Signs Preceding the End of the World is Mexican writer Yuri Herrera’s first book to appear in English translation, courtesy of And Other Stories. It’s a novel of thresholds and permeable borders, but it begins with holes: a sinkhole that forms as the protagonist, Makina, is watching, in a town “riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust.” This is an opening scene which fuses the upheavals of nature with human violence and greed, underlining the instability that runs throughout Herrera’s novel.
Makina has a message to take to her brother, who crossed the border to the US three years earlier. But her English-language skills are also useful to others, and when she visits three gangsters for help with the journey, she is given another package to carry across the border. There’s a clear sense in these visits that Makina is entering places where she does not belong; but there’s also a sense of pragmatism, as the following phrases plucked from the text demonstrate:
You don’t lift other people’s petticoats…
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business…
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot…
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.
Makina’s ability to be that door is what allows her entry into the gangsters’ world, because she can travel on from there into worlds to which the gangsters themselves cannot gain access. This is reflected in the fluidity of Herrera’s prose: Lisa Dillman’s translation is full of sinuous sentences that seem to spread beyond their edges; here, for example, is Makina recollecting her past crossings:
Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn’t get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon; or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces.
The clauses clambering over and into one other here demand attention; coupled with the shifting meanings of the word “lost,” this adds to the urgency of prose—as well as an underlying reality—that’s endlessly mutable.
If the text of Signs is fuzzy, so is its geography. The places in Makina’s journey are anonymous: she enters the US rowing across a river in the dead of night; her first sights in the other country are blank hills and desert, and, lying under a tree, the figure of what appears to be a pregnant woman, but turns out to be a decomposing corpse. The effect created by all this is not the dark excitement of a thriller, but the grimness of entering into a nightmare.
It’s not entirely disorienting, though. The city may be a Babel of sights and sounds, but Makina surveys it with the eye of a seasoned observer:
(I)t was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.
Makina is not of this place, yet that is exactly what allows her, in some ways, to understand it better than the inhabitants—the cultural boundaries of this world, as well as the geographical ones, are open to her. Those who’ve settled or were born in the US represent an even greater level of commingling:
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.
In a novel which explores how boundaries may blur, here is a boundary which has dissolved. Makina recognizes that she is seeing something new—new ways of thinking, new ways of engaging with the world—in this commingling of languages. She will also discover that, though she can go further than many, there are some boundaries which she cannot cross.
At the beginning of Signs Preceding the End of the World, Makina is relieved not to fall into a sinkhole; at its end, she is taken into a subterranean chamber to begin the next stage of her journey—it’s a literal descent into the underworld, rounding off what has at times felt like a metaphorical journey there for the protagonist. Herrera’s novel ends with the sense that there are new borders to be crossed; the book’s restlessness persists. And Other Stories is planning to publish translations of two more novels by Herrera; we’ll have to wait a while for the next, but we can still re-read Signs, and that is something I can’t wait to do.