Writers’ Centre, a part of the Emirates Literature Foundation.
A renowned authority on the Arabian Nights, Irwin will also be talking about his latest Orientalist discovery, Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, just published in the UK by Penguin Classics. As befits its title, the extraordinary story of how this ancient manuscript finally saw the light of day is a marvel in its own right. It is now being heralded as the oldest collection of fictional stories from the Arab world, predating the infinitely better-known Nights.
Irwin says it is quite likely that the manuscript, whose collection of stories appears to date back to the 10th century, was looted from Cairo in 1517, when the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim, victorious over the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt, seized Cairo and proceeded to ransack the city’s prodigious intellectual treasures. Libraries were emptied and their contents despatched to Istanbul, where in 1933 the German orientalist Hellmut Ritter discovered the manuscript in the library of the great Ayasofya.
“Frankly nobody knew about it in Britain,” says Irwin. “I mentioned it in The Arabian Nights: A Companion in the 90s and thought it would be interesting. I said to Malcolm Lyons [with whom Irwin collaborated on the landmark 2008 edition of the Nights], we should do Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. Malcolm said no, he had other things on, and I forgot all about it. Then suddenly I got an email from him a couple of years ago saying: I’ve translated all 500 pages of it, what are you going to do about it?”
The answer was a handsome new edition, which has attracted serious interest and considerable coverage. “In some ways it’s a major event,” he says. It brings an ancient yet entirely new title to the reading public and simultaneously deepens our understanding of how the ocasionally overlapping stories of the Arabian Nights were stitched together.
To say Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is not a title for conservative tastes would be an understatement. One reviewer likened it to a medieval Fifty Shades of Grey. If there is one unifying theme within its lurid, fantastical world, it is surely sex – alternately romantic, capricious and frequently deadly. Princes prowl through the pages, hungry for trysts with insatiable seductresses and wanton sorceresses. Irwin summarises the collection as “pulp fiction”.
Might it all be a bit too racy for his Dubai audience, I wonder? This will be the first time he has discussed the stories in the Arab world. “My problem is I don’t know what the audience will be like,” he confesses. “When I last spoke at the Dubai literary festival five or six years ago, most of the audience were expats rather than Arabs, despite the fact I was speaking about the camel.”
The eponymous marvels are broadly envisioned. Here are mischievous djinn, powerful magic, perilous quests, surreal seafaring adventures, hidden treasures and otherworldly animals. Beyond the fantasy, the sexual scrapes and the female stereotypes – and bursts of what will strike the modern reader as downright racism – the cultural atmosphere of this world is decidedly enlightened, a telling contrast to the prevailing climate in much of the Middle East today. For this reader it recalls the astonishingly risqué, homoerotic verse of Abu Nuwas, who was writing in Baghdad during the eighth and ninth centuries.
“I think it reflects the remarkable tolerance of the time,” says Irwin. “In Baghdad you have a Sunni Muslim caliph being bossed around by Shia Buyid rulers. In Egypt it’s the other way round, with a Shia Fatimid caliph employing Sunni Muslims and Armenian Christians. It speaks of a time when people could be Sunni in some respects and Shia in others. And the stories demonstrate a remarkable interest in Christianity. With the exception of one story, there’s no marked prejudice against Christians, rather a fascination with them.”
Again there’s an obvious parallel with the Arabian Nights, which Irwin will be speaking about on February 7, examining its social commentary on the time. His interest in the text goes back many years. He says he was spurred on by the desire to understand something that was “doubly alien”, in terms of both language and religion, and also as distant history: it is thought the earliest stories, from Persia and India, date back to the early eighth century. “Its history is so dramatic, complicated and frankly still romantic, though that’s not a word that is fashionable at the moment.”
One of the more curious aspects of its history is how relatively long it took for this seminal text to be taken seriously as a work of literature within the region that engendered it.
