I was determined to read more translated fiction from South America after realising a year or so ago that I had missed out on an awful lot of classics, or hotly tipped novels. I travelled to the beautiful Mexican island of Cozumel in September too, and wanted to read some Mexican literature before I set off. Yuri Herrera, deemed ‘Mexico’s greatest novelist’, struck me as an author whose work I should be more familiar with, and I thus requested Signs Preceding the End of the World from the library.
The blurb of the novella states that 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.’ Signs Preceding the End of the World thus felt even more timely, dealing as it does with the migrant experience, which is, of course, at levels of crisis at present.
In Signs Preceding the End of the World, a young woman named Makina is tasked with crossing into the United States to find her brother. Of his moving to a different country, Herrera writes: ‘…. but he insisted Someone’s got to fight for what’s ours and I got the balls if you don’t. Cora [their mother] merely looked at him, fed up, and didn’t say a word, until she saw him at the door with his rucksack full of odds and ends and said Let him go, let him learn to fend for himself with his own big balls, and he hesitated a moment before he versed, and in the doubt flickering in his eyes you could see he’d spent his whole life there like that, holding back his tears, but before letting them out he turned and cursed and only ever came back in the form of two or three short notes he sent a long while later.’
Makina’s uncertainty about this task, and her place in the world, has been quite startlingly depicted: ‘She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the neverending front, coming 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.’ Despite this, she is a headstrong and assertive protagonist; she is in control of her own body, to the point of violence at times.
Signs Preceding the End of the World has been split into relatively short sections, with headings such as ‘The Earth’, ‘The Place Where the Hills Meet’, and ‘The Obsidian Mound’. It is short, even for a novella, and can easily be read in one sitting, but its themes and core ideas are so important that it will be thought about for weeks afterwards. Herrera’s writing is sometimes beautiful, and at times startling; for instance: ‘There was still some light in the sky but it was burning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.’
Lisa Dillman’s translation of Herrera’s novella is both intelligent and fluid. Of course, it is difficult as a non-Spanish speaker for me to ever compare it to the original, but I very much enjoyed the reading experience. Herrera is so perceptive of the entire migrant experience, and the wealth of emotions which swell within one. He has made Makina’s crossing at once personal and universal. Signs Preceding the End of the World is perfectly paced and important, and should be read and chewed over by everyone.