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  • Writer's pictureSusan Edsall

Signs Preceding The End Of The World by Yuri Herrera



Signs Preceding the End of the World  by Mexican author Yuri Herrera is a slim (107 pages) novel that gets inside the psyche and myth of crossing borders.


The novel opens with the sentence “I’m dead.” This is what Makina, the main character, thinks as she barely misses being swallowed by a massive sinkhole that occurs suddenly on the main street of her town. The occurrence serves as a metaphor for a journey she is about to take into the underworld—crossing the border to the United States, at the urging of her mother, in search of her brother, and carrying a message from Mr. Aich, a Mexican gangster who agrees to help her in exchange for her courier services.


Makina is no heroine. She operates the only telephone service in town, taking calls and messages for the town’s citizens. She is trusted because she isn’t nosy and makes no judgments about people’s business. In describing her job she says this: 


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. 

Those were the rules Makina abided by and that was why she was respected in the Village. 


But in fulfilling her mother’s request to go in search of her brother, she becomes the one who walks through the door, and she has to call on every inner power she has to survive a role at which she is a rookie. 


One of the first thing that happens to her is that the boy sitting next to her on the bus tries to molest her.  This is what she does: 


…almost immediately Makina felt the first contact, real quick, as if by accident: the millimetric graze of her elbow prefaced ravenous manhandling. She sharpened her peripheral vision and prepared for what must come, if the idiot decided to persist. He did. Barely bothering to fake it, he dropped his left hand onto his own left leg, languidly letting it sag onto the seat and brush her thigh on the way back up, no harm intended, of course. Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so he’d know that her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he’d touched her with almost all the way back to an inch from the top of his wrist; it took her one second. … the adventurer fell to his knees in pain…and opened his mouth to scream, but before the order reached his brain Makina had already insisted, finger to lips shhh eh; 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.

We know from this that we are dealing with a strong young woman who has her wits about her even in an unfamiliar, threatening environment—reminiscent of the underworld environment of the sinkhole. 


She doesn’t know what to expect when she finally arrives, and is stunned by the barrenness of this land of opportunity, its insular reality:


And when she arrived and saw what she’d come to find it was sheer emptiness.

As you might imagine, every conceivable awful thing happens to her as she tries to cross the border and each time she finds it in herself to survive. She meets her near end when she is rounded up, along with other migrant workers, by a white policeman with a gun and power. He makes them all kneel on the ground with their hands behind their backs and look at the ground. The policeman sees one of the men is holding a book of poetry. The cop rips it from his hands and mocks him, sneering… 


Lookie here at the educated worker, comes with no money, no papers, but hey, poems, You a romantic? A poet ? A writer? Looks like we’re gonna find out. 

Then the cop hands the man a pencil and orders at him to write. The man is bewildered and the cop shouts…


I told you to write, not look at me, you piece of shit….write why you think you’re up the creek, why you think your ass is in the hands of this patriotic officer. 


Of course the man is trembling with fear and is entirely incapable of writing anything. So Makina takes the pencil and starts writing herself. Then the cop snatches the paper from her and starts reading out loud. 


We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours, We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, 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?  We the ones who are waiting for who knows what.  We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians. 

The policeman is forced to read his own patriotic words out loud, words coming out of the pencil of this tough, able girl, and he is shamed, turning and walking away. 


We come to know that our rookie heroine is capable of that and more.


Signs Preceding The End Of The World is a border story, but also considerably more. It has the deep resonance of myth and what is true about all transitions and crossings.


The first line of the book is I am dead. The last line of the book is I am ready. What Makina loses in order to declare herself ready is what comes in between. 


It’s a gorgeously written, troubling, and true. 


You can buy or order Signs Preceding the End of the World  at your local bookstore. If you don’t have a local bookstore, you can order it online at:



 

About Susan Edsall


Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >


 

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“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.”

E.M. Forster

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