Friday, December 11, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World is a Spanish-language work translated into English by Lisa Dilman. I first took notice of the work after it was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award for the Best Fiction category, although sadly it did not make it to the final round. Only a 107 pages long, it is a story that packs in a lot in a small amount of words.

The Situation: Makina has decided to cross over into the U.S. from Mexico in search of her brother, who crossed over some time before. She is not sure what would happen to her job at the switchboard while she is gone, as she is the only one who can switch between the different languages and dialects with ease. But she is set on crossing over, and her mother Cora has handed her a message to give to her brother once she sees him. After meeting up with various "businessmen" with whom Makina knows how to converse, who have interests of their own as far as her trip, she heads out with vague directions and not many supplies.

The Problem: When Makina is told what she should do, there are rarely any specifics, even when it comes to the people she is to meet along the way. Plus, there is always the chance she will be caught and either detained or sent back. The one thing that will not be an issue for Makina are the young men who think they can easily take advantage of her. Makina is street smart and knows her own mind, but the U.S. is still a strange place, and she has very little idea as to where to actually find her brother. Each clue seems to lead to another clue, which often leads to a dead end or an unforeseen danger. It is a trip full of questions and very few answers. And even if Makina does successfuly cross over, there is no guarantee she will be able to make it back.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novella that was originally written in Spanish. It is a surprisingly complex story to be only a little over 100 pages long. It is of course about immigration and language, but also about the epic journey, family, death, survival, and the end of the world. The story begins with a sinkhole opening in the earth and swallowing someone alive, and throughout the novel the landscape is blurry and unclear and nothing is for certain except that Makina is on a journey. And just like with any story that is being translated, there are phrases in Spanish that just would not translate the same into English. And even for those words and phrases with a direct translation, the meaning still is not quite the same. Even so, Makina's story still manages to come across the page as almost anyone can relate to the uncertainties of her trip and the hope she takes with her.

My Verdict: Even if it was a terrible story, it was not long enough to feel as if any time was wasted. Fortunately, it was not a terrible story. In fact, it was quite good, and I would recommend it to everyone. It was a bit outside of the box for me, and I only took notice of it because of the Goodreads Choice Awards. It is the kind of story that does not come along very often, so when it does it makes a huge impression. Makina is the type of heroine you care about, but do not necessarily fret over and wonder if she will be okay, because she can take care of herself and does not have to wait to around for someone to save her. And while some of the details that a reader is usually handed come off vague and unclear, it is not in an aggravating matter that feels as if the author is being intentionally withholding. The entire story is told with a mastery that most writers only hope to achieve throughout their career, and I look forward to future works by Herrera.

Favorite Moment: When Makina takes down a young man attempting to make a pass at her on the bus.

Favorite Character: Makina is the only character the reader gets to spend a considerable amount of time with, but even so, I think I would still end up picking her. She can take care of herself, and has a fierce determination that is not overdone or obnoxious.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. It tells the story of a small community of immigrants living in Delaware, focusing on the two young teenagers trying to live "normal" lives in the U.S.

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