Signs Preceding The End Of The World is a strange book that seems to operate on several different levels. It’s partly a straightforward ‘real-world’ narrative of a quest that involves illegally crossing the border between Mexico and the USA. But Yuri Herrera’s narrative suggests that we’re in an unreal world, a mythical underground full of shadowy gangsters and cartel bosses through which a heroine must navigate to fulfil her challenge.
The main character is a tough young woman called Makina; she’s street-wise, knows how to defend herself and has learned to take everything in her stride. Her more gullible brother has gone AWOL having crossed the border to take control of some land once owned by a long absent father. Now her mother sends her on a mission to find him and bring him home. She makes the crossing with the aid of the drug lord Mr Aitch, a “reptile in pants” who, in return for his help, wants Makina to deliver a package.
In less than 100 pages, Herrera’s narrative traces Makina’s journey across Mexico to reach the Rio Grande which she crosses at night in an inner tube. Along the way we get her observations on life across the US border. The supermarket is full of stuff “you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand ” but all the “anglos” look miserable and wooden. Baseball she dismisses as a game the anglos play “to celebrate who they are”, where one player whacks a ball and sets off “like it was a trip around the world.”
The most telling observations come when she encounters people who were lured from Mexico by the promise of a better life. They relinquished their identities and broke from their families but have ended up relegated to menial jobs, despised by the locals and treated with hostility. In one memorable encounter, Makina confronts an American policeman over his racist, vilifying attitude towards her compatriots:
We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anaemic. We the barbarians.
The prose in Signs Preceeding The End Of The World is wrily humorous but also colloquial, lyrical and elliptical. None of the locations are ever named for example. Makina lives in the “Village”. travels to “Little Town” and onto “the Big Chilango” (which I think is Mexico City). One word kept tripping me up: Makina often the word “verse” as a verb. She “versed” after her first meeting with one of the gangsters; then “versed out” from a casino. An encounter with a woman in the shared bathroom of a hotel, ends: “The woman smiled, said Thanks, hon, put the lipstick back and versed.”
It wasn’t until I discovered Lisa Dillman’s translator’s notes at the back of the book that the meaning of “verse'” became clearer. She explains that in Herrera’s original text he uses the word ‘jarchas’ to convey the idea of exit or departure. She decided on “to verse” because of its connotation with other verbs involving motion and communication, such as traverse, reverse and converse but also because it signifies “the “end” of the uni-verse.”
That made sense in the context of the narrative although there were many other aspects of this book that I didn’t full grasp.
The allusion to the myth of the underworld was clear: the book opens in dramatic fashion with a sink hole that swallows a man, a car, a dog and “even the screams of passersby”) and the Rio Grande is a reference to the river Styx that in Greek mythology was a border to the Underworld. The reviewer for the Guardian spotted other allusions to Odysseus and Orpheus that I completely missed however.
Even so I still enjoyed the book. Yuri Herrera’s narrative takes a plot involving a physical crossing of a border and spins from it into questions about other forms of transition and transformation.
The people from Mexico who have crossed to the US end up in a state of limbo. They don’t belong to their adopted home but neither can they go back. Even their language has had to evolve into an “intermediary tongue” . Makina sees that by remaining in the US herself, she will gain a new identity on paper but will lose some of the things that matter to her most;
There she was with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I’ve been skinned, she whispered.
Signs Preceding The End Of The World by Yuri Herrera: Footnotes
Yuri Herrera is considered one of Mexico’s foremost contemporary authors. Signs Preceding the End of the World, was his second novel but the first to be published in English via the British independent press And Other Stories in 2015 with translation by Lisa Dillman. It won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Yuri Herrera is currently teaching at Tulane University, in New Orleans.
I read this book for Novellas in November 2021 hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. I’m counting it as book number 47 in my World of Literature project and book 27 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.