Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

There are a plethora of reviews available about this Best Translated Book Award winning novel, all talking about the “crossing to the other side” from Mexico to the United States, transition, displacement, and of course the language. Whilst I’ll comment on these factors later, I am going to focus my review on the title of the book, “Signs Preceding the End Of The World”…who else as a better sign for this decay and possible destruction than Donald Trump?
Recent articles came out talking about how great a company we built, and now we want to put that same ability into doing something for our nation. I mean, our nation is in serious trouble. We’re being chilled on trade, absolutely destroyed. China is just taking advantage of us. I have nothing against China. I have great respect for China, but their leaders are too smart for our leaders. Our leaders don’t have a clue and the trade deficits at $400 billion and $500 are too much. No country can sustain that kind of trade deficit. It won’t be that way for long. We have the greatest business leaders in the world on my team already and, believe me, we’re going to redo those trade deals and it’s going to be a thing of beauty.
You look at countries like Mexico, where they’re killing us on the border, absolutely destroying us on the border. They’re destroying us in terms of economic development. Companies like Carrier Air Conditioner just moving into Mexico. Ford, moving into Mexico. Nabisco, closing up shop in Chicago and moving into Mexico. We have to stop it, folks. I know how to stop it. We’re going to create jobs. We’re going to create jobs like you’ve never seen….
…It looked, literally, like the Academy Awards. I never saw so many cameras in my life. And it takes courage to run. I’ll tell you what, it takes a lot of courage to run for president. I’ve never done this before. I’ve been a job-producer. I’ve done a lot of things but this is something I’ve never done, but I felt we had to do it. When you look at the incompetence of the Iran deal, where we give $150 billion, we get absolutely nothing. When you look at all of the problems our country has and you look at our military, which is really being depleted rapidly, depleted. We’re going to make our military bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and nobody, nobody, nobody is going to mess with us, folks, nobody…
…Well, look, everything — we are going to have a wall. I can tell you we are going to have a wall. I watched the ex-president of Mexico, the arrogance of this man. And I get along great with Hispanics. You saw in Nevada, I won in the poll, the Hispanic vote. I have thousands of people that work for me right now that are Hispanic. I’ve had thousands and thousands over my lifetime. These are great people. The Mexican leaders are too smart for our leaders and you saw it. Vincente Fox, first of all, he used a word that you should never have — if I ever used that word you folks would’ve never, ever, ever let me get away with it. Nobody even talked about the word he used and this is the ultimate word. But he was angry at the concept of somebody saying that they were going to pay for the wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall. We have a trade deficit with Mexico of $58 billion a year — $58 billion. The wall is going to cost $10 billion. It’s so easy. I’ve had these guys that I’m on the stage with go you don’t really mean Mexico is going to pay for the wall. One — as sure as you’re standing there, 100 percent, Mexico’s going to pay, 100 percent…
… So when you think of it — and then they say you’ll never be able to build a wall. Well, it’s 2,000 miles but we really need 1,000 miles. The Great Wall of China, built 2,000 years ago, is 13,000 miles, folks, and they didn’t have Caterpillar tractors, because I only want to use Caterpillar, if you want to know the truth, or John Deere. I buy a lot of equipment from John Deere. I love John Deere, too. But they didn’t have tractors. They didn’t have cranes. They didn’t have excavation equipment. The wall is 13,000 miles long. We need 1,000 miles and we have all of the materials. We can do that so beautifully. And this is going to be a serious wall. This is going to be high wall. This is going to be a very serious wall.
We’re going to stop drugs from coming into New Hampshire. You know, when I won New Hampshire, those people were so incredible to me. And when you go, you wouldn’t believe it because it’s so bucolic, so beautiful. You look at the fields and you look at everything, it’s so beautiful. And yet, you go to a meeting in New Hampshire, their number one problem, their number one problem is heroine. The heroine is pouring in and they have so many of their young people and other people addicted. And I told them I’m going to stop it. I’m going to stop it. We’re going to have a strong border, and I mean strong.
Transcript of highlights from Donald Trump’s Super Tuesday speech March 2016
Donald may well build a wall, but here in Yuri Herrera’s world it is the underground that is focus, no high wall is going to stop the underground!
Our novel opens with a sinkhole appearing, everything is being sucked into the underworld, a result of the endless “voracious silver lust” and, of course, bullet holes. “The world happening anew” is populated by our heroine, in Mexico (we assume, only because of the language and the setting…an oh the back cover), who needs to get to the US (another assumption) to retrieve her brother from the Promised Land. “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.”
Our heroine is Makina, and she assisted in her crossing by four mysterious shady characters:
Double U, he is housed in a sauna, “a longing for water led her to the steam where he spent his time”, described as “All pale roundness furrowed with tiny blue veins”.
Aitch is housed at “Pulquería Raskolnikova” (the mother of the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’!!!) he’s dressed in a “bird-print shirt and glimmering gold…playing dominoes with three of his thugs.” When Makina enters the room he “smiled, sinister, with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around your legs”
Here came the hustle. Mr. Aitch was the type who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride. Mr. Aitch smiled and smiled, but he was still a reptile in pants. Who knew what the deal was with this heavy and her mother. She knew they weren’t speaking, but put it down to his top-dog hubris. Someone had spread that he and Cora were related, someone else that they had a hatchet to bury, though she’d never asked, because if Cora hadn’t told her it was for a reason. But Makina could smell evil in the air. Here came the hustle.
Q spends all day at the Casino restaurant where he can “read the papers alone at a table in the dining room” “dressed in black from neck to toe;…a perfect white cup of black coffee” nearby.
And finally (on the other side) Makina meets P, he is surrounded by “ten or fifteen or thirty” men, “all black but some blacker than others, some sinewy as if they’d grown up in mountain air, others puffy like aquatic animals, many bald but a few with long matted hair down to their waists.” P walks with a limp, “blazing blond hair was streaked with orange highlights, he held a cigar in one hand and wore mirrored shades.”

