The Pequod Review:
Published in 2009, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a short and intense novel that takes place along the US-Mexican border. The story involves a young woman (Makina) who works as a switchboard operator in a small Mexican town, and seeks to travel to the US to deliver a message to her brother. But the book rises far above its simple plot, and becomes a dreamlike allegory about borders and in-between states more generally — how people change as they move from one side to the other, how the presence of the border affects the areas around it, and how an unsettled existence can cause psychological harm. In vivid prose, Herrera describes how the foreign “anglo” land appears to Makina:
The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.
“They play, said the old man. Every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are. He stopped, raised his cane and fanned the air. One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn't get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.”
While the book’s implicit criticism of American culture is sometimes heavy-handed, Herrera just as often comes up with rich insights about the impact of cross-cultural interactions:
Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes; promising other things, signifying other things, producing different 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 damnedest.
Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world — some countries, some people — could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile.
This is really quite astonishing prose — precise, haunting and sometimes thrilling. Highly recommended.