Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Several years ago, I struck up a conversation with a guy selling books at the excellent Letters Bookshop in Durham, NC, and after talking, he highly recommended this short novel and I bought a copy. I put it on the “read soon” shelf in the living room well over a year ago and had mostly forgotten it. Recently, though, in the midst of an online conversation about the controversy surrounding American Dirt (which I haven’t read), I saw at least two people recommending reading this book instead. I am glad that I was reminded that I had a copy, as it is an astounding book.

Makina is a telephone operator in Mexico (neither Mexico or the US is mentioned by name in the book). In addition to her work duties, she also occasionally carries messages or packages for local gangsters. The novel (novella?) is the story of her trip into the States to find her brother, who went some years earlier, and deliver a package while she’s going. Given the borderlands setting (and the relative lack of punctuation), the easy comparison would be Cormac McCarthy. Lisa Dillman, the translator, does cite him in her afterward as an influence on the way she did her work.* She mentioned The Road, and I thought about The Crossing a couple times while reading this. I couldn’t speak to Herrera’s relation to McCarthy, but it is covering a lot of the same territory. While that comparison is an apt one, it would do a disservice to Herrera to lean into it too heavily.

First there’s the language: “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.” If I read the afterward correctly, the language was similarly rendered in Spanish. That intermediary tongue is rendered in a deliberately region free English that is a pleasure to read. Herrera apparently coined words to use in the original, and Dillman repurposes words here to achieve the same effect. That effect is poetic without being overly showy and mythic.

Border crossing is a fraught topic. The book might come as a shock to Anglos who hadn’t previously considered the possibility that people coming in from Mexico might have a high level of ambivalence about the whole enterprise themselves. What is given up in such a trip? Why go to a place where abuse will be heaped upon them? One reading of the book (maybe the intended reading?) is to frame journey into America as a descent into hell. Herrera’s vision is not as bleak as McCarthy’s, but an encounter with a cop late in the book really brings it close. And I’m still trying to figure out how much hope is intended in the ending. It’s not always a compliment to say a book would make a great movie, but in this case it is. I would love to see an adaptation of this in the right hands.

I will definitely be rereading this. Canon Worthy.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 10/75

*Dillman’s afterward is in itself fantastic reading.

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