“The Nights really languished for centuries in the Arab world. I don’t know when it ever really flourished,” Irwin says. “It wasn’t rated as a fine work of literature until the early 20th century – and even that was responding to the European enthusiasm.”
For Irwin the Nights has had possibly the most influence on western literature since the 18th century with the single exception of the Bible. Within the Arab world it was modern Egyptian writers who led the way in taking up the Nights, first through Tawfiq Al Hakim and Taha Hussein in the early part of the 20th century, later with the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. “Novelists and playwrights could see what was good about it but it still faced hostility from much of the intelligentsia, first of all because some of it was bawdy and it had a scurrilous approach to religion – leading to attempts to ban it. Secondly, because the Arabic is so poor. It’s not great fusha.”
In recent decades the intellectual climate has become more conducive to its proper recognition. Irwin himself played a major part in opening up the stories for critical appreciation with his Companion, published in 1994. The 2008 edition, which Irwin worked on with Malcolm Lyons, was the first English translation since Sir Richard Burton’s inevitably dated edition of 1885-88. “It’s really a wonderful subject to have been involved in. When I think of all the deadbeat things I could have done, I’m really lucky.”
You can sense the influence again on Irwin’s latest projects. Returning to fiction, he is working on two novels. One is about the German cinema industry in the 1930s and 1940s, with the rise of Nazism and propaganda to the fore, the other is set during the Wars of the Roses in 15th-century England. “It’s about western storytelling, Arthur, Chanson de Roland, the relationship between storytelling and propaganda and lying.”
In his final talk in Dubai, on February 9 – sit up and listen, all aspiring writers – Irwin will be offering advice on that thorniest of problems: how to get published.
“I will give what advice I can,” he says, trying not to sound too pessimistic. “It’s so difficult to get published these days. It’s never been easy and it’s got harder and harder. It’s a little like [the Noël Coward song] Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington.”
Irwin generally prefers not to be drawn on the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East. “I’m desperately trying not to be a pundit. I always say I speak as an expert on the old manuscripts of the Arabian Nights.” When pushed, he admits he finds it “intensely depressing”, likening the current crisis to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. “I think things will settle down – it’ll just take decades.”
Then, as if to provide a caveat to his own analysis, he says he’s currently working on a talk about all the people who have got it wrong on the Middle East since 1945, from those who prophesied “Islam would wither and become secular and socialist” to those who forecast the domino democratisation of the Arab Spring. Pundits, you have been warned. - Justin Marozzi

review by Alex Buxton
There once was a king afflicted by a terrible sadness. His name was Shahriyar. “He had a hundred concubines, but none had given him a son. He had sent agents to buy him slave girls but whether he stayed with them a day, a night or a year, not one of them would conceive. The wide world shrank in his eyes as, whatever greatness he had achieved, he had no son.”
So begins the English version of Julnar of the Sea and the Marvels of the Sea Encountered by Her, the sixth of 18 stories contained in a collection of Arab medieval fantasy called Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. Translated into English for the first time, and newly available to millions of readers, the tales open a window on to the enduring preoccupations and wild imaginings of the medieval mind.
Translation is an art, a question of stepping lightly between accuracy and context, tuned to the slightest nuances of meaning and association. When Malcolm Lyons, former Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Pembroke College, embarked on the task of bringing these age-old stories to life for the modern reader, he had behind him some six decades of scholarship as an academic deeply interested in the interconnections between civilisations and cultures.
The process of taking an Arabic text and transforming it into accessible English did not daunt Lyons. In his retirement from teaching at the Faculty of Classics and later at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, he has continued working. With his wife Ursula Lyons (Emeritus Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College), he produced a translation of The Thousand and One Nights (published by Penguin Classics in 2008). He is currently working on translations of early Arab tribal epics.
