Signs Preceding the End of the World
by Yuri Herrera; translated by Lisa Dillman
(And Other Stories; 114 p.)
A title can do so much. If Yuri Herrera’s novel had been graced with one that was less imposing, it might have read in a more focused way: not as something ominous or terrifying, but as a stark narrative of both sides of the border between Mexico and the United States. Instead, there’s that title, and all that it implies. And there’s Herrera’s prose style, too, which accentuates the events that take place in this novel, turning them into something that approaches mythology but veers away at the last moment towards something stranger.
In some ways, it’s easier to talk about what Signs Preceding the End of the World is not than about what it is. A simple description of the narrative–that it’s about a woman named Makina who crosses the border to look for her missing brother–suggests that the work to follow will be realistic, with perhaps a few prosaic touches. Translator Lisa Dillman, in her afterword, discussed her touchstones when looking for comparable narratives, and mentioned that she had settled on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a good point of reference.
Some of this short novel’s power arises from its pacing and its general style. The chapters have stark titles like “The Place Where Flags Wave” and “The Place Where Hills Meet.” And Makina’s journey across the river into the United States is a symbolically rich one, told elliptically. Makina is a fascinating protagonist: worldly yet optimistic, capable of a complex sense of judgment that allows her to be proactive or passive as the situation merits. At one point, Herrera outlines the items Makina plans to take with her, ending the passage with: “She was coming right back, that’s why that was all she took.” What might be a grueling narrative in another book is a matter for its protagonist to deal with quietly, subtly, before moving on to larger matters.
Describing Herrera’s novel as one of the supernatural would not be accurate, but neither is it told in an overtly realistic style: there’s grit, and there’s an attention to detail, but reality drifts in through filters throughout. It gets under your skin in weird ways; it sits comfortably beside books like Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching and Nick Antosca’s Midnight Picnic, where there’s an underlying logic that hits terrifyingly hard. The last two paragraphs of this novel thrilled me on the level of their prose, while also sending rampant chills down my spine. It’s a work that’s hard to shake.