Myth, Literature, and the Border in Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
Two subjects seem inescapable for a Mexican author who works with the space of the border: immigration, drug trafficking, and, consequently, the violence associated with these two phenomena. Nonetheless, this swift and simplifying identification can be deceiving in the effort to create a taxonomy of border literature, especially in the case of a writer like Yuri Herrera, born in Actopan in the Mexican state of Hidalgo.
Herrera’s case appears more problematic, precisely because, since his first novel, Kingdom Cons (2005), Herrera has been seen by critics as a border writer and, indirectly, as a natural representative of a subgenre of border literature: the narconovela. This stance is supported, for example, by the Mexican critic Christopher Domínguez Michael, who suggests that Yuri Herrera’s “refined and lyrical prose” represents, up to now, the peak of this narrative form: “less than a beginning, it is the end of the path.” In this context, Domínguez Michael argues that Herrera’s first two novels, Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009), will outlive many other novels within this genre, which will “lose all relevance when speaking of Mexico in the time of the drug wars.” Nevertheless, this classification is as indulgent as it is deceiving. Because, without a doubt, what distinguishes and isolates Herrera from other border writers - or from narco literature in general - are not the subjects he addresses, but rather the language with which he addresses these subjects. There are other points of view, of course. For the critic Eduardo Parra, “addressing drug trafficking in literature represents a problem. Without a chronological perspective or reliable testimonies that help to consider its real-world reach, in order to write about the subject, the author must find an angle that allows him to enter into its secrets without falling into journalism. Perhaps for this reason, most Mexican writers who have written about the subject have focused on it obliquely.” But Herrera is perhaps the author who has traveled furthest in the use of this method, creating out of the ellipsis a style - almost a form of poetry.
And Herrera, with his “lyrical and refined” prose, has not only developed what Gabriel Wolfson has called “aesthetic force.” He has also developed writing that explores its expressive possibility through what we could call allegorical-mythical writing. In this sense, Kingdom Cons offers certain keys to understanding linked to later texts by Herrera. The first key has to do with allegory. In Kingdom Cons, there are no given names, only archetypical ones: the Artist, the King, the Saint, etc. Although it is not difficult to guess who is who, the key is not there to indicate a literary resource, a stylistic preference; it exists to construct a fable, to narrate without naming. For this reason, what seems like yet another novel in the tradition of Mexican narco literature in terms of a fable is, in reality, an allegory and a reflection on power. Herrera’s desire to develop an allegorical (or elliptical) writing is so clear that in no part of this novel can the reader find the words “narcotráfico,” “cartel,” “Mexico,” or “the United States.” This strategy avoids - successfully - the exhausted lexicon that marks border literature and so-called narco literature. The same desire for ellipsis is present in Signs Preceding the End of the World, a novel that, as Gabriel Wolfson has indicated, initially fulfills all the expectations of border narrative: “The woman in the novel, who begins a journey across the border in search of a relative, moves between various typical references and characters of that setting: the border, drugs, violence, immigration.”
It should be noted that the protagonist is named Makina, that her mother sends her to the United States to give a message to her brother, and that the novel narrates her entire journey: her preparations in a little town in the middle of Mexico, her passage to Mexico City and from there to a border city, the crossing, the search, and the erasure of the possibility - and the notion - of return. In this new novel, Herrera returns to the procedures of concealment and ellipsis through the story of a journey, presented as the mythic and initiative journey of Makina, a trilingual young woman who, along the way to find her brother on the other side of Mexico’s northern border, constructs a new space in which the border is not between two distinct geographical areas, between two countries, but rather between reality and myth. In Signs, Herrera makes use - almost in the manner of a palimpsest that is rewritten and superimposed upon itself - of the pre-Hispanic cosmovision of the underworld of Mictlán. Rewriting that is not a copy but a model, a guide; its originality comes from its very antiquity.
In Aztec mythology, there were various places for the dead. Men who died in battle and women who died in childbirth went to Tonatiuhichan or the House of the Sun; those who died of causes related to water went to Tlalocan or the House of Tlaloc; and children who died before their birth returned to Chichihuacauhco. For their part, those who died of natural causes went to Mictlán, which was the last of the nine levels of the underworld, located in the north: the land of eternal rest.