The process of translating Tales of the Marvellous took Lyons 18 months of intensive work at his desk at home in a thatched cottage just outside Cambridge. How difficult was it? “As a student, you’re taught to translate each word with precision. But if you set about translating a story word by word, the resulting text would be dull or demented, or both. As I’ve got older, I’ve become more flexible. The purpose of stories is to speak to the reader so you need to bring them alive while remaining faithful to the spirit of the story,” says Lyons.
The backstory of Tales of the Marvellous is suitably exotic: there is just one copy in the original Arabic, a fabulously precious but battered volume of some 600 handwritten pages held by the mosque of Aya Sofya in Istanbul. The book was discovered in 1933 on the shelves of the mosque’s library by Hellmut Ritter, a German Arabist. Ritter brought its existence to the attention of the academic world but he never translated the stories contained within its fragile and worm-eaten pages.
Scholars following the clues contained in the text believe that Tales of the Marvellous were compiled in the 10th century. Many of the stories in the collection have yet earlier origins. The manuscript itself, imperfectly transcribed in 'vulgar style' in Egypt or Syria, is likely to date from the 14th century or later.  When the book was discovered 80 years ago, it was incomplete: it has no cover and its contents page suggests that there were originally many more stories.
Tales of the Marvellous is thought to be the work of Muslim authors. But its ebb and flow of stories – and stories within stories – mix themes found in Islam, Christianity and paganism. With no boundaries between fact and fiction, reality is suspended. A virgin sleeps with a prince but, when he encounters her again, she is still a virgin; crocodiles have pearls in their ears; bronze statues move and speak. Many of the themes known to storytellers and modern film-makers are found in these pages: love unrequited, the jealousy of siblings, the search for novelty and lust for luxury, the blindness that comes with greed, whether for sex or power.
These are tales brimming with superlatives - jewels, camels and slaves are measured in hundreds and thousands. Yet just when the reader is dizzy with excess the narrative skids to a halt with words of wisdom that travel down the centuries. In Julnar and the Sea, Shahriyar gets the son he has longed for and realises that he will have to cede this throne. He quotes from the poet: “When something is completed, its decline begins;/Say “it is finished” and it starts to fade.” Life is fragile, nothing is permanent.
The cast of players who feature in Tales of the Marvellous takes in the full gamut of the medieval world, both real and imagined – from kings to slaves, from mermaids to shape-shifting jinn. Craftsmen make frequent appearances: among them tailors, cooks, barbers and greengrocers. Stereotypes abound (women are duplicitous; strangers are ugly and wicked; black men are as big as buffalos) and the text is liberally splattered with blood and gore (heads are lopped off, women are raped).
Many of these characters would have been familiar to early audiences and some of the same stories (including Julnar and the Sea) feature in The Thousand and One Nights, a later and much better known compilation. But there are some surprises too. “My favourite among novel characters is the devil in The Story of Shul and Shumul who, uniquely for the devil as far as I know, offers to do a good deed and restore a kidnapped bride back to her prospective husband. The would-be astrologer, helped at one point by a little bird and a locust, in The Story of Abu Disa is also unknown elsewhere,” says Lyons.
Quests are tried-and-tested narratives that bring with them ample possibility for transformations, strange encounters, extraordinary happenings, and travel to exotic islands and beyond. Lyons says: “The notion of transformation was a familiar one – as shown in stories told by the writers Ovid and Apuleius. The sea is a key to wonderment: you can’t see what might be on the other side of it and you can’t take your camels there to find out. So the imagination can run wild.”
The narrative of Julnar and the Sea unfolds in a roller-coaster of twists and turns. Shahriyar gets his girl and Julnar, a sea princess of stunning beauty, gives him a splendid son named Badr.  When Badr grows up, he too needs a bride. Who is good enough for an invincible rider and dangerous fighter, a man destined to succeed as leader?  The quest for a bride takes Badr over land and sea, a tumultuous journey in which he is turned into a red-legged stork and a scheming queen becomes a mule. The happy-ever-after ending comes when Badr weds Jauhara, daughter of the supreme king of the sea, after which “they all lived the best, most pleasant, comfortable and untroubled of lives”.
