Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dillman
Some books just blaze off the page. Signs is one of them. I’ll be amazed if this doesn’t make my end of year list.
At one level Signs is a novel about a young woman illegally crossing over from Mexico to the US. It opens with a literal descent into the underworld:
I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she failed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.
It’s a deservedly confident opening. Already in just that paragraph Makina is scrambling for survival, constantly and instinctively in motion. As the narrative broadens out it becomes a metaphor for her life. She’s an intermediary who survives by speaking several languages and acting as both a messenger and as operator of the town’s switchboard (they don’t have a local cell tower).
Makina needs to cross over to look for her brother who left pursuing some fruitless land claim and never returned. To go she needs permissions from the town’s big men and, of course, has to do one of them (a man “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”) a favour in return by making a delivery for him.
So far so naturalistic, but the journey quickly takes on mythic dimensions. The literal descent becomes a metaphorical one as Makina crosses a fierce river to reach an otherworld that you risk becoming part of if you linger too long, after which you will never return. Her brother was lost there and now like Orpheus before her she risks losing herself to bring him back.
What dazzles here is the use of language. Herrera creates new meanings for words reflecting both Makina’s use of slang and the linguistic melting-pot she personally represents (a particularly common example is Herrera’s use of “verse” to mean travel, as in “She versed to the street”.) It’s never confusing, but creates a sense of language that like Makina herself is constantly in motion.
The crossing over is sharply captured both in terms of its challenges and particular horrors (a pregnant woman resting under a tree, soon discovered in fact to be a corpse bloated with gas). The US itself proves an alien and unfamiliar landscape filled with parallel populations of noisy anglos and “homegrown” like her who she realises are omnipresent but curiously muted.
The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse, and it was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.
Out on the concrete and steel-girder plain, though, she sensed another presence straight off, scattered about like bolts fallen from a window: on street corners, on scaffolding, on sidewalks; fleeting looks of recognition quickly concealed and then evasive. These were her compatriots, her homegrown, armed with work: builders, florists, loaders, drivers; playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders. They were the same as back home but with less whistling, and no begging.
There’s some wonderful language in that quote: “salt of the only earth worth knowing”; “anglogaggle”; but also a nice juxtaposition of the two populations co-dependent but seemingly immiscible.
As Makina verses through the city following clues leading to her brother and making her promised delivery she comes to realise that there is something more there than just alienation and subjugation. The anglos and homegrown may seem to coexist without overlapping, but the reality is more fluid and the act of transition between places is transformative. There’s a reason people don’t go home again, and partly it’s because what they’ve left is no longer home.
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 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.
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. … 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 tail from back there.
There is an end of the world here. It’s an end to Makina’s world and perhaps too an end to the Anglo’s assumed world which they built on the homegrown’s labour while pretending they didn’t need to adapt to the people they’d invited into their very homes. Language creates reality and as people create new words for their new shared experiences they create a new world with them.
This is a book filled with signs preceding the end of the world, but recognising too that the world must end for new worlds to be born. It’s a book rooted squarely in the particular: the journey across the Rio Bravo; ethnic and income divides; racist police and opportunistic gangmasters; but beyond all that it’s a book that raises all this to the status of myth or dream. It is an exceptional work, quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently and genuinely exciting to encounter.
This has been very widely reviewed, so apologies to those I miss here. Please do feel free to link to your reviews in the comments if I’ve missed them. Ones I had noted included Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog here; Shigekuni here; David Hebblethwaite at his blog here but more fully at Words Without Borders here; and Grant at 1streading’s blog here. I know I read more but I lost note of where.