In Signs, Makina, before she can rest, must pass through the various levels of the underworld on her journey to find her brother. In accordance with the myth, in the first stage, the dead must pass through Itzcuintlán (“place of the dogs” or “the sharp bite of the dogs”). In the place inhabited by dogs, called Xoloitzcuintle, the dead body must cross the wide river Apanohuayán (“the place where you must cross the water”). To cross it, the cadaver needed the strength of the dog Xoloitzcuintle, which was raised with this sole purpose. It is significant that, at the start of the novel, Makina experiences an earthquake in which she sees a passerby and his dog devoured by the earth as it opens beneath their feet. Makina’s metaphorical death is revealed in the novel’s first line: “I’m dead. [...] Fucking ladino city, she said to herself, Always about to reinstall itself in the basement. [...] She glanced over the precipice, empathized with the unhappy path of the chingada, Safe travels, she said without irony, and then she mused: I’d better hurry up and get this done.” Then, Makina makes her way to the “Gran Chilango” to complete the mission assigned to her by Cora, her mother, to give a message to her disappeared brother. In this way, the journey’s destination becomes inescapable, and she says to herself: “One does not choose which messages to carry and which to let rot” (19). Makina’s destiny, from that moment on, has no way back, it is irrevocable and it is inscribed in the hero’s mythical journey: “You’re going to cross, repeated Señor Q, and now it sounded like an order, You’re going to cross and you’re going to get wet and you’re going to stick it to all those fuckers; you’ll get desperate, of course, you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even though you’re sad you’ll get where you need to go. Once you’re there, there will be people to take take of what you need.”
The second part of the novel is titled “El pasadero de agua” [The stepping stone across the water], and it begins with Makina’s arrival in the Gran Chilango. The city is presented as a massive space where it is easy to get lost “forever in the hillsides of hillsides that cement the horizon.” In the Gran Chilango, Makina meets Chucho, who will help her cross to the other side of the river. But the first step is not easy, and the fragile vessel prepared by Chucho capsizes in the middle of the water. “Row, insisted Chucho, I know this piece of shit works. The words had hardly left his mouth when a rush of water struck them, flipping the boat. Suddenly the world became icy and green and was filled with invisible water monsters that dragged her from the rubber raft.” At this point in the story, it is not difficult to guess that the narrative construction of Signs seeks its speculative image in the myth of Mictlán, such that an allegorical reading of Signs can provide the significative key to this “deceiving” text of border literature.
In the myth of Mictlán, the next step involves crossing Monamicyan (“the place where the hills come together”). In this place, there are two hills that open and close the space between themselves continuously, crashing into each other, and the bodies of the dead must cross between them without being crushed. In Signs, this place is represented by the desert space where Makina arrives immediately after crossing the border. The test of survival that the traveler must pass takes place when border patrol agents try to arrest her and she flees among a random crossfire. The destroying hills are replaced by two police cars: “Then they both realized they had company. Two police trucks came closer, driving off-road with their sirens off, but at high speed. At the moment when the rancher turned around, distracted, Chucho leapt up and snatched his arm, which was holding the revolver. The rancher shot to kill, but his bullets were wasted. [...] Get out of here! said Chucho. Makina turned towards him because, even though she knew he was talking to her, she thought he was asking for help, he must be asking for help, Makina wasn’t used to people telling her to Run.”
The fourth stage, Itztépetl (“the hill of obsidian”), was the home of a hill covered in sharp stone shards that tore apart the bodies of the dead when they tried to scale the hill to complete their journey. In Signs, this chapter bears the same name (59). Makina has arrived at a town where the people speak “Gabacha” (a metaphorical reference to English) where she must receive information about her brother’s location, as well as deliver a package of unknown contents to a local narco boss. The meeting’s setting is a baseball stadium that looks, in the protagonist’s eyes, like a hill of obsidian. “The darkest young man she had seen in her life showed Makina where to go. This way, toward the light. At the end, she was suddenly met by a hollow of rival beauties: the chasm of a massive green diamond that rippled in its own reflection, embracing it, tens of thousands of black folding seats, like a hill of obsidian standing in tall shards, shining and sharp.” On the field, Makina is surrounded by thirty men, “many bald and some with long, tangled hair down to their waists.” Makina does not not if she will be murdered or not after handing the mysterious package over to Señor H. But she survives the encounter, and her next step is to find “the place where the wind cuts like a knife.” In the myth of Mictlán, this is the place where it always snows. There are eight mountains in this place - also called Pancuecuetlacáyan - and Makina asks eight times for the address where she can find her brother before finding the right place. The desert area with eight mountains and freezing winds that cut through the bodies of the dead is represented in Signs by an empty space described as “a pure cavity.” “It was the first thing she saw when they showed her the place: excavators delving obstinately into the ground as if they had to remove the earth with urgency [...]. What would have been there, they had already pulled up by roots, they had expelled it from this world, it no longer existed.”
The place where the flags fly is the following fragment of Herrera’s text. This place is none other than a United States military base. The metaphor is obvious. Makina discovers that her brother has joined the army through a strange and unusual deal with a local family. It is unsurprising that the next phase of Makina’s journey is called “the place where people’s hearts are eaten” and that it corresponds to war and to the United States simultaneously (93). Here, Makina discovers that her brother has become Other, pure Otherness, he has gone to war, fought, and returned unharmed, but he has no desire to return to Mexico. He has lost the path home that his sister must use to return. “Why don’t you come back?” asks Makina. “No, not now. I fought for these people. There must be something they all want to fight for. That’s why I stayed in the army, to figure out what it is.”
