A review by tachyondecay
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

adventurous challenging dark emotional slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


Every so often I take stock of what I haven’t read in a while and try to remedy that. In this case, it was translated fiction. My amazing new next-door neighbour, with whom I have so much in common (tea! knitting! cribbage!), offered to lend me a bevy of books including Signs Preceding the End of the World. She highly recommended Yuri Herrera, and I was eager to experience a book that she loved. Yes—my enjoyment of this book was likely going to make or break our friendship. Just kidding. Or am I?

Set during an unspecified present, this is a novel about borders, transgressions, and transformation. Makina leaves her border town in Mexico and crosses over to the United States in search of her brother, who himself was convinced there was land in their family’s name waiting for them on the American side. The crossing is unsanctioned and full of danger, but so too is existing on the other side. Makina will be changed by what she experiences as she uproots herself from all that she has known in order to find family.

Herrera, through translator Lisa Dillman, writes in stream of consciousness. The book doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue, my one unforgivable sin when it comes to typesetting fiction—if my friend hadn’t recommended this book to me, I would have DNFed it. This flouted convention aside, I enjoyed Herrera’s style and the way that most of the other characters don’t need names. Makina interacts with crime bosses only assigned a letter: Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, Mr. Q. Her mother gets a name (Cora) but her brother, with whom she arguably has a more significant interaction, doesn’t. Herrera is very sparing with how he doles out such personal details.

This paucity of details extends to the setting—at least at the broader level—lending the story a timelessness that belies the title’s harbinger tone. This book could have been set yesterday, or two years ago, or next week. Makina’s town is small and has no direct phone service—she prides herself at being a skilled and neutral switchboard operator. Border crossings of the kind Makina undertakes have been common for a long time. Similarly, America is always sending people overseas to fight in one place or another. As a result, the themes Herrera explores feel like they are suspended in time if not in place. The end of the world, it seems, is always ever just over the horizon.

Makina’s journey is simultaneously physical and spiritual. As her body traverses borders and nations, her spirit undergoes its own transformation. Her journey opens up her world and helps her to understand that, even in isolation, far-flung events and powers shape her and her family’s possibilities and experiences. Her brother was pulled away by the lure of land, false though that promise proved to be, yet stayed because the dangerous identity he acquired seemed to fit him better than whatever he could have hoped to be back home. In a similar way, Makina is permanently changed after finding and speaking to him.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. It’s abrupt and almost truncated. Herrera’s narration thins out until it is a tight metaphor suspended in amber, the light shining through his words but distorted, unclear. My interpretation, best as I can make it, is that Makina realizes she must let go.

Like many books written by foreign authors, the full brilliance of Signs Preceding the End of the World eludes me because I lack cultural context. A quick Google helped me understand that the chapters of the book are meant to mirror the journey through Mictān, the Mexica underworld—but that knowledge by itself is a mere surface detail; I lack the context of fully appreciating what that means. This is not a flaw of the book (or even of myself) but merely my attempt to remind myself that it’s OK that I’m struggling to articulate my thoughts entirely.

That’s the value of Signs Preceding the End of the World, of course. The translation of this book into English provides a portal into the psyche of a certain experience. In this book, America makes its presence felt, always and unflinchingly. Its presence is at times gregarious, callous, dangerous, devious, treacherous. While aspects of this portrayal are recognizable to me, as someone who lives on the other border of the United States, my positionality is very different from Makina’s.

In the end, the same sparse descriptive style that I praised (along with Dillman’s assiduous translation) is also my least favourite thing about this book. This novel (novella?—it’s short) is very much like oysters. I don’t mind eating oysters, but I wouldn’t eat them every day, and I probably wouldn’t even eat them that often throughout the year. It is a literary experience in and of itself rather than a literary escape.

Originally posted at Kara.Reviews.