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Yuri Herrera’s Apocalyptic Quest

By Jason DeYoung.

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (And Other Stories, 2015),
translated by Lisa Dillman

This is the end of the world writ small. No ultimate global destiny is described here. Instead Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World explores the fate of a young woman as her world is changed when she experiences firsthand the journey many of her compatriots have taken to the “other side,” to the nation of anglos, the place that changes everyone, because it robs them of their mother tongue and skins them of their identity and power. A slim novel with a narrative large in scope, it refreshes the immigrant’s crossing with a tale worthy of our time, one simple in its telling, but complex in its rendering. With themes touching on economics, power, gender, sexuality, language, and cultural differences—along with vivid metaphors and ancestral allusions—Herrera has written a novel that connects the contemporary with the timeless.

Signs Preceding the End of the World opens with Makina, the novel’s protagonist, nearly falling into a sinkhole that suddenly opens at her feet. “Five centuries of voracious silver lust” have riddled the ground underpinning the Mexican village in which she lives. An old man, a car, and a dog are swallowed up by the earth, and Makina believes that she will take the oxygenless plunge next, but the hole stops inches from her feet. Over the precipice she says to the old man and dog, “Happy trails” (without irony, we are told) before proceeding with her errand. It is our first glimpse of the self-possessed Makina.

Although she has lived her entire life in a small village, Makina is smart, worldly, and mature. She is the elder sister, the mother’s trusted confidant; the type of character on which little is lost. She is also the switchboard operator for the village, because she speaks “all three tongues”—Latin, native, and the new one from the North. The position as switchboard operator has given this tough, no-nonsense young woman power and respect. Ironically, it is her trustworthiness that Makina’s mother is relying upon when she sends the young woman to deliver a message to Makina’s brother who left to find his fortune on the “other side.” It is a quest Makina takes on, but with plenty of assurances. The errand she is running when the sinkhole opens is to visit three local “top dogs” to ask for help in crossing the border, locating her brother, and then returning home.

Much of the novel is taken up with Makina’s journey to find her brother who was convinced by a local huckster that he had inherited land. The journey is important because it depicts the transformation immigrants undergo as they make their way to their new country. She first travels to the Big Chilango (perhaps Mexico City but never identified), and then on to the river (perhaps the Rio), where “a string of hotels facing the river [is] doing well off the mass exodus.” At the river she is met by Chucho, who becomes her guide and guardian angel of sorts. Upon crossing, she is confronted by an anglo patriot and is grazed by his bullet before escaping. Her journey from the river to her brother is assisted by other “dark skinned” countrymen and kindly abuelas who came to the country of anglos seeking the same economic promise that drew Makina’s brother.

This new country, however, is surreal and at times terrifying. It is all about numbers, where people look you in the eye but don’t say anything when they do, and the cities are “edgy arrangements of cement particles and yellow paint [with] signs prohibiting things thronging the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.” Such estranged visions (as Viktor Shklovsky might have called them) unsettle and populate the novel. In the same way Herrera doesn’t call Mexico City or the Rio by their names, he relies on unlabeled descriptions to give readers a sense of Makina’s first perceptions of this new world. Take this disorienting but vivid explanation of baseball:

[In] the stadium, every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are…. One of them whacks [the ball], then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn’t get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.

What’s so appalling to Makina, however, is that the other “homegrown” Mexicans who have come to this country are changed for the worse. They give up so much of their culture and language for very little. One friend who left their village and stayed too long tells Makina that “all was different [upon his return]… [H]is mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters were no longer his brothers and sisters, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms.” In the anglos’s country the Mexicans she meets take orders—as they would back home, “but with less whistling.”

At its heart Signs Preceding the End of the World is a quest novel, but it’s also a novel about hybridity and bridging divides. In her village Makina is that bridge because she speaks all three tongues. She says of herself: “You are the door.” In the nation of anglos, though, she is just another underclass immigrant in a country obsessed with material greed. Of her fellow alienated compatriots, she observes:

Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two 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….a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift …. 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.

In this remarkable passage—perhaps the book’s most important—Herrera presents his full vision of the novel. Here, in the interplay of shifting language, is the new; we see how their world expands and contracts, erases the old, and makes the world afresh. As with any true change, it hurts, it’s clumsy, inestimable, disliked by those who believe in authenticity or tradition.

One of the gifts the publisher of Signs Preceding the End of the World has given the reader is a closing translator’s note by Lisa Dillman. In recounting her translation of the novel, Dillman gives us a sense of what Herrera’s original Spanish version is like, and the challenges of capturing its regional flavor and rural slang. One of the more unusual words that the novel employs is “verse,” which means something like “leave.” In the original it is jarchar, a neologism derived from jarchas, which were short verses or couplets added to the end of longer Arabic or Hebrew poems written in the vernacular to serve as a sort of bridge between cultures and language. Dillman wisely points out that there is a parallel between these vernacular end couplets and Makina’s role as a link between two worlds—one old and another that is becoming. Herrera himself is perhaps part of this transitional divide. Born in Actopan, Mexico, in 1970, he studied in UNAM and El Paso (the epicenter for so much horror along the US/Mexico border) before taking his PhD from UC Berkeley (he currently teaches at the University of Tulane in New Orleans). It would be hard not to think Herrera doesn’t have some firsthand or deep secondhand knowledge of Makina’s experiences.

Makina eventually finds her brother, but it is not a happy reunion. He has been hollowed out by anglo manipulations and anglo culture, dissolved of his past identity (quite literally—I hesitate to give more away). So changed, he is embarrassed upon meeting Makina, and essentially sends her away without reading the message from his mother. For Makina this truncated meeting feels “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.”

This unusual metaphor is characteristic of Herrera’s prose and sensibility. While the novel is traditional in form and generally written in a sparse but warm style, there are surprising, sometimes charming, sentences throughout that depict characters and emotions with blade-like precision, such as when he writes: “Mr. Aitch was the type who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”; or when describing Makina entering Big Chilango: “Not even in make-believe did she get her hopes up too high.” It’s a testament to Herrera’s skills as a novelist that he can sustain and make fresh his humble prose, yet remain capable of refashioning a worn simile into something surprising.

Charles Bowden reminds in Exodus/Éxodo—a photography book that also depicts the immigrant experience—that “migrations have been occurring for thousands of years. Hadiran’s Wall, the Roman effort to keep the savages out of what is now Scotland from the area of what is now England, began about AD 122. It failed after a few centuries.” It’s a good reminder. Walls, rivers, mountains, bullets won’t stop people from leaving, moving, striving for something better, whether falsely promised or not. While Signs Preceding the End of the World doesn’t delve into the visceral ugliness of illegal immigration, it does illustrate the threating and denigrating attitudes some anglos hold towards those who come to their country. Time and again Makina is treated cruelly. Despite her discipline in matters of the heart and being wise beyond her years, Makina knows she is “malleable, erasable, permeable.” The novel ends with her still struggling with anglos, losing her memory of the tongues she once could speak, “versing” her old self, continually changing.

Signs Preceding the End of the World takes us full circle in many ways. The very first words in the novel that we hear from Makina are “I’m dead” as the sinkhole opens at her feet, and by the end of the novel it is true, in a sense. The final image of the book is of a man handing her new identity papers. At first these papers makes her feel “skinned” but after the “weight of uncertainty and guilt” fades she no longer sees it as “cataclysm” but feels ready for this change. Her old world goes out with a whimper, but for a novel about hybridity with a character as “malleable” as Makina, it’s appropriate. We know she will be able to manage (better than most, perhaps) this crossing.


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including BoothThe Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 6th, 2015.