Yuri Herrera’s English-language debut, Signs Preceding the End of the World, translated by Lisa Dillman, begins, and ends, quite literally, with a glimpse of the underworld. On her way across town, Makina, a hard-nosed switchboard operator, witnesses a street caving in. It looks like the work of the supernatural, but the town sits above “tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust,” and sections are prone to sink into the hollows below. An unfortunate man and a dog plummet into darkness, and Makina narrowly avoids getting swallowed up herself. This darkness trails her the rest of the book. It is never clear which shadows are to be trusted, which are in fact, or merely resemble, solid ground. As far as signs go, this one is fairly clear. But it does not precede an ending so much as a beginning. At the moment the earth “lurches,” Makina is carrying out a mission for her mother. She must cross the border to the north to deliver a message to her brother. He has gone off to the nation of “anglos” in order to reclaim a piece of land allegedly left to the family, and not returned.
Before attempting the long and dangerous crossing, Makina must visit several local Godfather-types, who have promised to ensure her safe passage. (One smiles “with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around your leg.”) This is not a labyrinth out of Kafka but a process that only a country supported by a culture of corruption—and violence, the reader intuits—can expedite. Favors beget favors, and Makina’s mother is owed. Makina is an able candidate for the errand, sharp and unflappable, almost superhero-tough, but empty, like a vessel. At her work in the Village, she directs calls but does not answer them. “You are the door,” she reminds herself. “Not the one who walks through it.” But it seems that her mother, and perhaps the local bosses, too, recognize an elusive aspect of her character that she herself does not understand, something in her that might even flourish beyond the border. Why else would she be sent on this mission if they didn’t suspect she might not come back? (The necessity of the trip, otherwise, seems hardly worth the effort.) Makina catches a view of herself in that funhouse trick of back-to-back mirrors: “She looked behind but found only the never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.” Doubts be damned; very soon she is on her way.
The journey north has the vertiginous feeling of being both ascendant and descendent, as though Makina were navigating the inferno and the paradiso at the same time. This duality, the ambivalence of constantly opposing forces, pervades much of the book. It is one of the many borders Makina finds herself straddled between, faced with the decision of what it means to cross. She fears what she might lose of herself on the other side. There is also the possibility that she might not come back at all. The journey itself is sketched with the insistent haziness of myth or legend. A fitting description comes late in the book of “a sleepwalker’s bedroom: specific yet inexact, somehow unreal and yet vivid.” It is an oral history of the present that the reader can imagine being told and retold in the Village, like the stories of so many others who have gone north in search of a more prosperous life. The clearest view we get of the country comes through the window of a bus, traveling to the border town: “She knew what it contained, its colors, the penury and the opulence, hazy memories of a less cynical time, villages emptied of men.” It is tempting to want to know what that less cynical time might have looked like and why things have changed, but the nature of the form is allusive: in Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of Mexico is not passed on but traced by its fault lines. The physicality of loss, the texture of a corroded culture, is buried somewhere beneath unreliable ground.
Things are different on the other side. What jumps out is an almost biblical bleakness, as though the world itself were beginning anew. “First there was nothing,” that section begins. The unfamiliar land itself presents an ample canvas for invention. But for Herrera, the crossing is as much about the construction of myth as it is about its deconstruction. Herrera plays with this idea most directly when Makina encounters “homegrowns,” Mexicans like herself, who have immigrated to “anglo” territory. They have become servers, dishwashers, maids, “playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders.” They are standing members of the underclass in a segregated, consumerist country. But it is their language above all that embodies the contradiction inherent to their condition:
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. . . . In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.
It is hard not to quote from this section at greater length. Really, it’s one of the most necessary in the novel, because it suggests that it is only from this intermediary place, between languages, between worlds, that the old stories can be rewritten—and Signs Preceding the End of the World is an attempt to do just that.
For Lisa Dillman, the book’s translator, Herrera’s linguistic call to arms to poses a host of interesting problems. The novel itself is written in language rooted on both sides of the border, the “nebulous territory for what is dying out and what is not yet born.” In practice, this means finding a way to convey Herrera’s invented Spanish in intelligible English. A handful of such anglo-latinisms recur in the book. The most frequent is to verse, which functions like to leave or go. (As Dillman notes in her translator’s afterword, the original Spanish neologism, jarchar, refers, by way of Arabic, to couplets that were added to Arabic or Hebrew poems, intended to bridge culture and language, in Al-Andalus, present-day Spain.) Dillman also verbs nouns and “pins sonorous tails from back there” so that root, as a verb, for example, cleverly becomes rootle, making it seem as though the woman digging through Makina’s purse has been invited to have a look around. At a broader level, the diction is a playful mix of high and low, with frequent poetry-slam–like assonances, as though the book were meant to be read aloud to a quiet beat; it is at times slangy, at times arch, at times an odd confusion of both: “I’m going for my bro,” Makina says. “He’s the stupid sap who went over for a little land.”
When it works and when it doesn’t, though it usually does, Herrera’s language teaches the reader how to inhabit the text’s dislocated geography, and Dillman should be commended for arriving at this distant target. It would be hard to pin a word or phrase to a place without finding one to contradict that verdict on the next page. Her translation does what the best translations should do, namely, grow the bounds of English so that it feels larger than before, more lexically and syntactically diverse, strange, unexpected. That her prose is often striking and beautiful makes it all the richer.
Transference across borders and between languages can be marked by a beginning and an end: the moment when something stops being one thing and becomes another. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Herrera interrogates the nature of that change, its inevitability, its often brutish force, as it sweeps through a time and a place and a people. It is a force that Makina, now beyond the border, sees acting on her and the world around her:
[The snowflake] looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a place, 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 actually like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile.
The reader wonders what this dissolution will mean for Makina. But here, despite its best intentions, the novel does not dig deep enough into the dirt of human consequence, even if we understand her fate. Her fear is described but not adequately felt; the slow change that we expect in her is lost in a hurried conclusion, underground. In its hundred-odd pages, Signs Preceding the End of the World manages to be many things at once: an allegory, a dark myth, an epic, a compelling meditation on language. In the end, however, Makina and the reader are left with the darkness.
Adam Z. Levy is a writer and translator based in Oakland. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Reader, The Millions, the Quarterly Conversation, and World Literature Today, among other places.