Yuri Herrera: Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Signs Preceding the End of the World)
This is a very short novel but Herrera manages to pack a fair amount into it. It can be read as a Dantesque journey through the underworld. It is also the story of Mexicans crossing illegally into the United States and trying to stay there.
The heroine of the story is Makina. The grim situation where she lives in Mexico is shown early on when, she is walking in the town and a sinkhole opens up in front of her. She manages to step back but an unfortunate blind man falls into it. The sinkhole was almost certainly caused by the five centuries of silver mining in the town. She seems fairly indifferent to the fate of the victim.
Makina operates the switchboard in the town. She has the advantage of speaking three languages: English, Spanish and one local language. She often acts as arbitrator in discussions between people using the phone or even goes to find them when they are phoned from outside the town and are not at home. However, she has now been given the task by her mother, Cora, of taking a message to her brother. This means that she has to go to the other side, which we soon learn means to the United States. (The terms United States and America(n) are never used in this book and the word Mexican only once, to refer to cooking.) Her brother had gone over to the other side in relation to a land dispute with a local bigwig.
First of all, she has to deal with the local bigwigs. First there, is Mr Double-U who will help her get over and who owes her mother a favour and then there is Mr. Aitch, who will help her find her brother but she has to carry a package for him, presumably drugs. Makina has a difficult journey. She has to follow a circuitous route by bus (where she easily deals with a sexual predator), eventually going to the Big Chilango (i.e. Mexico City) and thence to the border. She has to take a rubber dinghy across a river (shades of crossing the Styx) and nearly drowns. There is then a conflict with a vigilante border guard but she manages to escape. Indeed, she takes a bullet which passes between two ribs but, as a charmed heroine, seems to survive with little problem. Her adventures are not over. She meets Mr. P at a large baseball stadium (we get a wonderful description of what baseball looks like to an outsider) and is on her way to find her brother.
Looking for her brother is more difficult than she thought. Many people seem to known him but she wanders through the circles of Hell, looking for him without success, passed on from one place to the next, encountering enthusiastic border patrol guards and vigilantes. Finally, she does track him down. He is in the US army and has taken the place of a young American. The young white man’s family had agreed to pay her brother but had made the assumption that he would go off to some foreign war and be killed. When he returned, unharmed, they did not have the money, so he stays in the army. It is clear that he is not the only Mexican in the army and clear that filling the army with Mexicans, in exchange for residence, is just one of the ways the US exploits Mexicans.
This really is a superb book, given its small size. The Dantesque approach, with Makina as the Dante character, and Chuchu, one of her guides, as her Virgil, is very well done. However, even if Dante is not your thing, you can fully appreciate the story of the issue of Mexicans trying (and, at least in this book) often succeeding entering the US illegally. There is one particularly telling image Herrera gives us. As Makina crosses the border, she sees what appears to be a pregnant woman. Closer inspection reveals a body swollen with putrefaction, the price that some Mexicans have to pay for trying to enter the US illegally.
I must mention the translation. There are two words which are used more than once in the English of this novel. The first is shuck. She’d shucked him [i.e. a boyfriend] for the first time. Shuck? For me, shuck is a word synonymous with shell, as in to shell peas or removing a corn husk. To be fair, the Spanish uses the word desgranar, which has the same meaning. However, the reflexive, degranarse does mean something like separate or split up. As far as I am aware shuck does not have this meaning in English. Lisa Dillman is from the US so it may be some obscure US usage but, according to the Urban Dictionary, the only meanings, apart from the corn husk meaning and Shucks! are two sexual meanings not, presumably, relevant in this case.
The second instance is mentioned by Dillman in her afterword. This is the Spanish word jarchar, apparently coined by Herrera and not known to most Spanish speakers. It comes from the Arabic word kharja, which means exit. Dillman states that she agonised over this word. Its meaning is usually clear in the context. Eventually she chose the English verse. The trouble with that choice is that verse and versed have other meanings in English, while jarchar does not in Spanish, so when you see it used, as it is many times, it is confusing and makes you wonder whether there is some other meaning to it. I agree that the translator has to try and convey what the original did but, given that that is impossible in both cases, it seems to me clarity is more important.
Another example of the trickiness of translation is the term used for the English language and America(ns). The Spanish uses the term gabacho for both English (the language) and people from the US. It is a pejorative term used by Spanish speakers for foreigners, akin, perhaps, to gringo. Dillman uses the word anglo which does not, it seems to me, have the same pejorative connotations. Indeed, I would have probably used the word gringo, which is obviously far more familiar to English speakers than gabacho.
These are all admittedly minor quibbles and ones which I spotted because, most unusually, I had access to both the original Spanish and the English translation. We must be grateful for And Other Stories and Lisa Dillman for bringing us Herrera’s work in English.
First published by Periférica in 2009
First English translation by And Other Stories in 2005
Translated by Lisa Dillman