Monday, 16 May 2016

Signs Preceding The End of The World

Signs Preceding The End of The World
Yuri Herrera
(Translated by Lisa Dillman)

"The place was like a sleepwalker's bedroom: specific yet inexact, somehow unreal and yet vivid.."

The first two words of Signs are "I'm Dead" followed by a comma and qualifications that indicate that life is still present, as Makina, our heroine "flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved."

"Slippery bitch of a city, she said to herself. Always about to sink back into the cellar."

Makina will prove herself adept at keeping the ground under her feet and as tough as her imprecation to the city indicates. The city, and the world surrounding it, demands toughness to survive. It is not a cosy or trustworthy place.
"This was the first time the earth's insanity had affected her. The Little Town was riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust..." 

But although Makina avoids following an old man, a car and a dog into the sinkhole there are elements here of Alice in Wonderland. The world Makina lives in, and the journey she must take, seem only partially tethered to the 'real' world. She may even be dead - "She could feel the earth under her nails as though she'd been the one to go down the hole." Herrera mines for myth; the essential relationships between the kings of the world and their foot soldiers, and the people who try to negotiate paths between them.

I was reminded of Kevin Barry's City of Bohane, which shares many traits with this book, not least a nod to sci-fi and a world run by crime bosses and borders that are hard to cross and more difficult to cross back again.  And as Barry's novel is and is not set in the West of Ireland so Signs is and is not set on a journey across the border between Mexico and the US. Both books also share tough women protagonists who can dish out violence when required - "she let him get used to the idea that a woman had jacked him up and then whispered, leaning close, I don't like being pawed by fucking strangers, if you can believe it."

While I'm at this I also felt the grey, narcotic shadow of William Burroughs drifting past like a asthmatic cough. The use of argot; the sense that this border could be between one country and another, or life and death, or altered states of mind; the sense that there is a kind of magic at work...

Like the heroes of many a myth Makina has a task: "Her mother, Cora, had called her and said Go and take this paper to your brother. I don't like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?". But first she must move through "the Village, the Little Town, the Big Chilango" and get permission to travel from the three lords of the underground / three local crime bosses: Mr Double-U ("my man will get you across"); Mr Aitch ("sinister, with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around your legs"), in the "Pulquería Raskolnikova" ("you deliver something for me, an itty bitty little thing, you just give it to a compadre and he'll be the one who tells you how to find your kin.") and Mr Q ("it was always like pebbles were pouring from his lips, even if she didn't rightly know what each one was supposed to mean") There are also three languages: "native tongue or latin tongue" and the language from the North of "the ones who'd already forgotten the local lingo."  Makina is the only one who speaks all three ("and knows how to keep quiet in all three, too.") and she operates the village switchboard which has allowed her to be in favour with all "the top dogs". She has "worked as a messenger during emergency negotiations" Mr. Q "and Mr Aitch held to divvy up the mayoral candidates when their supporters were on the verge of hacking one another to pieces."

She has a philosophy which allows her to stay moving in this world of traps:
"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."

There seems a proliferation of borders to cross, and the immanent danger of enchantment in each place: "She couldn't get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn't get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon: or lost in awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces. That was why she chose to travel underground to the other bus depot. Train ran around the entire circulatory system but never left the body; down there the heavy air would do her no harm, and she ran no risk of becoming captivated."

Like Makina, this book moves at a brisk pace and never gets bogged down. It is as terse as Hammett at his best, always moving, making the familiar strange with it's slightly askance phrasing, soft-focus specificity and hard-boiled manners.

But it contains the world it seems to shy away from. Dead bodies on the desert sand and their forgotten luggage are real. "Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin, sometimes a jaranera harp. Jackets. People who left took jackets because they'd been told that if there was one thing they could be sure of over there, it was the freezing cold, even if it was desert all the way."
 We cannot get away from the pain that underlies this myth. The hot dry freezing battle with death in the desert  is reminiscent of stories in Rulfo's masterful collection El llano en llamas. A pregnant woman turns out to be "some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction."  The border is policed by a crazed vigilante with a gun.

Makina is advised that she had "best leave behind anything might weigh you down" by the man who is to guide her across the border. He, in his disinterest in her and focus on and suitability for his role causes her some small thrill of desire: "She felt that moment of tension without fear go on and on, and then was surprised how much time had passed without her feeling guilty for wanting what she wanted. More than leaving her boyfriend behind she was casting off her guilt the way you might shed belongings."

