Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is one of those rare volumes that manages to explore language in a new way, tell a compelling story, and create memorable characters all at the same time. Herrera accomplishes this in just over 100 pages. Aspiring writers be warned—this book will inspire envy. The author’s immense talent is evident in each page, in just about every sentence of the novel.
The novel begins with startling, captivating language: “I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched.” Herrera immediately transports his reader to a nebulous, surreal space somewhere between life and death. Gradually, more concrete details about Makina and her circumstances emerge. In Mexico, Makina works at a switchboard, acting as a literal intermediary between speakers. This job and her courier assignments position her between entities, struggling to find her own identity. At the beginning of the novel, she believes herself to be “malleable, erasable, permeable” like an “intermediary tongue” that other characters speak, presumably a language that mixes Spanish with English. Herrera compares his protagonist to language itself, simultaneously anthropomorphizing language and disembodying Makina. Her mother and a warlord-type character named Mr. Aitch send her on a journey across the border with, respectively, a message and a mysterious “small packet wrapped in gold cloth,” and Makina obediently sets off on her quest.
Yet, Makina’s no wallflower. After listening to a lovers’ quarrel while working at the switchboard, Makina quickly offers her own opinion. “I think you’re both saying that both of you could be more discreet,” she offers. After that, says the narrator, “every time she bumped into them they’d thank her for getting them back together.” Herrera paints Makina as a wise, precocious woman oppressed by patriarchy, violence, poverty, and American attitudes toward immigrants. In Mexico, Makina encounters thugs who “all looked alike,” though none of them has a “name as far as she knew, but not one lacked a gat.” In the U.S., she encounters a “huge redheaded anglo who stank of tobacco,” who Makina knows is “just itching to kick her or fuck her.” Makina makes few pronouncements throughout the book, but when she speaks, her voice is precise, sage, and reasonable despite the chaos, injustice, and absurdity that surround her.
As Herrera constructs a strange, dreamlike world full of both menace and beauty, he draws the reader in with deeply affective description. At one point in the story, the sky begins darkening “like a giant pool of drying blood.” The comparison elicits a sense of violence that amplifies the danger inherent in Herrera’s topics: crossing the Mexico/US border, the war in the Middle East, and global human injustice. At another point, the sky is “barely a reddish exhalation that hadn’t quite made up its mind to spread over the earth.” In these descriptions, Herrera employs a new vocabulary about a natural element that unites us all, transcending differences of country or language.
Herrera adopts a simple narrative structure that allows him to focus on language and character. The story comprises the journey of one protagonist from Mexico to the United States. On a thematic level, she’s also seeking an understanding of herself and her own individuality in a country that so often dehumanizes migrants like her. Tension and suspense build naturally as the reader becomes eager to see what Makina will encounter next. Herrera has a gift for creating new characters in sharp, memorable strokes. On Cora, Makina’s mother: “it was always as if you were on her lap, snuggled between her brown bosoms, in the shade of her fat, wide neck; she only had to speak to you for you to feel completely safe.” On Mr. Aitch: “Mr. Aitch smiled, sinister, with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around your legs… Mr. Aitch smiled and smiled, but he was still a reptile in pants.” On Chucho, the man who helps Makina cross the border: “The man’s skin was weather-beaten but pleasing to the touch, warm even though he’d only just versed from the water.” (Herrera makes “verse” into a verb, a stand-in for “leave,” giving the action a poetic connotation as well. Much credit is due the translator, Lisa Dillman, who in an enlightening note at the end explains her process working with the complexities of Herrera’s language.)
Finally, Makina gets a chance to fully express herself in the most unlikely of environments—an American army camp. A cop catches a man holding a book of poetry and orders him to write. Makina witnesses the scene and snatches the pencil and book away from the trembling man. She begins to “write with determination… without stopping to think which word was better than which other or how the message was turning out.” The cop then reads Makina’s words aloud:
We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.
The passage’s power lies in its repetition and tone. It’s subversive in its mockery of all the beliefs and prejudices held by the cops and his comrades. The repeated use of “we” underscores the American tendency to group all immigrants into a faceless mass. It’s also the first time we hear an extended monologue of Makina’s. In this passage, she’s adopting the voice of anti-immigration proponents, calling attention to the flaws in their reasoning and xenophobia. The character’s previous laconic tone elevates the impact of her writing. Herrera suggests that the right words, when carefully placed, will be most impactful. His strategy, with Signs Preceding the End of the World, is the same as Makina’s.
Here, at the end of the novel, Herrera turns his work into a meditation on the power of the written word. On topics that receive so much journalistic and political attention, Herrera’s lyricism adds a new dimension to the conversation. The author employs language and a literary perspective you won’t soon forget, his images haunting like a dream.