Title: Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Author: Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman).
Genre: Fiction, immigration, mafia, adventure.
Publication Date: 2009.
Summary: The book looks at the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it, exploring the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages - one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.
My rating: 7.5/10.
♥ 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. She ran the switchboard with the only phone for miles and miles around. It rang, she answered, they asked for so and so, she said I’ll go get them, call back in a bit and your person will pick up, or I’ll tell you what time you can find them. Sometimes they called from nearby villages and she answered them in native tongue or latin tongue. Sometimes, more and more these days, they called from the North; these were the ones who’d often already forgotten the local lingo, so she responded to them in their own new tongue. Makina spoke all three, and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too.
♥ She’d already arranged for her crossing and how to find her brother, now she had to make sure there would be someone to help her back; she didn’t want to stay there, nor have to endure what had happened to a friend who stayed away too long, maybe a day too long or an hour too long, at any rate long enough too long that when he came back it turned out that everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters were no longer his brothers and sisters, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms, as if they’d been copied off an original that no longer existed; even the air, he said, warmed his chest in a different way.
♥ She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.
♥ Makina could feel her absorbing the world, storing away the passions that came and went along the phone cord. (Of course I still love you, Very soon, Any day now, Hold your horses, Did you get it? Did she tell you? When was that? How did it happen? How in the name of God is that possible? His name is so and so, Her name is such and such, Don’t get me wrong, I never even dreamed, I don’t live here anymore.) She was growing up quickly, and in a man’s world, and Makina wanted to educate her as to the essentials: how to take stock of them and how to put up with them; how to savor them. How even if they’ve got filthy mouths, they’re fragile; and even if they’re like little boys, they can really get under your skin.
♥ Cora merely looked at him, fed up, and didn’t say a word, until she saw him at the door with his rucksack full of odds and ends and said Let him go, let him learn to fend for himself with his own big balls, and he hesitated a moment before he versed, and in the doubt flickering in his eyes you could see he’d spent his whole life there like that, holding back his tears, but before letting them out he turned and versed and only ever came back in the form of two or three short notes he sent a long while later.
♥ Makina could never be sure of what she’d dreamed, in the same way that she couldn’t be sure a place was where the map said it was until she’d gotten there, but she had the feeling she’d dreamed of lost cities: literally, lost cities inside other lost cities, all ambulating over an impenetrable surface.
She looked out at the country mushrooming on the other side of the glass. She knew what it contained, its colors, the penury and the opulence, hazy memories of a less cynical time, villages emptied of men. But on contemplating the tense stillness of the night, the darkness dotted here and there with sparks, on sensing that insidious silence, she wondered, vaguely, what the hell might be festering out there: what grows and what rots when you’re looking the other way. What’s going to appear? she whispered to herself, pretending that as soon as they passed that lamppost, or that one, or that one, she’d see what it was that had been going on in the shadows. Maybe a whole slew of new things, maybe even some good things; or maybe not. Not even in make-believe did she get her hopes up too high.
♥ 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. They hid what little money they had in their underwear and stuck a knife in their back pocket. Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.
In hers, as soon as she’d agreed to go get the kid for Cora, she packed:
a small blue metal flashlight, for the darkness she might encounter,
one white blouse and one with colorful embroidery, in case she came across any parties,
three pairs of panties so she’d always have a clean one even if it took a while to find a washhouse,
a latin–anglo dictionary (those things were by old men and for old men, outdated the second they left the press, true, but they still helped, like people who don’t really know where a street is and yet point you in the right direction),
a picture her little sister had drawn in fat, round strokes that featured herself, Makina and Cora in ascending order, left to right and short to tall,
a bar of xithé soap,
a lipstick that was more long-lasting than it was dark and,
as provisions: amaranth cakes and peanut brittle.
She was coming right back, that’s why that was all she took.
♥ 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.
♥ The stadium loomed before them. So, what do they use that for?
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.
Do you like it?
Tsk, me, I’m just passing through.
How long you been here?
Going on fifty years...
♥ They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two 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. But not a hecatomb. Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one. In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.
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.
♥ Everything’s so stiff here, it’s all numbered and people look you in the eye but they don’t say anything when they do.
They celebrate here, too, but they don’t dance or pray, it’s not in honor of anyone. The only real big celebration is the turkey feast, which is a good one because all you do is eat and eat.
It’s really lonely here, but there’s lots of stuff.
♥ The weariness she felt at the monuments of another history. The disdain, the suspicious looks. And again the cold, getting colder, burrowing into her with insolence.
And when she arrived and saw what she’d come to find it was sheer emptiness.
