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, 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.