Undocumented entry into the United States has been a hot-button political topic for the last few decades. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, novelist Yuri Herrera tells the tale of one such border crossing. However, he approaches this subject in a symbolic way that raises his story above the politics of the moment and turns it into something universal.
When Makina’s mother asks her to deliver a message to her brother on the other side, she must enlist the help of the local criminal overlords. Makina is a tough, smart young woman who knows how to navigate this world of petty crime bosses and quickly gains their cooperation. In return, they ask only that she take a small package to be delivered to a certain party who will make himself known to her.
The realistic handling of these early scenes draws the reader into Makina’s world. However, from the outset, her journey takes on ominous overtones. On her way to visit the first of these “top dogs,” she nearly falls into a sinkhole that opens suddenly before her. Reeling vertiginously on its edge, she thinks, “I’m dead.”
Later as she continues to make her preparations, she recalls others who have made this passage and never returned or came back strangely changed. Her brother was one such. He went in search of land promised to him, but after a few desultory letters, fell silent.
After making her final arrangements, Makina finds her attention arrested by a wall of double mirrors. “She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the never-ending front, curving forward as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.”1 The reader may ask at this point if Makina is simply crossing a border into another country or if she is, Alicelike, stepping through the looking glass into a dark and dangerous Wonderland.
This sense of recursive reflections occurs again when Makina wakes on the bus. “[She] could never be sure of what she’d dreamed in the same way that she couldn’t be sure that a place was where the map said it was until she’d gotten there, but she had a feeling she’d dreamed of lost cities: literally lost cities inside other lost cities, all ambulating over an impenetrable surface.”2
A man named Chucho meets Makina at the river and takes her across in a tractor inner tube. But, unfortunately, this frail substitute boat capsizes in midstream, and she has a harrowing few moments before the boatman pulls her from the water on the other side. And, although the details seem quite naturalistic, we can’t help feeling that Chucho is a figure like Charon who has conducted Makina not simply to another country but to the realm of the dead. “It had hardly been more than a few dozen yards, but on staring up at the sky, Makina thought it was already different, more distant, or less blue.”3
This sense that Herrera wishes to portray America as the land of the dead is intensified by echoes from The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Mesopotamian poem, the hero journeys through the mountains to the Garden of the Gods in utter darkness. The ancient poets use repetition to intensify the sense of desolation in Gilgamesh’s journey. “When he had gone one league, the darkness became thick about him, for there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. After two leagues, the darkness was thick and there was no light. He could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.” 4 This repetitious formula continues for several pages.
Herrera uses a similar device to good effect. After meeting with another criminal overlord, Makina continues to search for her brother. “She asked for the way to the city, and they told her Over there (finger pointing to where the sun comes up.) She asked farther on for the way to the suburb, and they told her there’s four with that name, but maybe she wanted the one by the bridge. She asked farther on for the way to the bridge, but they told her she didn’t want that suburb, but the one with the zoo.”5
However, when Makina finally finds her brother, she discovers he has taken over someone’s identity and become a soldier fighting one of America’s unending wars in the Middle East. He has quite literally become a different person, his old persona wholly subsumed by his new role.
After learning that her brother has become a stranger and is, in effect, dead, Makina faces arrest. She is pulled into a group on a sidewalk by a “patriotic” officer who puts all the ugliness of American racial profiling on display.
But when the officer demands that one of the group write something, Makina snatches the pencil and writes an ironic confession that could be the plaint of any marginalized people. “We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who come to take your jobs, who long to work all hours. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic, the barbarians.”6
Confronted by these words, the officer loses interest, gets in his squad car, and drives off, leaving the group free. Makina’s story ends ambiguously, implying that, like her brother, she too will stay on in this land of the dead.
Signs Preceding the End of the World offers readers a fresh take on a controversial subject. Its spare, rich pages reflect and refract the world that we think we know in often uncomfortable ways. And its symbolism raises it above a mere political screed to touch the sublime.
- Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World, Lisa Dillman tr. And Other Stories, p. 17
2. Herrera, p. 25
3. Herrera, p. 30
4. Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars trans. Penguin Classics, p. 35
5. Herrera, p. 49
6. Herrera, p. 69
Signs Preceding the End of the World: A Review by Jonathan Golding. Copyright 2021. All Rights Reserved
Artwork: Road to Nowhere by Yves Gagnon. All Rights Reserved.