Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (Señales que precederán al fin del mundo, 2009) translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman And Other Stories (2015) 114 pp
Yesterday, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, a Dante-esque exploration of the experience of Mexican immigrants crossing to the United States, won the Best Translated Book Award for books published in 2015, and I consider it a deserving winner of my favorite book award.
The premise of the story is fairly simple. As with so many great books, it’s so much more about how the story is told than it is about the story itself. Our narrator is the young Makina. Some time prior to the opening pages of the novel, Makina’s brother went north to claim land left to the family, as reported by a local gang leader, by their long-gone father. Makina’s mother is tired of waiting for the brother to return, so she sends Makina to fetch him. Makina takes a fascinating trip from her village to “the Big Chilango” (Mexico City, presumably), to the Rio Grande by bus, across the river, and into the desert. The trip, though, takes on the qualities of a journey through the Underworld.
In the opening paragraph of the book we are still in Makina’s village, a community set up around and over an exploited silver mine, and we get a glimpse at the Underworld:
I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a can was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.
The book itself is divided in to nine sections, “The Earth,” “The Water Crossing,” “The Place Where Hills Meet,” “The Obsidian Mound,” “The Place Where the Wind Cuts like a Knife,” “The Place Where Flags Wave,” “The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten,” “The Snake That Lies in Wait,” and “The Obsidian Place with No Windows or Holes for the Smoke.” I didn’t know this until it was pointed out to me over on our Goodreads forum, but these sections are fashioned after the nine underworlds of Aztec mythology: after the earth we have the River and Yellow Dog, Two Mountains, Obsidian Mountain, Bitter Wind, Banners, Arrows, Wild Beast, Narrow Place, and, finally, Soul at Rest.
These connections to the Aztec Underworld and, by extension, to Dante’s Inferno are not the only ways Herrera creates a mythic tone with this young girl’s journey north; we also get splashes of Odysseus and Orpheus, and I’m sure many others. By referencing these we not only get the mythic tone; we also sense something primal, almost pre-language. Makina’s journey is one of sensation. Never do we hear the word Mexico, United States, Spanish, or English. Rather, Makina’s world, the one falling under her, is more basic, without being less sophisticated.
And so, Signs Preceding the End of the World is also a book about language itself. The world is transforming under and around Makina; some of this is because the world is becoming new around her, due to language:
Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes: promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, but there they are, doing their damnedest.
It’s fascinating, beautifully explored and rendered. But I don’t want to make this book sound distant or too philosophical to bear weight of the real, current issues. Makina’s brother is a real person who really crossed the border illegally and who has really become lost in a land he doesn’t understand and that does not want to accept him. Herrera doesn’t let this get lost in the text — the text strengthens the battle of the soul, and how that soul may be lost. Here is a particularly moving passage, and I love that Herrera manages to make it concrete and liminal:
Her brother had sent two or three messages back with assorted migrants on their way home. Two or three and not two, or three; Makina couldn’t say for sure because after the first one the one that followed and maybe one more were the same old story.
The first one said:
I haven’t found the land yet, but it won’t be long now, you’ll see.
Everything’s so stiff here, it’s all numbered and people look at you in the eye but they don’t say anything when they do.
The celebrate here, too, but they don’t dance or pray, it’s not in honor of anyone. The only real big celebration is the turkey feast, which is a good one because all you do is eat and eat.
It’s really lonely here, but there’s lots of stuff. I’m going to bring you some when I come. I just have to take care of this and then I’ll be back, you’ll see.
The second one didn’t mention the country or the land or his plans. It said:
I’m fine, I have a job now.
And the third, if it existed, might’ve made the same claim, this way:
I said I was fine so stop asking.
This is a powerful book, and one that has grown in power since I finished it the first time. Indeed, its themes and images crept up on me so strongly after I put it down that I picked it up and went through it again for this review. I sense that I’ll want to read it again this weekend.