Originally published in Spanish and translated by Lisa Dillman for the indie publisher And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of Makina, a young Mexican woman who needs to cross the border into the United States.
First, she must visit a series of local gangsters who have the connections needed to smuggle her across the border and, more importantly, smuggle her back when the time comes. Makina is in search of her brother who was lured across the border with a promise of riches by one of the very gangsters to which she must turn for help.
This is a short book, short even for a novella, and difficult not to read in a sitting. It’s relentlessly gripping, picking apart the lure of the United States, the horror and violence of the journey across the border and the treatment of immigrants within the country, in a haunting and poetic way.
Based in Sheffield, And Other Stories publishes contemporary writing, including many translations. They aim to push reading limits and help readers discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing. They also run the Northern Book Prize, a prize run annually for an unpublished book-length work of ambitious literary fiction either written by a writer living in the North of England or by a writer who has a strong connection to the North.
Do you think there is a message to this book?
The author has commented that Makina’s journey is, in part, a mythological journey which draws upon Mexican mythology of the journey to the afterlife. Discuss the relevance of this to the story and perhaps to any message within the book.
In the translator’s note, Dillman discusses how she had to find a translation for the word ‘Jarchas’, which is the last few lines of Arabic poetry from Al-Andalus (now part of Spain). Herrera uses the word, often in the context of Makina, as a verb when people leave or cross to another place. Dillman chooses to use the word ‘verse’. Discuss how language and exits are important to the work and why Herrera might have chosen to use this word in this way.
Makina is a translator for her village telephone exchange. Why do you think Herrera might have chosen this occupation for her?
Makina often thinks about language, for example how the language of the ‘homegrowns’ has evolved. How does this serve as an allegory for the journey that she and her brother make?
Discuss the theme of boundaries and crossings within the book.
In the chapter ‘The Snake That Lies in Wait’, Makina presents the cop with a piece of writing. What do you think the author was trying to show or say with that poem and with that chapter? Why do you think he might have made those words be the product of Makina within the book, rather than a piece of standalone poetry?
What do you think is the significance of the final chapter?
Makina discovers her brother is staying with an American family. They have moved away, but the new owner of their house tells her that their son still lives at the nearby military base. There, she finds the son but he is actually her brother who, for money, has taken the young man’s place, carrying out active military service in his name. She asks her brother to return with her to Mexico, but he refuses – he is lost. Makina starts to walk home but in the final chapter she meets a man who looks like Chucho in a park who takes her to an underground room filled with people. There she is given a file with a new identity by a man who then disappears. She says she can feel the memory of her hometown fading.
Yuri Herrera was born in Actopan, Mexico, in 1970. He studied Politics in Mexico, and has a PhD in Literature from Berkeley. Signs Preceding the End of the World is his second novel, and was published in English in 2015. It has also been translated into French, Dutch, German, and Italian. Herrera is currently teaching at the University of Tulane in New Orleans.
A very interesting interview with Yuri Herrera can be found here:
Literature as a Political Responsibility: An Interview with Yuri Herrera