Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) is the second novel written by Yuri Herrera part of his « Border Trilogy », that also includes The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) and Kingdom Cons (2017). It is also his first novel translated in English.
Makina, the main protagonist, is a young woman who is asked by her mother Cora to cross a no-named other side in order to find her brother who left home after having been convinced by a thug to reclaim their land and legacy. During this initiatory journey, Makina encounters several stages. First, to prepare her crossing, she has to meet different bosses, Mr. Aitch, Mr. Double-U and Mr. Q who give her the mission to transport a small package as she is indeed a well-respected mule in her home town, despite this male-dominated underground business. To cross the border, she later plunges into a river, into the underground, with the help of Chucho, another thug, and smuggler. Finally arrived, she has to face many obstacles, especially with the Anglo officers, but she also gains new pieces of information to find her brother. As she finds him in a military basement, as he falsified his identity, they both realize that they became strangers to each other. At the end, Makina will have the choice between returning or staying in this other place.
The novel deals with various topics and can be therefore read from different degrees. This multi-voiced text allows indeed many interpretations as we discuss it and/or re-read it. Mythology and spirituality on one hand and identity and immigration issues on the other hand are the two main relevant themes. The third theme reveals the power of language.
The book content is full of Aztec mythology. The chapters structure refer to different passages in the underworld, the Itzcuntlán (“place of the dogs”), the river Apanohuayán (“the place where to cross the water”), the El pasadero de agua (crossing the water), Monamicyan (“the place where the hills come together”) and the Itztépetl (“the hill of obsidian”) to name a few, which need to be crossed for a metaphorical death and rebirth. In this journey, our protagonist Makina additionally encounters people who embody different guardians. The one in particular that caught my attention is the old man with a cane that she meets at the very beginning and after the crossing. This later example also illustrates the idea and phenomenon of cycle. In mythology, life and death in the human world is following by the underworld, an ongoing movement. The circle can also describe a metaphor for spiritual faith, as Makina goes into the unknown, explore and experiment the new in order to rebirth « I am ready » (p.107).
Last but not least, the relationship and conversation with the translator indicates the difficulty and challenge to tell a story in another language. For Herrera, a translation is a re-creation and the translator takes, therefore, the role of co-author. The last pages of our book contains the analysis and experience by the award-winning translator Lisa Dillman. She explains how some words don’t have parallel in English and that they remain the same, such as « jefecita ». Her name also appears on the book cover which is rare that it deserves mention. It proves that the author puts himself on the same level. This recognition is significant.
In all, Yuri Herrera’s novel is a story from a Mexican teenage girl perspective that questions serious and current issues in the US border but also invites us through the underworlds by requesting that we, the reader, accept disorientation through languages.
Yuri Herrera (1970-) born in Actopan, Mexico, studied in Mexico and holds a PhD from UC Berkeley, California. He is currently a professor at the University of Tulane, New Orleans in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
Anzaldùa Gloria E., Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Aunt Lute Books, 1987
Herrera, Yuri, Dillmann, Lisa, Signs Preceding the End of the World, & other stories, 2009.
“Yuri Herrera: Live at Politics and Prose”, Politics and Prose, June 30, 2017, https://archive.org/details/ 630Herrera
Rioseco, Marcelo, “Myth, Literature, and the Border in Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri
Herrera”, Latin American Literature Today, 2017, http://www.latinamericanliteraturetoday.org/en/2017/april/myth-literature-and-border-signs-preceding-end-world-yuri-herrera-marcelo-rioseco.