Signs Preceding the End of the World is the modestly unassuming, deceptively short second novel by Yuri Herrera, a Mexican writer and professor of literature now based in the United States. In this thin paperback with a simple black and white cover, he’s packed a dense and colourful world. Woven into a fast-paced narrative adventure is a powerful and poignant depiction of that complicated world-in-becoming whose bloody and fertile veins run through the US-Mexican border.
It’s remarkable what Herrera has accomplished in a short novel of just over 100 pages. In that span he packs a tightly-written plot: Makina, a young Mexican woman, is ordered by her mother to sneak across the US border in search of her brother, who has disappeared. To do so, she seeks the help of a local criminal gang, who agree to help her if she takes on a mission for them, too. In Makina, Herrera has created a remarkable and endearing character: self-assured, plucky, confident, capable of handling herself in a crisis yet still eminently human and full of fears and desires of her own.
Herrera accomplishes a lot more than just an exciting short novel, however. He casts bare the essence of the border zone where the action takes place. It’s more than just a border: what Herrera reveals is that the fraught US-Mexican borderland has become a space of its own, spanning both sides of the border, with shifting dangers and villains and friends and foes in each of its corners. Yet they’re all interconnected, in a web spanning both countries. Herrera portrays this complex terrain with expansive and evocative depth; not just its dangers but its warmth; its brutality and violence but also its humour and its kindnesses. In a hundred pages he succeeds in portraying this world in greater depth and complexity than other authors manage in books many times its size.
Complexity is woven into the fabric of this work. It’s not just about Mexicans and Americans; not just about latinos and anglos. African-Americans demand an existence in this space as well, as do gays and lesbians and Arabs, too. In a borderland inhabited by soldiers who travel regularly to other borderlands, the border becomes more than just one between two countries; it becomes the intersection point of many.
Herrera’s ability to weave together intersecting injustices and identities is profound. An example – one of the book’s most striking – is Makina’s off-hand observation of a gay and lesbian wedding, as she pursues her missing brother’s trail. She reflects on the ‘Happy Family’ she always hears about but never sees: “never had she known a Happy Family of the sort people talked about… She’d seen people who’d run off to save their families and others who’d run off to be saved from them. Families full of endless table chat as easygoing as families that loved each other without words.”
Yet here in front of her is a paradox: truly Happy couples (“she felt moved by how many tears were being shed, like flowers from their eyes”), couples who were free from “the tedious smugness of so-called normal marriages”, who nevertheless feel their happiness requires formality. “What she couldn’t understand was why the ring, the official, the godparents mattered so… It must be, she thought, that they know other marriages, good ones where people don’t split up, where fathers don’t leave and they each keep speaking to the other. That must be why they’re so happy, and don’t mind imitating people who’ve always despised them.”
But then another possibility presents itself. She, who has crossed a border illegally and is dodging the police and criminals alike as she searches for a brother who also crossed illegally, realizes that papers do matter in this world, and perhaps they matter for the gay and lesbian couples, as well: “perhaps they just want the papers, she said to herself, any kind of papers, even if it’s only to fit in; maybe being different gets old after a while.”
For gay and lesbian couples and Mexican immigrant workers alike, papers matter, and offer the affirmation of an identity both sought and denied. This is an example of the sort of connections Herrera draws. The gay and lesbian wedding is peripheral to the main course of the action, yet it’s central to the book, with its masterful portrayal of the complexity of belonging and the yearning for recognition. Even America’s wars in the Middle East make their presence felt. Perhaps that’s why the book succeeds in feeling so real in so few pages; those pages are skillfully crafted to reflect the broad range of complicated and contradictory diversities which define our actual existence.
Signs Preceding the End of the World is a novel about motion, in every sense of the word. Easily readable in a single sitting, it’s hard to put down simply because it propels the reader along, picking up pace and accelerating with each twist of plot. The reader feels, at the end, as though they’re catching their breath. It’s unusual for a novel so full of evocative symbolism and imagery to also possess such a fast-paced plot; Herrera manages both most capably. On the one hand, the reader is gripped with the mystery of Makina’s brother and her efforts to follow the thin trail of clues he’s left behind. At the same time, violence can erupt from any corner to derail the solving of this mystery: white police officers lining people up based on race and forcing them to perform indignities at gunpoint; armed gangsters who may or may not be on her side; ranchers out hunting for border-crossers (especially those infringing on the ranchers’ own border-crossing rackets).
The violent anarchy of America’s border states are depicted in vivid and powerful prose. It’s not a didactic portrayal; the police and the gangs and the insecure, angry men are just another hurdle to get past in the pursuit of one’s daily life in such a place (or in Makina’s case, the mission to find her brother). Enemies are ubiquitous; allies and friends appear unexpectedly; enemies morph into allies.
Language plays a central role in the book. As she wanders the streets searching for her brother, Makina warms to the strange yet familiar voices around her: “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 this uneasy borderland where many people speak both tongues and consider one or the other to be perfect, it’s the imperfections that resonate. “Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound… 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.”
Herrera’s style echoes the new hybrid tongue of his protagonists. Imagery drips with baroque power tersely restrained; plot hovers on the edge of the magical, but never slides over, clinging instead to a stubborn frame of anglo-noir realism.
Herrera does more than write about borders: he chronicles the ‘becoming’ that is occurring in these spaces. Border-writing itself suggests a space limited by its own delineation; an in-between, rather than a becoming. What Herrera’s work engages is all those “new things” that come after (and from) the border; the becoming of a “world happening anew”. The border – its violence, the love and hate and fear that stretches tenuously across it—gives birth to something new on both sides. Herrera situates himself as the chronicler of this new world, and offers a magnificent tale in its telling.
On the topic of language, Herrera’s translator Lisa Dillman contributes a useful commentary at the end discussing the challenges of translating a work like Signs Preceding the End of the World into English. The original was written in Spanish, but also draws on a range of slang, dialect, other languages and even invented words and neologisms. An example is the invented verb ‘jarchar’, which Herrera uses in the original Spanish version of the book as a verb meaning ‘to leave’. But it’s derived from a term in Arabic poetry (a hybrid Islamic Iberian term from medieval Spain, to be precise) for the final refrain of a particular style of poem. It’s a magnificently appropriate word: of complex transnational origin and referring symbolically to an ‘exit’ that is more profound than simply leaving a room. But how to translate this invented verb? Dillman eventually renders it in English as ‘verse’: “she opened the door and versed.” Or: “The man’s skin was weather-beaten but pleasing to the touch, warm even though he’d only just versed from the water.”
The use of invented language doesn’t render the book unreadable, as is often the case with experimental novels. Quite the opposite: it infuses the prose with a uniquely attractive flow and rhythm, and the book maintains a very readable balance of words and languages, which is a testament to the talents of both author and translator.
For those who think literature can reveal things to us about the world in which we live, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a profoundly important book, and one of the few such works to also have the distinction of being a profoundly enjoyable book. It’s a deeply satisfying tale whose only drawback is that it’s so painfully short; it verses out of the reader’s life just as they’ve started feeling connected. But that’s the way of the world it describes. The unsettling warmth it provokes will linger, though, and for that we may be grateful.
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