Thursday, June 15, 2017

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Signs Preceding the End of the World is the tale of Makina, a young woman who must travel across a border to find her long-lost brother and deliver him a message.  In order to accomplish this task, she is forced to rely on local crime lords, men who know the people who can smuggle her into the country and back out again.  It's all very secretive - Makina doesn't know anything about those individuals on whom she's relying, and she's never completely sure that something won't go wrong and her whole mission will be compromised.  It's her harrowing story, told in Yuri Herrera's thoughtful and expertly chosen prose (thoughtfully translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman) and engaging characters that makes this brief story so compelling.

Makina works as a telephone switchboard operator, and acknowledges that she is very good at her job.  There aren't any cellular towers built near her area, so people still rely on an operator to connect them.  She will keep confidences, which makes her popular with those in organized crime, but she's not afraid to offer her opinion when necessary.  There's a hilarious scene where two lovers are quarreling across the phone lines to each other, and Makina inserts herself into the conversation as a kind of translator.  She interprets what one lover is saying and responds back to the other in such a way that she eventually helps them to reconcile.  It's that unique blend of secrecy and self-assuredness that serves her well on her journey. 

While the countries from which Makina is leaving and entering are never mentioned by name, it's easy to recognize them as Mexico and the United States, respectively.  The fact that the author himself is Mexican, and is now living/working in the US, only seems to further support this idea.  The physical border to be crossed is described as a fast-moving river, which could easily be the Rio Grande, followed by difficult desert terrain.  There are police, border-residing vigilantes, and others who try to prevent Makina from reaching her brother.  These same groups frequently make news headlines for their inhumane and illegal treatment of individuals the encounter around the border area.  Through his descriptions of these people - those "defending" the border and those trying to cross it, the author explores the tenseness of immigration relations between the US and Mexico.

The reader is also treated to the view of America from a first-time visitor's perspective.  She notices the unnatural bounty of supermarkets, the ever-present signs prohibiting almost all behavior, and the sadness that she identifies as coming from the too-strong relationship to technology at the sake of human contact.  There is a particularly beautiful piece of imagery used when Makina is walking around the restaurants in the city, experiencing the culture through its smells since she could not afford to dine.  It's during this scene that she notices just how many Mexicans work in these restaurants, and makes the aside that "All cooking is Mexican cooking", which in some ways is a very true statement.  With the current political climate that seems to favor mass arrest and deportation, it's worth thinking about how these actions will trickle down to all aspects of American life, including food.

There is so much richness of language, of exploration into the immigrant experience, and the lengths to which some people will go to obtain a piece of the American Dream.  Signs Preceding the End of the World is a masterwork, and at only 107 pages, you'll fly through it and then wonder how the author could pack so much into such a short work.  His precision in language, even when in translation, is breathtaking and so vibrant that you can really picture the worlds in which the story takes place.  I highly recommend this book, for its insightful portrayal of US/Mexico immigration and the harrowing story of a young woman on a mission.

Librorum annis,