A novel about people smuggling set across the US – Mexican border could hardly be more immersed in documentary realism, yet, from the beginning, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World feels like something other-worldly – not dissimilar to the way in which the cactus strewn plain of the cover takes on the appearance of an alien landscape when set against its black sky. This is not accidental – from the religious, doom-mongering intonations of its title to the chapter headings which would not be out of place in an epic fantasy (The Water Crossing; The Obsidian Mound – though it is first chapter title, The Earth, that most implies a journey off-planet), Herrera is keen to demonstrate that his novel is more than a story of Mexican poverty and the American Dream.
The narrative itself is shaped like a quest, with our protagonist, Makina, sent to find her brother in America. From the first page we are made aware that even the earth itself cannot be trusted as a sink-hole opens up beneath Makina’s feet:
“I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sink-hole until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.”
The subsidence is caused by the underground tunnels which silver mining has created beneath the village, a reminder of the damage greed can do. But it’s in the language (wonderfully translated by Lisa Dillon) that the timeless nature of the narrative is revealed: in such generics as the place name, Little Town; in the phrasing of Makina’s mother’s request (“Go and take the paper to your brother”); and in the permissions Makina must receive before leaving, visiting the three most powerful men in the village. Again the language is both straight forward and portentous: “Off to the other side?” (Also: “You’re going to cross.”)
In an afterward, Dillon discusses the challenges of translating a novel which uses language ranging beyond standard Spanish. Her solution, which is partly related to the type of phrasing in evidence above, also included creating words, for example ‘verse’ meaning ‘to leave’. By avoiding current English language vernacular, she has ensured that the translation will not date and also enhanced the strangeness of the novel (I mean, the way in which it makes the familiar feel strange): although this is very much the story of Makina travelling to the USA to find her brother, these features create the sense of an underlying story which exists outside of a particular time and place.
The story itself is filled with enormous tension, from her river crossing and her near-capture by border police to the search she must undertake for her brother when she reaches America. Herrera’s decision to break it into nine chapters increases rather than dilutes this tension; the gaps between mimic the disorientation Makina often feels. But make no mistake, Makina is our heroine, relentlessly searching for her brother and perfectly able to stand up for herself, as we witness before she even reaches the border:
“Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so that he’d know her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh, and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he’d touched her with almost all the way back to an inch from the top of his wrist.”
Perhaps her finest moment comes after she has discovered what has happened to her brother (a fully satisfying and thought-provoking solution to the mystery of why he never returned) in a confrontation with a racist policeman whom she baffles with what can only be described as the power of literature. Yet, in spite of this, Makina remains an essentially realistic and believable character, and it is Herrera’s ability create in a way that is both credible and archetypal that is at the heart of what makes this novel great. Perhaps he best sums up his own style when Makina thinks to herself in the final scene when she descends to an underworld where she will, in one sense, lose her life:
“This place is like a sleepwalker’s bedroom: specific yet inexact, somehow unreal and yet vivid.”
When a writer is able to create something that feels like both dream and reality we can probably call it truth.