It is difficult to know how to categorise Yuji Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. The novella opens with its protagonist, the young independent woman Makina, thinking that she’s sure to die. While Makina somehow manages to scramble up the giant sink-hole and cling onto her life (with a tenaciousness that repeats throughout the novel) she looks down the precipice at “the poor soul on his way to hell.” This opening and the rather grandiose title might suggest a post-apocalyptic epic but that’s not what Signs Preceding the End of the World actually is. Instead Makina is sent into the United States (because, as her mother points out “I don’t like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?”) to find her brother and bring him home. It’s a dangerous journey, and one that sees Makina having to work for the Mexican criminal underworld in order that she might make the illegal crossing. It’s a journey that will bring Makina face to face with death, police and guns but Makina doesn’t give up.
That said the quest isn’t really the point. It does provide the motivation for Makina but the novella resembles the novels of Raymond Chandler. To a certain extent the plot doesn’t really matter, but it’s important in allowing the central characters to express poignant thoughts about a society and culture that they don’t quite belong to. While Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels focused on the poor detective’s cynicism about his wealthy clients, this novel allows us to see the United States through the eyes of those deemed solely as “illegal immigrants.” As a result the unnamed U.S. city that Makina finds herself in is described as containing “signs prohibiting things” that lead citizens to “see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.” It seems that having a position outside society, or at least outside the “anglo” majority, allows a unique perspective on the strangeness of the United States. One old man that Makina meets on her quest describes baseball as a game where “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?” Its these odd bites of cynicism, the comparison between US foreign policy and its sporting endeavours and a later contemplation about what gay marriage means for gay identity, that are the real highlights of the book.
This is important because the quest for the brother ends rather suddenly and somewhat anticlimactically. That hardly matters in a novella where the prose is so lyrical, almost mythical, and yet the characters and the setting so contemporary and vital. And perhaps it is hybridity that is the point of this novella. This feels like a timeless epic that somehow takes place in a very real and very contemporary world, it’s a quest where the treasure at the end of it doesn’t really matter and the United States is described as a hybrid of cultures places serving food that was strange but with something familiar mixed in, something recognizable in the way the dishes were finished off.
Signs Preceding the End of the World is a remarkable book that manages to interrogate US society, reflect on immigration and creates a strong young female protagonist in just 107 pages. It is a incredible novella, and proof of just how much can be said in such a short space.
By Mark Ulrich (Uxbridge Library)