Are these guys the four horsemen of the apocalypse? Conquest or Plague, War, Famine and Death, or in Spanish Conquista or Plaga, Guerra, Hambruna and Muerte. Or are they the Grief, Anxiety, Diseases and Old Age who live at the entrance to the Greek underworld? Maybe they are related to Aztec underworld (more in a minute). Or are they red-herrings? I do know they are considered from the “underworld”.
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 flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s.
There are many journeys into the underworld, literally and figuratively. And this work demands rereading, are the characters linked to Hades, Persephone, Hermes, Charon (there is a water crossing from Mexico into the USA Chucho assisting Makina across is he the ferryman?), Styx (is this the river they’re crossing?), Cerberus – so many references, so little time.

There are nine chapters here and they are aligned to the Earth and eight of the nine levels of the Aztec underworld:

1 – The Earth (Earth)
2 – The Water Crossing (River and Yellow Dog)
3 – The Place Where Hills Meet (Two Mountains)
4 – The Obsidian Mound (Obsidian Mountain)
5 – The Place where the Wind Cuts Like A Knife (Bitter Wind)
6 – The Place Where Flags Wave (Banners)
7 – The Place Where People’s Hearts are Eaten (Arrows)
8 – The Snake That Lies In Wait (Wild Beast)
9 – The Obsidian Place With No Windows or Holes for the Smoke (Narrow Place)

The missing ninth level of the Aztec Underworld is “Soul at Rest” – read into that what you will.

Peppered with so many treasured quotes, this is a treasure trove of reading, a work that could be read numerous times and the layers and understanding would continually peel back, from “The Place Where Hills Meet”;
First there was nothing. Nothing but a frayed strip of cement over the white earth. Then she made out two mountains colliding in the back of beyond: like they’d come from who knows where and were headed to anyone’s guess but had come together at that intense point in the nothingness and insisted on crashing noisily against each other, though the obvious might think they simply stood there in silence.
With poetic language that rolls along, you have wonderful use of words, the oft quoted example being “verse” being used as a verb in place of “reverse”, “traverse”, “converse”, however it still retains its poetic definition.
With a black and white cover that suits the dark layers of this work, I could replicate the multiple reviews about language, culture displacement, melding of languages etc, however it suited my reading a lot more to focus on the subterranean musings and actions, with holes, labyrinths and caverns a plenty, this could be read as a blend of Dante’s “Inferno”, Greek Mythology, with a dash of Lewis Carroll, and even a smidgin of the Cohen’s Brother’s under-rated “O Brother Where Art Thou”, but that would show Western ignorance of Mayan or Aztec culture, personally I am ignorant of such, however given the chapter references and the travel through the underworld I think another reread may be in order!!!
Deserved winner of the Best Translated Book Award and disappointing the United Kingdom judges didn’t see fit to include this book on the Man Booker International Prize, it would have given the winner (Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”) a real run for its money, if I had read this earlier I would have asked the Shadow Jury to add it to the blend.
If you like the books I review here (and I’m tipping a few of you do, otherwise why do you keep coming back?), this is one to add to your reading pile.
Just keep your fingers crossed the “signs preceding the end of the world” I have included as an introduction here do not come to fruition.

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

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2 thoughts on “Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

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