Wednesday, January 18, 2017

No, It Isn't 'Other People'

Signs Preceding the End of the World (a novel), by Yuri Herrera

The Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. Much great literature has been made of our fear of the "undiscovered country." Rich indeed is the association between the afterlife as envisaged by Dante (shown here, with Virgil, spectators in hell) and the lives of ordinary people.

Yuri Herrera has crafted a brilliant novel out of the Dante's vision, out of the cruelty of life on the border, that ill-defined yet perfectly mapped piece of land that divides Mexico from my own state, the vast empty desert broken only by the dribble of the Rio Bravo and the flags that fly on each side of a line that matters most to politicians and cartographers. The land of Roberto BolaƱo's 2666, replete with menace and violence thanks to the fact that borders are, by definition, spaces where the ordinary norms of behavior don't apply. "Border town" conjures six guns and sleazy cantinas, knots of dangerous characters out of a Roberto Rodriguez movie. 

In eight short chapters, Yuri Herrera creates a surreal tale, written in hallucinatory prose, of a young Mexican woman's crossing of the border to find her brother. Makina's journey is a condensed epic, the hero's journey compressed into sentences of remarkable power.

Dante, certainly, but I also thought of "The Waste Land" as I read (for example) these lines from a chapter entitled "The Water Crossing":  

"She couldn't get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn't get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon; or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces." 

Signs is elusive: we have no idea where Makina is going, or what is in the package that she delivers to Mr. P, or how her brother came to think he owned land in El Norte, or even who she is, or if she is more or less than every man and woman who crosses a border looking for something that isn't there, that never existed in the first place.

The novel edges toward allegory in many places--in the remarkable scene of her river crossing, in the final dream-like moments of her descend into an underworld populated by lost souls--in the title itself. What world is ending, or whose?

The apocalyptic tone and hypnotic cadences of Herrera's prose feel just right at this moment in our history. It wouldn't surprise me to see the stars blinking out, or to watch the sun set in blood. Portents abound; time feels to be slowing, as if we've all embarked on a journey whose ending we both yearn for and dread.

And the place where the Antichrist resides is certain to be on some border or other, in the makeshift tent cities of the victims of war, in the forbidden zones that divide one people from another. Herrera has captured the porous quality of place perfectly.  None of the places where Makina travels has a unique identifying quality. No place names, no identifying signposts, only nameless ("the Old Man," Mr. P) entities whose role is to move Makina along on her journey. Makina, in keeping with her name, has a robotic quality--she is propelled forward to a vague destination that turns out to be beyond her imagining.

Where are the dispossessed welcome? Makina is stealthy, a woman with underworld connections, possessed of a power to use language in order to make her way in alien environments. Herrera is adamant on this point: the language of crossing over is primordial, coded, terse. Every encounter in the novel requires Makina to make sense of a riddle, or to intuit meanings from ambiguous directions. At one point Makina speaks to Chucho, her Virgil:

"Things are tough all over, but here I'm all mixed up.  I just don't understand this place."

"Don't let it get you down. They don't understand it either, they live in fear of the lights going out, as if every day wasn't already made of lightening and blackouts. They need us. They want to live forever but still can't see that for that to work that need to change color and number. But it's already happening."

Pretty cryptic. Is Chucho referring to the Anglos whose domain Makina is attempting to breach, or to the angels who guard all refugees and travelers, or to something else altogether? There's no telling, and that's because the border is a crossing not into another country but into another reality. A place where, as Makina describes it, people are ghostly, detached from one another and from what is around them, hostile and violent, afraid of something that has no name.

What are we afraid of, and how can we cope with our fear? Makina charges ahead, disinterested in her own safety, bent upon her quest--locating her missing brother. The novel begins with the yawning maw of an enormous sinkhole--frackers at work--and ends with a descent into some anteroom of eternity--perhaps hell, or perhaps--far more likely--one of the detention centers where we Anglos warehouse the unwanted, not unlike the windowless steel barracks that Teju Cole describes in a memorable scene of Open City. Incarceration has become the default position for those who are different. I finished Signs Preceding the End of the World believing that Makina was lost forever in her own Guantanamo, a limbo of no punishment and no escape. Just another brown-skinned person in an orange jump suit, squatting in the sun.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is published by Other Stories Press, London (2015) and translated by Lisa Dillman.

George Ovitt (1/17/17)

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