March 2015

P T Smith


Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman

Begin by unsettling. Let the reader know they should be wary, ready for realism to collapse. This is the mood of the opening scene of Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World. The first line, "I'm dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched," is an impossibility, consciousness of one's own state in death, unless the book takes flight into fantasy, perspective from the afterlife. Makina is not dead, but the earth around her is collapsing, a sinkhole opens, threatening to take her in. Her Mexican town, called only Little Town, is built over mines, sloppily covered, and openings of the earth are not uncommon. Makina barely flinches, a trait of hers, accepting "the earth's insanity." That this sinkhole is more than the physical is the greatest warning that, when we move on in the novel, we shouldn't take its reality for granted, as stable. The earth doesn't just swallow a man, car, and dog, but "the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby." This is a gravity greater than earth's norm. Incidents, phrasings that suggest the novel could shift to another realm continue. They are pregnant with potentiality, and tension of potentiality is one of life's great pleasures, even, especially, in the discomfort that comes with it. It creates only one of the ways that Signs Preceding the End of the World holds you in rapture.

The certainties around Makina are few. She's a woman, seemingly young, in Mexico, with a mother and brother. Her brother left for the US to claim land that local thugs told the family was left to them by a man, possibly the father who abandoned them. He hasn't returned, and Makina, with the help of the town's three gang leaders, is crossing into the US to find him, intending to bring him home. That Signs is a book of movement, of crossings, plays into the feelings of unsettledness. The presence of constant moving is in the language that Herrara uses. In Lisa Dillman's translator's note (and what a wonderful thing to have, if only more books included one), she details her translation of "jarchas" as "to verse," a version of leaving. When Makina "verses," as she often does, she is leaving a situation, but with a sense of the linguistic, a poetic bridging from one moment to another, more than a physical departure, more than an ending.

Signs is a novel of language, meant to be translated because it is so aware of the journeys language takes, from one to another, and within their boundaries. Makina is at the center of that, working as the switchboard operator for the only phone in her village. It's a job of relaying messages, but also makes her a speaker of tongues, knowing "native" and "latin" tongue, while also speaking "anglo," and more importantly, knowing "how to keep quiet in all three." She is aware that how people say things matters as much as what they say. To the knowing power and transformations of a trickster figure, Makina adds goodwill and kindness, looking out for others, even those that have wronged her.

It's possible to see Makina as passive in her interactions with others. When encountering "a hood whose honeyed words she'd spurned," who others said "offed a woman, among other things," she doesn't react, didn't seem to when he pursued her, so the condemnation, the anger, is left to us, as she doesn't give voice to it. She doesn't react to much, neither physically, nor verbally, but it is not detachment. It's a reserve, a deep and protected interior -- it's up to the reader to see the self that she preserves. In this pocket self, Makina is slick, seeing and escaping troubling situations, conversations full of manipulations of power, without seeming to do much at all, but we know that Makina can "smell the evil in the air."

This way of hers isn't out of the realm of realism by any means, but were she to have a vision, to show more tricks than what is normal to the world, it wouldn't be shocking. Makina is a character to admire, and even fear a little, or to be awed by when she does act, as it is with power. To get across the border, she takes a bus to a border town, where she'll stay with others, room overflowing, looking to cross, where they may save themselves or be taken advantage of. She notices two men, one who "didn't brush against her but felt her up with his breath." There it is again: something unsettling, ephemeral, but so close to base experience that it is familiar, too. Makina herself brings out the strength of physical consequence: he sits next to her, lets his hand glance against her thigh, and she grabs the hand, breaks his middle finger. The conversation with him after is incredibly badass, and utterly honest, simple, and calm. Later, she sees the men again, and with compassion tinted by the same coldness and simplicity, warns them that the people looking to help them cross will trick them. She'll move like this the whole way, under threat, but protected, a threat, but stepping out to help others. Her language too, in a moving, sweeping vision of immigration, comes to save people.

This slippery world lives in her way of being, in the language of versing, in the dislocations of place, and in the descriptions of the physical realm Makina moves in. Snow is called "weightless crystals raining down." That's accurate, of course. Snow is made of crystals, they are practically weightless, but the combination of those two, and more importantly, the "raining," a verb I've never seen applied to snow, makes it other at the same time, fittingly so, as this is Makina's first time seeing snow. Signs Preceding the End of the World is a novel of liminal being: snow and rain, water in two forms, exist in the same sentence, at the same time; Makina's languages overlap, conversations happen in anglo and latin at the same time; she journeys between two lands, both so clearly known to one another, yet so other.

Moving to the other side and returning will change a person, or change the original place. "[W]hen he came back it turned out that everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters were no longer his brothers and sisters." When she crosses, it could be into another world entirely -- underneath, that use of "alien" to apply to people from another country lurks. She is meeting aliens; she is an alien.

But her life never fully slips from our world, remains outside of the usual perception of our lives, flickering at the corner of our eyes. That she is risking her life to save her brother cannot be forgotten. As she plays detective, seeking him out in the world of immigrant workers, legal and illegal -- "around the edges of the abyss," the back doors of restaurants as her entrance -- we know that the truth of his fate will be impossible for his family to ignore, whatever it is.

When his life's path is uncovered, it too is in rhythm with the strange, shifty, beating heart of the novel, where, at least for those of us whose lives couldn't resemble those in the novel, see another reality, ever overlapping our own. Herrera and Dillman build this sensation carefully, felt even by those aware of these other experiences. For all of this, stitching the novel together, are those protected depths of Makina, the emotions she carefully guards. When she parts again from her brother, we see why she lives this way:

He leaned in toward her, and as he gave her a hug said Give Cora a kiss from me. He said it the same way he gave her a hug, like it wasn't his sister he was hugging, like it wasn't his mother he was sending a kiss to, but just a polite platitude. Like he was ripping out her heart, like he was cleanly extracting it and placing it in a plastic bag and storing it in the fridge to eat later.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories
ISBN: 978-1908276421
128 pages