As you may have noticed, the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize featured no Spanish-language fiction, surprising in such a great year for writing from Spain and Latin-America. While our Shadow Panel was tempted to add one of the many books that missed out to our list, the lack of a consensus as to which one should be chosen meant we reluctantly left things as they were. However, today’s choice on the blog is a book which came up frequently in those discussions. In truth, if I’d read it earlier, it might well have got my vote…
Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman, electronic review copy courtesy of And Other Stories) is a short work following the journey of a young woman from her home country across the border in an attempt to fulfil her mother’s request that she bring her brother (who had made the journey earlier) back home. Makina, as is soon clear, is a resourceful woman, one who achieves her tasks with a minimum of effort and words. This, though, is a very dangerous journey, with far more at risk than is initially clear. While the main objective is to bring her brother home, far more important for Makina is making the reverse journey before it’s too late…
The book which made And Other Stories’ name is Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, and when reading Signs Preceding the End of the World, you can’t help but notice a few parallels. It’s another short, slightly bizarre work from a young Mexican writer (on a side note, Mexican writers, both male and female, seem to be everywhere at the moment), and it has created the same sort of buzz and positive feedback for the press as Villalobos’ crazed novella did. In style, however, it’s a very different kind of work. There’s a slightly eery tone to the book, a story happening in black-and-white, almost silent at times.
From the very first page, we know that Makina is a survivor, and when she is given her task, she sets off stoically, first making deals with local heavyweights to ensure her safe passage. She may come from a rather masculine culture, but Makina is all too adept at looking after herself, as a boy who gets too close finds out:
Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so he’d know that her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh, and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he’d touched her with almost all the way back to an inch from the top of his wrist; it took her one second. The adventurer fell to his knees in pain, jammed into the tight space between his seat and the one in front, and opened his mouth to scream, but before the order reached his brain Makina had already insisted, finger to lips, shhhh, eh; she let him get used to the idea that a woman had jacked him up and then whispered, leaning close, I don’t like being pawed by fucking strangers, if you can believe it.
(And Other Stories, 2015)
In a second she disables her would-be assailant, not needing to raise her voice above a whisper. In fact, she rarely feels the need to talk at all in the course of her travels, moving serenely on in her quest to find her brother.
Signs… is primarily a tale of a traveller in a strange land, with Makina’s quest taking her into unknown territory where she must look for clues, and decide who to trust, to help her reach her goal. Yet her main issue is actually making sure she comes back herself, as herself, with the main danger that of being altered by the journey:
She’s already arranged for her crossing and how to find her brother, now she had to make sure there would be someone to help her back; she didn’t want to stay there, nor have to endure what had happened to a friend who stayed away too long, maybe a day too long or an hour too long, at any rate long enough too long that when he came back it turned out that everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters were no longer his brothers and sisters, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms, as if they’d been copied off an original that no longer existed; even the air, he said, warmed his chest in a different way.
With the knowledge of this potential threat, the young woman keeps her eyes on the road ahead, focused on getting in and then out without becoming involved in a place that doesn’t concern her. There’s a palpable sense of Orpheus in the Underworld here, and it turns out that the book is actually inspired by Aztec stories of the underworld, with the nine chapters reflecting the levels of the afterlife. Makina is acutely aware of this, her role as a visitor, not just from another country, but from another realm…
It’s clear from the start that if we were trying to locate the story in the real world, there are obvious parallels with the Mexico-US border crossing, but Herrera is deliberately vague in describing the setting. Names of towns or countries are never mentioned, meaning it could be any crossing, anywhere. This adds to the dreamlike, almost allegorical, nature of the work, leaving us with a detached narration with little emotion. In fact, the only time Makina does show interest is when she hears the language the people speak on the streets of the new country:
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.
She is fascinated by the mingling of languages, the blend of tongues, a sense of a new identity being forged. This is perhaps the most dangerous time for her as she begins to see how people from her realm can be persuaded to stay in this one.
In Lisa Dillman’s excellent afterword, the translator discusses some of Herrera’s use of slightly strange language and her need to reflect that in the English version. The writer chose some deliberately obscure (at times, virtually invented) vocabulary, giving Dillman a few headaches as she attempted to do the same in English, hopefully with the same effect. She also talks of her reading for the project, primarily to help with the theme and tone, but also to learn more about Aztec mythology, Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Alice in Wonderland. All of these elements can be recognised in the finished product, and she has to be applauded for being able to recreate this aura hanging over the story, presenting the Anglophone reader with a short work with almost mythical qualities.
Much has been said here about the deceptively dangerous nature of the journey, and for me this is the underlying theme of the novel. If we take Signs… as a look at the dangers of cultural assimilation (and that’s as good an angle as any to take), it can be read as a warning about losing contact with the culture that makes you who you are. This is perhaps best shown in a short exchange Makina has with an old man on the other side:
Do you like it? Tsk, me, I’m just passing through. How long you been here? Going on fifty years…
Getting in is easy – getting out is another matter entirely…
Interested? Well, let me tempt you a little more… On the Two Lines Press website, there’s a link to a podcast of a talk from last year about the book, with Yuri Herrera and Daniel Alarcón in conversation at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. It gives you a great idea of the style of the book, and the ideas behind it – if you’re still not sure after listening to this, then Signs… is probably not for you😉