Deemed as “Mexico’s greatest novelist,” writer Yuri Herrera presents his readers with an incredibly multilayered, fantastical, yet oddly-realistic narrative of border-jumping in his 2015 novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World. A necessary read in current times, Herrera’s text accurately transmits the complexities behind the relationship between the U.S. and Mexican border towns, and in doing so, brilliantly reproduces geopolitical tensions found between both regions. Set as a conduit character between the two locations, the novel’s protagonist, Makina, all-too-realistically foreshadows the dawn of a tragic, slightly horrific new world, where the notion of an “authentic” Mexican border identity becomes obsolete. Signs Preceding the End of the World relays conceptions of migration, identity-hybridity and transculturalism all too well, for the narrative Herrera constructs is one that is already in constant motion in the real world.
The plot underlying the novel is a seemingly simple one. Herrera’s protagonist is Makina, an educated young woman living in a rural, Mexican border town. The character works at a telecommunications company where she mediates conversations between individuals via both a switchboard, and her ability to understand three different tongues, two of which are Mexican dialects, and one of which, “Anglo,” is spoken mostly in North America. Because of her ability to speak English, Makina has been tasked, by her mother, to send a letter to her brother who ran away to the U.S. some time ago. In order to do so, however, Makina requires the help of members belonging to the local crime scene, one of whom is Mr. Aitch, a “reptile in pants” who asks the protag-onist to smuggle a package into the U.S. Despite the fact that the events of the novel are predominantly “realistic,” Herrera integrates elements of fantasy into his work, which only seem to amplify the dif-ficulty of living within the Mexican borderland. This is evident at the very beginning of the novel when the earth literally opens up and swallows “the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby.” Readers later find out that the man had been sent to a literal underworld, and that individuals being swallowed up by the earth is somewhat of a “normal” occurance where Makina lives. This quality of being located right above hell only adds to the negative characteristics ascribed to Makina’s hometown, for during several instances within the novel, she makes out her area to be practically uninhabitable. This descriptive element is, perhaps, utilized in order to highlight the conditions of living within border Mexico as a whole, for it is no coincidence that “the north” is described as a place of prosperity when compared to Makina’s hometown.
Further into the novel, Makina talks about one of the many men who had “struck it rich” after going north, and “came back to the village all full of him-self, all la-di-da, all fancy clothes and watches and new words he’d be able to say into his new phone.” In fact, when that very same man attempts to introduce cell phone technology to Makina’s village, he discovers that the land is devoid of cell towers, which constitute rather “basic” communication infrastructure. Not only does the novel highlight socio-economic disparities between border Mexico and northern America, but it also presents a critique of the “American Dream” that, as Makina states, an increasing number of border Mexicans seem to be both chasing, and wanting to reproduce in their hometowns. Having had a taste of what they blindingly believe to be the “good life,” Americanized border Mexicans return wanting to create total reform, forgetting entirely that the foundations for such reform may not even exist. On the other hand, those who, like Makina’s brother, have not been so lucky in achieving the “American dream” end up having to permanently settle onto U.S. territory due to complicated legal issues.
What is almost too easy to miss when thinking about Makina is her name and the implications it bears on both the novel, and her persona. Makina, or rather maquina, means machine. This coincides with the character’s personality, for throughout the novel, she behaves mechanically, almost too effortlessly overcoming the myriad challenges presented to her and at the same time, she represents a “machine” that transmits messages between people. At the beginning of the novel, she mentions, “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.” Moreover, the novel’s narrative of accelerated translocation reinforces the emotionally-detached nature by which Makina interacts with both individuals, and her surroundings. Every chapter of the novel represents a transition into a new geographical area, and this becomes apparent via chapter titles which include locations such as “The Earth,” “The Water Crossing,” and “The Place Where the Hills Meet.” These rapid geographical transitions allow for Makina’s experiences in each of the locations she finds herself in to be extremely fleeting. This, consequently, allows for the character’s robotic temperament to be further exaggerated, for she becomes a fugitive, steeling herself from any emotions that may obstruct her mission.