This is Teyollucualóyan, “the place where people’s hearts are eaten,” which was inhabited by vicious beasts that opened the chests of the dead to eat their hearts, since, without this organ, the deceased would fall into the river Apanuiayo, a mass grave full of black waters and inhabited by Xochitónal, a god in the form of a cayman who must be battled and defeated before opening the path to the lord of the dead. And that is just what happens in the following chapter, called “the serpent that waits.” Here, Makina is detained together with other undocumented immigrants by a police officer who takes pleasure in humiliating them. The dangerous serpent is also a “patriotic soldier.” Makina’s escape (and salvation) is writing: the word written in English by an immigrant woman. In perhaps one of the novel’s most admirable passages, Makina writes: “We are guilty of this destruction, we who do not speak its language or know how to stay silent. We who do not arrive in boats, who dirty your gates with dust, who break your wire fences. We who came to take your jobs, who aspire to clean your shit, who long to work overtime. We who fill your clean streets with the smell of food, who bring violence you don’t know, who transport your remedies, who deserve to be tied by the neck and the feet; we, who don’t mind dying for you, how could it be any other way? We who know not who waits for us. We the dark, the short, the greasy, the withered, the obese, the anemic. We, the barbarians.”
The journey’s final step requires crossing “the place of the death by obsidian and the temple that smokes with water,” entitled in Herrera’s text, “The place of obsidian, where there are no windows or holes for the smoke.” This place is characterized as a space full of grayish fog that serves to blind the dead, making them lose their way. This is the final step of the descent and the final piece in the construction of the myth not of Mictlán, but of Makina. Accompanied by Chucho, and after a long walk through a little labyrinth of streets, Makina arrives at a small door that leads to a strange and frozen labyrinth. She enters alone. After going down a long and winding staircase, Makina pauses in front of a door marked “Jarcha.” “She tried to remember how to say jarcha in one of her languages, but she couldn’t get it.” When she enters, Markina finds a group of people who wait in silence, with no noise, no music, nothing. Only silence, “only the sound of running water, not like in the pipes, but the energetic running of subterranean rivers that reminded her that she hadn’t bathed in a long time, and yet she was not dirty and she didn’t smell bad - she didn’t smell of anything.” In this place, Makina receives documents that will give her a new identity. Now she is another. “They’ve skinned me, she mused.” This is the end of the journey and the beginning of the return. This is where Herrera’s writing definitively transforms into a mythical writing in which the border, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and identity are transformed into secondary elements in a journey of a very different nature with roots in the Pre-Colombian reality of central Mexico. “[Makina] recalled her genes [...], the Gran Chilango, those colors, and understood that what happened was not a cataclysm; she understood it with her whole body and her whole memory, she truly understood, and finally she said to herself, I’m ready for all these things of the world to fall silent” (119).
Whether in a border novel, an allegory, or a journey myth, all true journeys imply crossing a border, and this seems to be the goal of Yuri Herrera in his writing: to tell a story that is also a story of life and death, an illumination that is also a descent, in this case of Makina and her mythic journey. A fall into a dark world, dangerous and cruel, but also a birth into a new world. Perhaps that is the reason why the identity of all the characters is blurred, diffuse, mobile, and often anonymous. As Gabriel Wolfson has accurately observed, Herrera’s novel begins with Makina saying, “I’m dead,” after witnessing an earthquake, and it closes with her thinking, “I’m ready,” after having passed through a doorway with a sign that reads “Jarcha.” This can only reinforce the postulation of this new world in which a few, like Makina, have begun to move, a singular space defined as neither destination nor dwelling but as a will to cross, a permanent movement, a coming apart.
Signs Preceding the End of the World weaves a double story: one story of incredible poetic force that occurs in a reality that is imprecise, yet historical; and another that constructs a mythic story, narrating a journey in which what matters most is the crossing, the “coming apart.” Separation from one reality and communion with another. Thus, the most eloquent key to reading this novel is in its very title. This is not an apocalyptic phrase. On the contrary, the title presages a birth through death. The world that reaches its end is none other than Makina’s. So, this novel’s title could be read as Signs Preceding the End of the World [of Makina]. Herrera constructs a story with multiple readings in which, paradoxically, the characteristics of the border novel end up dissolving in the profound mythic and poetic dimension presented by the very same story.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Marcelo Rioseco is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and Editor-in-Chief of Latin American Literature Today. Since August of 2009, Marcelo has worked as a professor of Latin American literature in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma.