Signs Preceding the End of the World begins with a gaping sinkhole, swooping to rush open, our protagonist Makina deftly moving away and on with her day. So we might consider the language of Yuri Herrera’s writing and Lisa Dillman’s translation into English: opening up before us, perhaps cataclysmic, rushing, yet simultaneously unruffled, pithy.
As Dillman notes, it is especially timely for this book to come to fruition. In this era of extreme fear-mongering, insisting on farcical walls being erected at illusory borders, this novel ventures into themes and questions of migration, immigration, transnationalism, transculturalism, language hybridity, and, of course, death and the end of the world—which these days seems to be looming ever-closer on our horizon.
We follow Makina as she journeys to track down her brother on the other side of the US-Mexican border. Makina is a character eluding cliché and expectation, with a sort of quiet, no-nonsense demeanor but also a brittle resilience that manages to subvert machismo and, furthermore, the eye-roll-worthy genres of feisty damsel or unrealistically sexualized waif. Makina is dexterous in her actions, observations, and expressions. Dillman writes her reflections with pointed beauty. For example, once Makina reaches US territory:
They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms up 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.
What kind of journey begins without the possibility or intention of return? And what kind of person sets out, all the while knowing this to be the case?
Tales of the epic quest often take such questions as starting points. But the latest novel from contemporary Mexican writer Yuri Herrera, titled Signs Preceding the End of the World, rejects each of these questions from the outset.
Recently translated into English by Lisa Dillman for And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World focuses on Makina, a young Mexican woman, as she travels from her rural village across alien towns, ice-green rivers and black mountain passes searching for her brother north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Equipped with the determination to return home after a short trek across the border, she leaves with few provisions, which include, among other things, “one white blouse and one with colorful embroidery, in case she came across any parties.”
As Makina meets up with the “top dogs” in her town who arrange for her trip, Herrera offers a glimpse of the men that loom behind Mexican organised crime: Mr. Double-U, “a joyful sight to see,” the hustling Mr. Aitch, who hangs with his gang of misfits at the literarily-named drinking establishment Pulquería Raskolnikova, and the tight-lipped Mr. Q, who “never resorted to violence—at least there was nobody who’d say he did.” Besides adding a touch of Tarantino-esque flair to these shady characters, Herrera essentially establishes a novel of personalities. Biggest among them is Makina herself. READ MORE…
Ellen Jones (criticism editor): Three of the best things I’ve read this month have been slim, 100-odd-page volumes in translation. The first is Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, translated from Japanese by Eric Selland. The book was recommended by a great lover of cats who insisted I read it in hard copy rather than on my Kindle for the hypnotisingly green feline eyes on the book’s jacket. My family has always had cats, a number of them so embarrassingly rotund—despite years of controlled diets—that we’ve had to wonder whether a well-meaning neighbour wasn’t regularly spoiling them with choice titbits from the table or bowlfuls of cream. So I found much to relate to in this quiet story of a young couple’s relationship with a local cat, whose daily visits revitalise their marriage and ignite an enthusiasm for gardening. Hiraide’s writing (he is primarily a poet) had rarely been translated before, but The Guest Cat has become a bestseller in the United States, France, and now Britain; the ubiquity and inexhaustible popularity of cat photos and videos on social media speak volumes about this book’s potential appeal. But there is so much more to it than a plot summary might suggest—it meditates on the transience of life and beauty, and masterfully maps out a domestic space with the precision of an architect. This is undoubtedly a book for cat people and dog people alike.