There are, however, key instances during which Makina exhibits fierce, bone-chilling responses to-wards the events surrounding her. The most prominent of these responses occurs towards the end of the novel, when Makina bears witness to verbal abuse directed towards a Mexican man from an all too-patriotic American cop. After noticing a notebook in the Mexican man’s hand, the cop rudely states, “lookie here at the educated worker, comes with no money, no papers, but hey, poems.” The cop then challenges the man to pick up the notebook in his hand and produce a work of poetry. After the man’s failure to oblige, and in an attempt to both spare the man of abuse and humiliation, and stand up for the rights of her people, Makina takes on the challenge herself, and produces a rather “controversial” piece of text. The character expresses the degree to which Mexicans experience mistreatment in north America, for she states, “[we] who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you. What else could we do?” Makina is more than ready to defend both her rights, and those of her people, for she takes on the role of social activist, and in doing so, shamelessly exposes north American prejudices towards Mexicans.
Makina does not fall short in critiquing north American culture and politics, and the adverse effects they’ve both had on the border Mexican public. The character, however, tackles the issue from a rather interesting perspective, for instead of directly addressing political and/or socioeconomic tensions between the two regions, she sheds light on problematic linguistic dynamics. This focus on language-use stems from the nature of Makina’s job. In describing wired interactions between Makina and Mexicans who had migrated North, Herrera writes, “Sometimes, more and more these days, they called from the North; these were the ones who’d often already forgotten the local lingo, so she responded to them in their own new tongue.” Later in the novel, when the character finds herself across the border, she comes across a couple of homegrowns, i.e. Mexican individuals who had taken residence up North. In describing the manner in which they speak, Makina mentions, “more than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying and what is not yet born.” Makina resents the situation she and other border Mexicans find themselves in, for she describes herself as “malleable, erasable, permeable.” The character fully understands that being a part of a “newer” world necessitates linguistically assimilating to North American culture, and somehow giving up her linguistic identity. The character even exhibits frustration towards the hybrid latin-anglo dialect that the homegrowns she encounters use, for she mentions that “in it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects, while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.” Makina realizes the temporary nature of both her linguistic identity, and her identity as a whole, for, as Herrera writes, “the world happening anew: Makina realizes: promising other things, signifying other things, producing new objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, but there they are, doing their damndest.” This is, perhaps, what “the end of the world” looks like: border Mexicans losing any sense of an authentic self, and being forced into assimilation. The signs preceding the end of the world are the linguistic changes that border Mexicans exhibit in response to their migration.
Makina does her fair share of critiquing the ever-changing nature of the hybrid tongue spoken by homegrowns. The character, however, also sheds light on the fallibility of translation. When crossing the border into the U.S., Makina describes how difficult it is to use the Latin-Anglo dictionary she has on her, for bilingual dictionaries don’t take into account the fluidity between and within languages, and, consequently, fail in transmitting one’s culture and one’s own experiences. This also emphasizes the difficulty of assimilating into a new culture, for its components are in constant flux. This, consequently, describes the practice of translation itself, and how it should not be considered as static, or permanent.
In fact, the novel’s award-winning translator, Lisa Dillman, points out just how much consideration needs to go into the practice of translation in order for textual reproduction not to be “problematic.” She mentions that “the novel’s dialogues are often peppered with language — colloquialisms, slang, expressions, culturally embedded references — that could only take place in Mexico.” In doing so, Dillman points out the difficulty in creating parallelisms between texts and, consequently, in giving an authentic voice to the characters whose narratives she rewrites. One strategy the translator utilizes is that of leaving certain expressions untranslated. She mentions, “my intention here is to leave a linguistic reminder to the reader that this is, in fact, a translated text, and to avoid renderings [...] that might be genuinely intimate, but cringe-makingly American for language meant to come out of a rural Mexican teenager’s mouth.” Dillman notes the importance of preserving authenticity, and in doing so, she recognizes the limitations of translation, but does not consider them obstacles, for they are necessary in order to, as she mentions, remind the reader that the text is, in fact, meant to be read as a translation.
Christy Choueiri is currently a graduate student of English Literature at the American University of Beirut. With interests in gender and sexuality, socio-linguistics, and creative writing, she really does not know where she fits in, but she hopes to someday figure out a way to mediate between her interests and do some good in the world.