Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera is nine chapters of slim and transgressive fiction. Shortlisted for the Romulo Gallegos Prize and translated into seven languages, Signs is a timely publication here in the United States. Migration and immigration, the transnational and multilingual, all come into play in Herrera’s novel. Signs is a journey that propels us towards the inevitability of death and the end of the world as we know it. His first novel translated to English, Herrera has written a bridge between gaps and borders of our society. In some ways, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a novel that could easily be mistaken for prophecy as it takes our current times and looks forward, peering over the edge and into the future’s abyss.
Makina, our hero, is reminiscent of those protagonists of old epics. She possesses a wisdom and strength that lends her an almost superhuman ability to endure and overcome what most normal human beings could not. The switchboard operator in her rural town in Mexico, Makina is trilingual and, in a sense, a crossroad herself. She is the intermediary between North and South, lovers and enemies, friends and families by way of the telephone and her languages. We are introduced to Makina as she is preparing to leave her home. After stopping to obtain the help of the three most powerful men of her town, she is to carry messages across the border, both for her mother and the Mexican underworld. Intending to retrieve her brother and deliver a mysterious package, we see Makina set off on her own, or, as translated, she “verses” from the world she has previously known. As Makina moves further north, her awareness changes from a passive understanding to a more active knowing of what surrounds her. She navigates both the dangers of crossing the border and a world unsympathetic to solitary women in her travels through Mexico and the United States. In some ways, it feels as though Herrera is showing us the crumbling structures of how life used to be, the rubble of lives and structures from times before. The property Makina’s brother left Mexico to claim is under construction. People and jobs shift faster than the information about them, creating a scavenger hunt to track down the most up-to-date reality. Yet, at the center of these revolving forces, Makina is constant, even as Herrera expands the story to grander proportions.
Herrera is an expert at simultaneously creating both physical and spiritual movement in Signs. The poetic chapter titles act as keys to unlocking the content that follows, setting an emotional tone before we encounter the action that follows. Each stage of Makina’s journey takes us deeper into an unknowable future. Chucho, our tale’s Charon, is the figure that facilitates Makina’s irreversible transition, both in the beginning and end of Herrera’s novel. He, like Makina, is a possessor of knowledge. Their biggest difference seems to be in their experience, and as we approach the novel’s conclusion, we gain the sense that Makina has learned something of what Chucho already knows. The U.S. is an underworld, and the gods there are not the same. The people are not the same. Even with the ability to speak the language, we see that Makina struggles, that she survives rather than flourishes. The world is changing, dying even.
There is hope in its ending, but Herrera has filled Signs Preceding the End of the World with perseverance rather than conquest. With arresting language and scenery, Herrera gives Makina’s quest depth beyond the simplicity of her initial goal. A wonderful novel, we are lucky that And Other Stories will bring us Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies in 2016. As I’ve indicated in previous reviews, I’m not someone who particularly likes to wait, especially after finishing a book as well-constructed as Signs.