An inversion of an American literary tradition

Signs Preceding the End of the World
Author: Yuri Herrera
Translator: Lisa Dillman
Publisher: And Other Stories Press
London, 2015

It would be hard to find a contemporary Mexican novel that offers a more subversive allegory of US-Mexican relations than Yuri Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015). This short novel, whose surreal tone has given rise to comparisons to Pedro Páramo, constitutes a kind of inversion of the traditional US borderlands chronicle that demonizes the Mexican other: here, we have a borderland tale told from the Mexican perspective, where it is the United States that represents the infernal mirror.

The story’s protagonist is Makina, a young Mexican woman who embarks on a mission across the border to search for her missing brother. Her journey into the United States has all the mythical significance of a journey into the Underworld, as exemplified in this passage describing her first experience upon arriving on US soil:

Then off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good one: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person, who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was som poor wretch swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards. (Herrera, 2015)

This powerfully disturbing image of what appears from a distance to be a metaphor for a land of hope and promise only to reveal itself upon closer analysis to be a symbol of rot and decay foreshadows an underlying theme of the novel, as the dream of a bright future that entices people like Makina’s brother to cross the border ultimately proves to be nothing more than a mirage; as Makina’s brother himself puts it: “We forgot what we came for, but there’s still this reflex to act like we still have some secret plan” (Herrera, 2015). For Makina herself, who, like Orpheus, has only crossed over in the hope of bringing back a loved one, this infernal Underworld is mystifying. “I just don’t understand this place,” she tells Chucho, her Charon in this mythical crossing, to which Chucho replies:

Don’t let it get you down. They [the Americans] don’t get 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. (Herrera, 2015)

In this way, Makina finally learns that her mission into the Underworld was not to save her lost brother, but to save the Underworld itself. The greatest fear of the Trump Nation—the subsumption of Anglo-Saxon America by Mexican immigration—is thus revealed to be its salvation.

Herrera’s novel is a poetic allegory of Mexico’s relationship with its northern neighbour that inverts the tradition established in American literature of representing Mexico as an infernal Other. The revenge is bittersweet, ironic, and highly illuminating.

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