Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
(High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: And Other Stories, 2015)
How do we survive in a world so hollowed out that it occasionally devours its own? Makina, the protagonist of Yuri Herrera’s borderlands novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World, has a special gift for sensing the movement between realms, both external and interior: sitting in a steam room with one of the local ‘top dogs’ whose help she seeks to cross to the Big Chilango, “she could hear all the water in her body making its way through her skin to the surface.” The book opens with a powerful, ominous sign: the literal end of the world for a man, a dog, and a cat, who are swallowed up when a sinkhole tears apart the road.
This is a novel of carefully rendered details, given to the reader gracefully, as if they are simple or casual observations. Colors jump off the page, surprising bright spots of garish hope splattered on the walls of buildings, made of the “edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint.” In Makina, Herrera has created a medium of sorts to process all of the messages carved in landscapes both natural and man-made, a young woman whose curiosity is like a finely tuned antenna. In her life before her journey north to search for her brother who has been gone for three years, Makina is the local switchboard operator, a literal carrier of messages in three languages. She does her work by four rules, among them that “You are the door, not the one who walks through it.” It’s her discretion that has earned Makina the respect of everyone who relies on her as a conduit; she (wo)mans the only telephone for miles around.
Her journey from Mexico to the United States – although neither geopolitical term is used, they are unmistakable – takes place in nine chapters named for how a place looks, its geographical features, or how it makes us feel, such as “The Place Where The Hills Meet” and “The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten.” On the northern side of the border, in the section “The Place Where The Wind Cuts Like A Knife,” the people don’t speak a clearly defined language,
They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between 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.
The brilliance of this novel is that, as grounded as it is in physical experiences, it is this psychological space that it most inhabits. Before he leaves the Village for the Big Chilango to claim some land that possibly belonged to his father, Makina’s brother hesitates. Neither his mother nor his sister believes he should make the journey, or that there is anything to claim. That hesitation and uncertainty is almost a universal experience in the world Herrera shows us: “in the doubt flickering in his eyes you could see he’d spent his whole life there like that…”
This is a world we urgently need to see, where one can believe she is approaching a pregnant woman safely resting under the shade of a tree only to discover the person has been left for dead and the bulge is not a child, but the bloat of a decaying body “swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards.” Makina is street-smart, but still optimistic and naïve enough that among the few things she packs for the dangerous trip to see her brother is a colorful blouse, “in case she came across any parties.” Instead, she is shot at and encounters a gang of criminals in a tunnel before finally finding her brother.
And when she does, he is no longer living as her brother, but as someone else. Despite its darkness, this book is made radiant by its language and Makina’s sheer determination to make sense of what unfolds around her. Her first encounter with snow is an occasion to marvel at the fragility and wonder of what often seems solid and permanent. When it comes, the ending is that rarity found only in masterpieces, one that arrives as both surprise and inevitability.
A novel whose thinness belies its depth, Signs Preceding the End of the World makes me rejoice that more of Herrerra’s work will soon be published for English readers. It is such a blessing that this work, first published in Spanish six years ago, has made the crossing.
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Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was notable in Best American Essays 2011. Her work has been published by America, Killing the Buddha, Narratively, Real Pants, and Words Without Borders’ Dispatches, among other places. She is the founder of literary journal Hypothetical. Find her online at @CMMOB and www.cynthiamarieobrien.com.