And yet machines were still at work. That was the first thing she noticed when they pointed the place out to her: excavators obstinately scratching the soil as if they needed urgently to empty the earth; but the breadth of that abyss and the clean cut of its walls didn’t correspond to the modest exertion of the machines. Whatever once was there had been pulled out by the roots, expelled from this world; it no longer existed.
I don’t know what they told you, declared the irritated anglo, I don’t know what you think you lost but you ain’t going to find it here, there was nothing here to begin with.
♥ Makina knew the bastard was just itching to kick her or fuck her and got slowly to her feet without taking her eyes off him, because when you turn your back in fear is when you’re at the greatest risk of getting your ass kicked...
♥ Makina had no idea what so-called respectable people were referring to when they talked about Family. She’d known families that were truncated, extended, bitter, friendly, guileful, doleful, hospitable, ambitious, but never had she known a Happy Family of the sort people talked about, the sort so many swore to defend; all of them were more than just one thing, or they were all the same thing but in completely different ways: none were only fun-loving or solely stingy, and the stories that made any two laugh had nothing in common.
She’d seen people who’d run off to save their families and others who’d run off to be saved from them. Families full of endless table chat as easygoing as families thaThere were couples holding hands lining up to see a very solemn man who said something to them and after he said it everyone cried and there was rice and clapping and rejoicing galore. They were getting married. Makina was so dazzled by the beauty of the ceremony that she didn’t at first notice that the couples were either men or women but not men and women, and on realizing it she felt moved by how many tears were being shed, like flowers from their eyes, over how hard it had been to get there, and she wished that the people she’d known in the same situation could have been that happy. What she couldn’t understand was why the ring, the official, the godparents mattered so. Makina had admired the nerve of her friends who were that way inclined, compared to the tedious smugness of so-called normal marriages; she’d conveyed secret messages, lent her home for the loving that could not speak its name and her clothes for liberation parades. She’d witnessed other ways to love … and now they were acting just the same. She felt slightly let down but then said to herself, what did she know. It must be, she thought, that they know other marriages, good ones where people don’t split up, where fathers don’t leave and they each keep speaking to the other. That must be why they’re so happy, and don’t mind imitating people who’ve always despised them. Or perhaps they just want the papers, she said to herself, any kind of papers, even if it’s only to fit in; maybe being different gets old after a while.t loved each other without words. (In hers there were just three women right now. Her heart skipped a beat when she thought of her little sister; it only started back up when she concluded that, like her, she’d know how to take care of herself.)
Plus, all families had started off in some mysterious way: to repopulate the earth, or by accident, or by force, or out of boredom; and it’s all a mystery what each will become.
♥ And what was the point of calling the cops when your measure of good fortune consisted of having them not know you exist.
♥ He stopped and reflected for a minute.
I guess that’s what happens to everybody who comes, he continued. We forget what we came for, but there’s this reflex to act like we still have some secret plan.
Why not leave, then?
Not now. Too late. I already fought for these people. There must be something they fight so hard for. So I’m staying in the army while I figure out what it is.
♥ I got to go, he repeated.
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 the 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.
Sure, said Makina. I’ll tell her.
Her brother looked at her one last time, as if from a long way away, turned and walked into the barracks. Makina stood staring at the entrance for some time. Then she pulled out the envelope that Cora had given her, took out the sheet of paper it contained and read it.
Come on back now, it said in Cora’s crooked writing. Come on back now, we don’t expect anything from you.
♥ The cop waited a few seconds, then said Give me that, took the sheet of paper and began to read aloud:
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.
♥ Never stopped watching you, I know where you been and how tough things got.
Things are tough all over, but here I’m all mixed up, I just don’t understand this place.
Don’t let it get you down. They don’t understand it either, they live in fear of the lights going out, as if every day wasn’t already made of lightning and blackouts. They need us. They want to live forever but still can’t see that for that to work they need to change color and number. But it’s already happening.
♥ Here. He held out a file. All taken care of.
Makina took the file and looked at its contents. There she was, with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I’ve been skinned, she whispered.
When she looked up the man was no longer there and she tipped briefly into panic, she felt for a second—or for many seconds; she couldn’t tell because she didn’t have a watch, nobody had a watch—that the turmoil of so many new things crowding in on the old ones was more than she could take; but a second—or many—later she stopped feeling the weight of uncertainty and guilt; she thought back to her people as though recalling the contours of a lovely landscape that was now fading away: the Village, the Little Town, the Big Chilango, all those colors, and she saw that what was happening was not a cataclysm; she understood with all of her body and all of her memory, she truly understood, and when everything in the world fell silent finally said to herself I’m ready.