On the streets in the north Makina finds that her compatriots "are homegrown and they are anglo." There is a metamorphosis taking place, shapes are shifting. "They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link. 
More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born."
We are almost back to "You are the door, not the one who walks through it." And what apocalypse lies at the other side of this door? Maybe the apocalypse we are living: "It's really lonely here, but there's lots of stuff."

Are we hollowed out, cut adrift from the rhythm of life. Are we all emigrants, or immigrants, or exiles? "He leaned in toward her, and as he gave her a hug said Give Cora a kiss from me. He said it the same way he gave her a hug, like it wasn't his sister he was hugging, like it wasn't his mother he was sending a kiss to, but just a polite platitude. Like he was ripping out her heart, like he was cleanly extracting it and placing it in a plastic bag and storing it in the fridge to eat later."

There is much more in this novel that I haven't touched on. It is as exciting a novel by a new (to me) writer as I've read in years. The news that there is another book due in English next month again translated by Lisa Dillman, and from publisher & other stories is exciting news. It is called The Transmigration of Bodies and is due out on July 7th.


The Chapter Headings read like plan´s in The Zone in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, or like settings for Beckett plays reimagined by Stanley Kubrick.
1. The Earth
2. The Water Crossing
3. The Place Where the Hills Meet
4. The Obsidian Mound
5. The Place Where the Wind Cuts Like a Knife
6. The Place Where the Flags Wave
7. The Place Where People's Hearts are Eaten
8. The Snake That Lies in Wait
9. The Obsidian Place With No Windows or Holes for the Smoke

The book also contains a fascinating "Translator's Note" from Lisa Dillman - here is a key passage describing some of the process of translating the key repeated word in the book.
"I also spent a tremendous amount of time considering possibilities for the novel's most talked about neologism: jarchar. Yuri himself has discussed the verb in multiple places. Within Signs, it means, essentially, "to leave." The word is derived from jarchas (from the Arabic kharja, meaning exit), which were short Mozarabic verses or couplets tacked on to the end of longer Arabic or Hebrew poems written in Al-Andalus, the region we now call Spain. Written in the vernacular, these lyric compositions served as a sort of bridge between cultures and languages, Mozarabic being a kind of hybrid that was, of course, not yet Spanish. And on one level Signs is just that: a book about bridging cultures and languages. Jarchar, too, is a noun-turned-verb. I wrangled with myself - and spoke somewhat obsessively with others - over how best to render this term, debating multiple options before finally deciding on "to verse" (the two runners-up were "'to port" and "to twain"). Used in context it is easily understood, and has the added benefits of also being a noun-turned-verb, a term clearly referring to poetry, and part of several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the "end" of the uni-verse."

She also mentions some of the reading she did "to prepare for the project." "I read for theme; I read for tone; I read for style. I read texts that took place on borders. I read about Aztec mythology and Alice in Wonderland and Dante's circles of hell. I tried to read writers who might have styles, or tones, or non-standard usages that I would find in some way comparable or analogous. The most helpful was Cormac McCarthy (in particular The Road, another tale - coincidentally, or not? - that can be read on different levels, one of which is "the end of the world")."

I quote this at length as the translation is wonderful, or at least the tone, style and fluency of the translation is wonderful. I can't comment on it's fidelity to the original.

Some Reviews
Richard at Caravana De Recuerdos (in Spanish).  Richard has also been writing, inspiring and collating posts on Mexican literature this year. For more information click HERE.
Grant at 1streading 
Stu at Winston'sDad
Hans Rollmann at Popmatters


  1. Sounds like a truly exhilarating read, Seamus. A surprise omission from the Man Booker International list given the number of positive reviews it has received. One question about the novel itself - would it be suitable for a sixteen-year-old or is very firmly 18s-and-above territory?

    1. Jacqui, I would let a sixteen year old read it. It's quite like a fable and moves at a very brisk pace, never wallowing in sordid detail. Mind you, most sixteen year olds probably want books that wallow in sordid detail.

    2. That's great. My goddaughter's brothers are somewhat reluctant readers, but I think the 16-year-old would take to this, especially given the subject matter, fable-like quality and brisk pace. Cheers.

  2. Glad you liked this, Séamus. For my part, I loved how it was reminiscent of Rulfo in some quite intangible way and yet a departure from his oeuvre at one and the same time. Must take a look at that translator's note you mention, by the way; language and tone were such a big part of this novel's appeal for me.

    1. The translator's note is well worth reading Richard. And the language and tone, post translation, remain one of the books strengths. There is something about journeys with uncertain destinations, or where failure seems the certain outcome that seems shared with Rulfo.