Another Mexican classic in the making: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera, trans. Lisa Dillman

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2016 seems have turned into my year of Mexican reading.  It had never been a country that loomed large on my literary world-map, but with Juan Pablo Villalobos’s ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ introducing me to Narco-Noir and a lovely magic-realism hit from Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ my gradual discovery of Mexican reading has been a delight.  In fact, it even gave me the confidence to get started on last year’s top new translation: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World.’

From the black and white cover design to the enigmatic title, I’d been finding this novel intimidating since it started dominating bookshelves and reading lists last year.  I must confess, I was equally confused by the first paragraph, in which the main character nearly dies as the earth opens up beneath her: ‘I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.’

It’s only as we read the book that we see quite how emblematic this paragraph is.  Herrera’s short novel has been compared to Dante’s writings and, read in the context of the author who narrated his own voyage through hell, unexplained events like the sinkhole start to fit into a wider narrative structure.  Makina is on a physical journey throughout the novel.  She is looking to cross the boarder into America and she’s absolutely determined that, quest accomplished, ‘she was coming right back.‘  The journey will be a difficult one, because there are lots of powerful forces to placate and lots of tasks to be accomplished.  You feel if anyone can make it though, it’s the smart, fierce and independent Makina.

Herrera’s novel is powerful, evocative, violent and very moving.  Although a specific physical boarder is central to the novel, in Lisa Dillman’s translation ideas about power and transience, about identity and fragility highlight the universal implications of the story.  In fact, there is a very interesting essay by Dillman at the end of my book, in which she explains ‘I tried to create an English that was geographically non-explicit … The novel’s dialogues are often peppered with language – colloquialisms, slang, expression, culturally-embedded references – that could only take place in Mexico (or on the Mexico-USA border) …attempting to find an English dialect that would serve as a linguistic “parallel” is problematic.’  As an English-language reader I almost felt like I was getting the best of both worlds, a fascinating story with a highly significant and resonant setting, but also an allegory that invited reflection on my own culture and experience.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ is every bit as wonderful as everyone was telling me and I keenly await more recommendations of Mexican literature – I realise I’ve only just started to get to know this country’s literature; based on what I’ve read so far, I’m very eager for more!

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5 Responses to Another Mexican classic in the making: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera, trans. Lisa Dillman

  1. Sarah says:

    I had great intentions of reading a wide variety of South and Central American literature this year, but what with other books muscling to the top of the tbr pile, it just didn’t happen (although I did read and love ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ too). I’ve just started watching ‘Narcos’ on netflix, and it has whetted my appetite to explore the history and politics of the different countries in South and central America. I’ve already heard good things about Herrera’s book, but your review has convinced me to include it in my reading plans.

    • Yay ! I really look forward to learning your views on it. I’ve done better this year in my plans to read more books from South and Central America, but then the bar I’d set for myself was extremely low!

  2. Ste J says:

    It sounds a little like 2666 in some respects, I’m with you in wishing to read more Mexican literature.

    • Bolaño is another of those South American writers I’ve never read … thank you for reminding me of him. The high after my realisation that Mexican literature is less intimidating than I’d thought is probably a good time to try him out!

      • Ste J says:

        It is great to realise that we can conquer these things. I found that with Russian literature but that was due to the size of War and Peace as well.

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