Signs Preceding the End of the World

By Yuri Herrera
trans. by Lisa Dillman


And Other Stories
March 2015

Reviewed by Andrew Boylan


My first college roommate came to America in a box. Threatened into quivering silence, he bounced 500 rutted miles from Tijuana, Mexico, to Redding, California, in a crate fastened to the bottom of a truck. There he found his father stooped in a field picking avocados, beans, whatever could be harvested at a fraction of minimum wage.

On the clam-flats north of Boston, my family experienced their own sordid beginnings. Some followed the thaw-lines down from Canada. Others fled to the sea to escape the shackles of childrearing. One was stabbed to death on a dock. One was a rum smuggler who incited mutiny. All of them were blue-collar gamblers.

The women had the backbone. The house where I live now was bought and paid for by the hard work of woman tired of feckless men forcing them to uproot when the rent came due.

For years, slinging drinks at high-end hotels of Santa Fe, I heard dozens of stories echoing my roommate's experience. Every dishwasher, hostess promoted out of housekeeping, and prep cook who could string twenty English words together had some nightmare to recount from their crossing.

Few of those stories will ever be told. Fewer still will find a writer like Yuri Herrara who doesn't waste a comma dredging the filthy Rio Grande for new myth. Herrara's slim Signs Preceding the End of the World is infused with Odysseus, the God-breathed fear of the Hebrews, and the blurred languages of the borderlands.

The story opens with Makina proclaiming her own death: "I'm dead . . ." With those two words, Herrara yanks us into "Little Town," Mexico, where the ground of a strip-mined silver town swallows a man, a car, and a dog. Unlike many of his Central American counterparts, Herrara doesn't wade into magical realism. The dirty reality of the West is that anyone with enough sway over the poor and vanquished can rape the land until it is so exhausted it folds in on itself. As Makina totters over a sinkhole, she believes "this slippery bitch of a city" has finally dragged her into the "cellar."

Over the next hundred pages, Herrara has one hell of a time playing with the notions of life and death, hell or hades, and the Mesoamerican obsession with divination and astrology, in an attempt to pierce the veil of nature's caprices.

Makina is very much alive. She is a survivor, a woman who kicks ass. She is no trendy, Tarantino-style assassin shredding genre-tropes with a Samurai sword, however. She is closer to Jael, armed with the spirit of a tent peg as she "verses" from a town "riddled with bullet holes," crosses the Rio Styx by inflatable raft, and wanders the pre-fab American landscape in search of her brother. Makina's brother left "Little Town" three years before because the local "crime boss" hoodwinked him into believing he had promised land in the Promised Land.

After her brush with death at the mouth of the sinkhole, Makina descends into the "underworld" to make the same pact with the devil her brother made. She descends into the "underworld" three-times before journey's end, partly because a true, mythic hero must face three challenges; but equally important, because "Little Town" is a Kafka-esque, bureaucratic nightmare. The first "boss," Mr. Double-U, sets her up with a Sancho Pancho as guide on the far side of the "Big Chingala." The second, Mr. Aitch, "who couldn't see a mule without wanting a ride," grants safe passage for the price of delivering a package. The third will show up on the American side, and he will leave her "skinned."

Makina survives every encounter with the "underworld" with her wits and through her deft skills with words. Her power over three languages proves her best weapon in a borderland where cultures blur in the final throes before dying and being reborn as something new. In "Little Town" she runs the only phone for fifty miles because she knows how to keep a secret. She is "the door," not the "one who walks through."

Herrara is preoccupied with language. If language is a living thing, then it must die. Language is both the danger and the salvation. A misread deed, perhaps signed by a "man" or Makima's "father," incites the adventure, and in the end, it saves her when her own "homegrown" turn against her and attempt to arrest her in America.

On her knees, with her hands behind her back, she listens as an Americanized Mexican cop berates a man for not speaking English, even though he carries a book of poetry. The cop challenges the man to "write." The emotional fatigue caused by this "city" that is "an edgy arrangement of concrete particles and yellow paint" causes the man's hands to shake so bad he can barely scribble. Makina takes his pen and, in a fit of inspiration, scrawls the small indignities and unrepentant sins that burden everyone who chooses hope over injustice. The cop withers in dumb silence.

Whether it's Moses gazing down on the Promised Land after forty years in the desert or Odysseus in the palace rid of suitors or King David lying in his bed, the epic journey often culminates in dumb, holy silence. It is that same reverent silence that falls upon the close of Herrara's masterpiece.