Signs Preceding the End of the World is one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages - one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.
Herrera's first book to be translated into English tells the story of a border-crossing from Mexico into the U.S. Makina is a young woman asked by her mother to deliver an envelope to her brother, who crossed over into the U.S. three years earlier and has only sent a few cryptic pieces of correspondence since. The story opens with a man, a car, and a dog swallowed up by a sinkhole, a product of over-mining the land for silver ("These things always happen to someone else, until they happen to you," Makina thinks). Her journey is presented starkly, like a fable: she first connects with three "top dogs" to help transport her, and one of them gives her an additional package to deliver on her trip as part of the deal, then proceeds to complete her task systematically. Indeed, the nine short chapters tell a very straightforward quest story, and Herrera plants dangerous criminals and vigilant border patrollers around every corner. But it's the imagery, by turns moving and nightmarish, that makes this brief book memorable. A climactic scene occurs in an "obsidian place with no windows or holes for the smoke." And at one point along the way Makina finds nothing but a barren locale populated by excavators digging in the earth, a place so alien and desolate it could be found in science fiction: "Whatever once was there had been pulled out by the roots, expelled from this world; it no longer existed." This is a haunting book that delivers a strange, arresting experience.
A harrowing novel about life on the border!
Signs Preceding The End of The World by Yuri Herrera is the first novel about the US-Mexico Border I can remember reading. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy years ago but it did not deal directly with the current issues about the border.
This book came to my attention during the controversy surrounding the novel American Dirt by Jeanne Cummins earlier this year. I have not read American Dirt so I can not make a direct comment about the novel’s quality. But it did make quite a stir in the Latinx Publishing community about lack of representation in traditional publishing while a novel like that one gets major press and recognition. Also, I attended a conference here locally in San Antonio discussing the issues that American Dirt presents about the border and Latinos in general. I learned about Signs Preceding The End of The World from that conference and several websites that provided alternative recommendations to read.
Herrera’s novel is only nine chapters and tells the story of Makina. She leaves her life back in Mexico to cross the border in search of her brother. Makina has a couple of messages: one from her mother and the other from the Mexican Underworld. The story reveals the dangers in crossing the border and violence that is enacted in order to pursue freedom.
I will admit that I could not fully embrace Makina as a protagonist. The reading experience was like watching someone from a distance and having a huge plexiglass separating me from the protagonist. The translation by Lisa Dillman felt authentic with Mexican slang like jefecita (little boss) and yond (over there) as examples. However, I reached the ending and wanted more story. It ended so abruptly that I thought I had missed something.
I’m glad that I read Signs Preceding the End of the World. It opened my eyes to world that gets sensationalized on Cable News TV shows and revealed the lengths that people will go through to pursue a better life.
It’s an ok book