Border crossing ahead: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”

signsA sinkhole opens up in the road in the opening passage of Yuri Herrera’s brilliantly inventive Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina, a streetwise young Mexican woman charged by her mother with a mission to deliver a message to her brother who has disappeared across the border in the US, just narrowly misses being swept into its depth. Or does she? She is a wary customer, old beyond her years, capable of communicating in native, latin and anglo tongue – a skill that has secured the task of manning the central switchboard in her hometown and has equipped her, as well anyone might be, for the daunting task her mother has set out.

The rules outlined above are those that Makina holds close. Securing her safe passage will require making deals with a series of shady characters and her hardened discretion will be vital if she is to reach her destination. The language matches her pace. The short chapters, clipped sentences, and unique vocabulary hurry along, sweeping the reader with it as if time is of the essence and dare not be wasted. There is no time for for frivolities, Makina – and with her the reader – must be on the alert. This is a dangerous journey. It is one that many desperate people make every day. On the far side, the world to be navigated is both familiar and strange.

“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.”

But for the illegal migrant, temporary or permanent, the risks are real. The rewards often elusive, the costs high.

This slim novel is filled with passages of vivid intensity. Dark, epic in scope if not in scale, a few hours with Herrera is akin to a journey with Dante or Lewis Carroll. Right through to the final breath taking passages, I would challenge a reader to not emerge gasping for air.

Another wonderful offering from And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a deeply rewarding way to spend a few hours. In the Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, Lisa Hillman describes the joys and challenges she faced in capturing the right tone and shaping the language to preserve the magic and power of the original text. The result is an absolutely compulsive read. Highly, highly recommended.

Now, after this brief respite, back to reading the International Foreign Fiction Prize long list with my fellow bloggers on this year’s shadow jury.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

11 thoughts on “Border crossing ahead: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera”

    1. I needed a break from the IFFP reading and this book has been getting a lot of attention (for an independent in translation). Magical, powerful and a quick read, but speaks to a much larger reality on the Mexican/US border.

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    1. This is the first book by Yuri Herrera I have encountered but this one has received such acclaim that I understand there will be more released next year. The language is brilliant and the translator creates a lingo that she feels will best match the elements of the original. It is a compulsive, quick read but the sort that makes you want to return to the beginning and start again the moment you reach the end.

      As for And Other Stories, I just discovered them earlier this year and immediately became a subscriber. I was drawn to them for a couple of South African writers (SJ Naudé and Ivan Vladislavić) but now I will buy and read anything they publish.

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      1. Yes, I’m aware of them but haven’t paid them the attention they clearly merit. I might make this my first by them, quick and compulsive are good traits in a novel that still has literary merit. It’s not as common a combo as it could be and sometimes it’s precisely what one needs.

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    1. Thanks. I was still new to writing reviews at this time. I remember reading this book in the middle of my one and only stint on a shadow jury (for what was still the International Foreign Fiction Prize). It was such a treat to pick up something entirely my own choice that was short, sharp, and such a delight! Signs is definitely one of those books you just want to press into the hands of others once you’ve read it.

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      1. Yes, it is, I agree. I’ve only done a Shadow Jury once too. The old Man Asian Booker. I didn’t like the pressure to read everything in a set time! Even though I loved the variety of reading and still remember some of the books I read.

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