Tales of the Marvellous benefits from an excellent introduction by Robert Irwin, the historian who quietly persuaded Lyons to undertake the translation. In his references to the craft of story-making, Irvin skips nimbly from other Arab stories to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and a cartoon series in the New York Evening Post called Ripley Believe It or Not. Discussing classic tricks of the story teller’s trade, he alludes to Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in which Peter’s mother says: “You may go into the field or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden.” The reader wants, and doesn’t want, Peter to disobey his mother.
What should we make of Tales of the Marvellous, now that six centuries have passed since a scribe sat down with a sharpened quill and ink pot to copy them out on to sheets of parchment? Irwin concludes that the collection is not simply one of folklore; the stories do not read as if they come solely from an oral tradition.  He argues that Tales of the Marvellous should be regarded as an early example of literature – perhaps the very first case of pulp fiction.
Does the translator agree with this description? “I have to admit that I’m not an expert on pulp fiction as I haven’t read any. As a boy I was brought up on stories of fairy mounds and water horses in the Scottish Highlands as well as the Grey Man who follows climbers on the slopes of Ben Macdhui in the Cairngorms,” says Lyons. “It’s certainly true that Tales of the Marvellous wouldn’t get any prizes for literature but nor were they designed to. They are entertainment for audiences of all ages and transport us to places where anything can happen.”
- See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/a-book-of-strange-and-wonderful-tales-and-its-eminent-translator#sthash.DhOlVA53.dpuf

Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray - These volumes constitute a unique experiment in design and composition as well as content. The mingling of texts and the juxtaposition of different areas of knowledge represented in a variety of forms express the dynamics of a world in change


Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray, Ed. by Katrin Klingan, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol and Bernd M. Scherer, MIT Press, 2015.

We have entered the Anthropocene era -- a geological age of our own making, in which what we have understood to be nature is made by man. We need a new way to understand the dynamics of a new epoch. These volumes offer writings that approach the Anthropocene through the perspectives of grain, vapor, and ray -- the particulate, the volatile, and the radiant. The first three volumes -- each devoted to one of the three textures -- offer a series of paired texts, with contemporary writers responding to historic writings. A fourth volume offers a guide to the project as a whole.
Grain: Granular materials add up to concrete forms; insignificant specks accumulate into complex entities. The texts in this volume narrate some of the fundamental qualities of the granular. In one pairing of texts, Robert Smithson compares the accumulation of thoughts to the aggregation of sediment, and an environmental historian writes about the stakes for earthly knowledge today. Other authors include Alfred Russel Wallace, Denis Diderot, and Georges Bataille.
Vapor: The vaporous represents matter's transformations. In this volume, a political scientist compares Kafka's haunting "Odradek" to "vibrant matter"; a media theorist responds to poems and diagrams by Buckminster Fuller; and more, including texts by Hippocrates, Italo Calvino, and James Clerk Maxwell.
Ray: A ray is an act of propagation and diffusion, encompassing a chain of interdependencies between energy and matter. This volume includes texts by Spinoza (with a reconceptualization by a contemporary philosopher), Jacques Lacan (followed by an anthropologist's reflections on temporality), Thomas Pynchon (accompanied by an interpretation of Pynchon's "electro-mysticism"), and others.
These volumes constitute a unique experiment in design and composition as well as content. The mingling of texts and the juxtaposition of different areas of knowledge represented in a variety of forms express the dynamics of a world in change.

Allegorithms - Oscillating between the algorithmic & the representational, the human agent navigates its environmental niche in a way which is conducive to its further psychological, social, & biological existence

Allegorithms , ed. by Vít Bohal & Dustin  Breitling, Litteraria Pragensia, 2017. Contributors: Alexander R. Galloway, Marco Donnarumma...