Yuri Herrera, 2009
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, 2015
Signs Preceding the End of the World is a special book. With brevity of page and word it manages to explore ideas and themes that most books 10 times its length only attempt to explore, and it does so with a compelling plot and a fascinating protagonist worth celebrating as an original and powerful heroine. It is up there in the unique family of books that compelled me to take a second look and reread to better savor the beauty of its prose and the diversity of themes that cover ideas of identity, culture, family, inheritance, mafia, the dangers and promises that inspire border-crossing, the complexities of race including cultural and racial stereotypes, the location of power, human relationships to technology, and most importantly, the significance of language and its relevance to all the ideas just mentioned.
This is a translated work and on my initial reading, the words used in the linguistic style of English-translation captivated me. I can only imagine the beauty of the original Spanish. In my reading, I recognized a compelling similarity to Cormac McCarthy’s unpuctuated, vaguely broken and sparse, poetic prose. Gone are the quotation mark. Conversations between characters flow across the page with only a Capitalization indicating the change in voice. And there are prosaic moments that stand out with a biblical voice revealing spiritually universal truths that apply to all. After my initial reading, I was pleased to read the translator’s note from Lisa Dillman who confessed that in translation she was inspired by McCarthy’s The Road as a voice of inspiration to express the tone of Herrera’s original Spanish text.
An example of the McCarthy-like prose is expressed here in the following passage describing the protagonist, Makina, awaking on a bus:
“Makina could never be sure of what she’d dreamed, in the same way that she couldn’t be sure a place was where the map said it was until she’d gotten there, but she had the feeling she’d dreamed of lost cities: literally, lost cities inside other lost cities, all ambulating over an impenetrable surface.” (32-33)
A moment of awaking from an unknown dream is transitioned into ideas of location and one’s connection to understanding and personal awareness. These ideas aren’t as macabre as McCarthy, but they are explored with the same succinctness of prose that captivate and enthrall the reader’s attention toward the significance buried in the ideas behind the words.
Aside from the similarities to McCarthy’s work, which work ideally for the setting of the Mexican/American border, what really stood out were the non-standard and unique words that Dillman used throughout the text. Most prominent was the word verse used to describe a sort of going from one place to another. Dillman explains that Hererra used the frequently used “neologism: jarchar…the word is derived from jarchas (from the Arabic kharja, meaning exit)” (112) and Dillman chose to use the word verse in its place because like jarchar it is a “noun-turned verb, a term clearly referring to poetry, and part of several verbs involving motion and communication,” (113). In so doing, Dillman manages to adeptly express the importance of language as a core aspect of both personal and cultural identity in the pages of Signs Preceding the End of the World.
This is the story of a confident, street-smart, and headstrong woman who choses to cross the Mexican-American border to seek out her brother who left for America some time prior. Her brother left in search of the fortunes promised by a supposed mafia deal, but Makina, the heroine, is crossing only to find her brother and discover his fate. In that crossing she is faced with challenges, her life and safety is often at risk, and she is constantly bargaining to find her way. Through all of this, her connection to language, her ability to cross the border of her native and the “anglo” tongue, help directs her passage from one land to the next. Her awareness of the importance of language reveals truths that extend beyond her Mexican heritage or her “illegal” crossing into the “anglo” lands:
“Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me 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. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, bye there they are, doing their damnedest.” (66)
This connection to language is most powerfully explored in a scene wherein Makina is rounded up with a group of fellow illegal immigrants by an overzealous police officer. The officer, hands on his pistol, discovers that one of the shocked immigrants is holding a book of poems. In his zeal, the cop attempts to humiliate the man by forcing him to write out a poem at gunpoint. In his fear the man cannot write, but Makina snatches the book and writes a powerful poem in English for the cop, who on reading it, loses the strength and confidence in his actions as his confident voice is reduced to a whimpering whisper that causes him to stumble away, his power lost by Makina’s written word.
In many moments such as these Signs Preceding the End of the World convincingly uses language to explore complex ideas. One such idea is the relation of identity as relevant to time and an individual’s intended commitment to location. As she embarks upon her journey, Makina is committed to return to her home, however she isn’t sure that her brother will return with her since time and distance will have changed his relation to his home, heritage, and the identity that he left behind. He has been gone too long to capably return to his former home and remain the same person he was when he left:
“at any rate long enough too long that when 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, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms, as if they’d been copied off an original that no longer existed; even the air, he said, warmed his chest in a different way.” (20)
And ultimately, Makina also learns that she is unable to return to her land, her home, for in her crossing she is changed and no longer the same person. The “end of the world” is ultimately a transition from one’s past identity into a new identity, as Makina finds that she is “with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I’ve been skinned she whispered” (106). The old has ended, the new is made into something unrecognizable, and all is transitory.
“When she’d reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world – some countries, some people – could seem eternal when everything was like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile. She felt a sudden stab of disappointment but also a slight subsiding of the fear that had been building since she versed from home.” (55)