‘Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a masterpiece, a haunting and moving allegory about the violence and the culture built to support and celebrate that violence. Of the writers of my generation, the one I most admire is Yuri Herrera,’ writes Daniel Alarcón on the back cover of this fascinating novella that sheds a very human but unflattering light on the illegal cross-border traffic of human beings between Mexico and the United States and, very rarely, in the other direction.
The story’s tough young heroine is Makina who is asked by her mother to go to the States and find her brother who made it there successfully but seemed not to strike it rich and has stopped writing home. To get across that frontier, she needs the help of the Mexican mafia and needs to do them a favour in return; ferrying a package to the States. The author has created Makina both street-smart and observant and we can see how she is capable of defending herself. We hear too, in her inner voice, the by-play of the two languages, what she calls ‘latin’ and ‘anglo’, and how they can fuse into a third with varying proportions according to circumstances.
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 intermediate tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it is like her; 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. But not a hecatomb. Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one. 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 tale from back there.
Makina has to cross a river, escape from possible capture and make contact with the local Mexican Mafioso in order to start her search for her brother. That success is ultimately successful but not as she had been expecting. He has become an American by assuming another man’s identity. He is not planning to come back and, at the end, Makina is faced with making the choice herself of integration or making her way back (illegally again) to Mexico. Read this masterful book to learn what her choice is and why.
The translator had a difficult task since the original Spanish of Señales que precederán al fin del mundo is not only the voice of a modern young Mexican but full of neologisms that cannot be literally translated without sticking out of the text awkwardly. Talented, polyglot translator Lisa Dellman has risen to the challenge by creating a language that is not jarringly americanised and still conveys the thought processes of a latin-tongued protagonist in an exciting English translation. This is another example of the sterling work of the publisher & Other Stories who will publish another of Herrera’s novels next year. Native English speakers read too few ‘foreign’ novelists even in translation so here is a chance for us to begin to put that right.