I have just finished reading Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Mexican author Yuri Herrera and it is an amazing and haunting work. A young woman Makina is given a note from her mother to take to the older brother who has disappeared into the North. Along the way, Makina encounters a series of ambiguous helpers: the thug who mysteriously owes her mother, the trading of favors with a coyote, the strangers who pull her along the road, the rivers, and mountain passes, and then the cities themselves, full of mazes, flags, and shops until -- almost miraculously, she arrives at a place to discover her brother, changed utterly.
The novel is short -- just nine chapters, but emotionally dense in spare, poetic language. Makina is a resilient heroine, at once navigating the world of people but equally sensitive to the changes in the landscape. When a sinkhole opens up in the street, swallowing an old man, a dog and a car, she reflects on the "earth's insanity" beneath her feet, sensing the crumbling holes left by the abandoned silver mines of a dying town, falling into itself. Tossed by violent currents while crossing the river, she ceases to struggle, and immediately the sound of the breaking water transforms into a green and peaceful silence. She sees the approaching mountains she must cross rising up, as two forces colliding, "crashing noisily against each other," and she is carried through the city on the exotic scents of spices and food pouring out of supermarkets and restaurants.
Makina's journey north is a rite of passage for this young woman -- but it is also an opportunity to describe multiple journeys and border crossings in the mix of different languages, those spoken at home, on the road, and in the cities, where words must be invented to adequately describe the new world. There are border crossings of cultures -- those of the traditional life of the past; those who are on the road moving forward to an unknown destination, shedding clothing and possessions along the way; and those who have arrived and dug in, embracing a new language, the veneer of a new culture, and sometimes disappearing altogether in a new identity.
It is a really remarkable novel; mythic and modern together. Poignant, full of loss and compensation, great beauty and frightening decay, excessive love and biting cruelty. And Makina, calm and brave, attentive to the changes in nature, in human beings, and in herself as she travels, makes for a remarkable guide.
**And do read the translator's notes at the end. Fascinating, about the difficulties of translating a work with such spare but evocative language, wrangling into English the nuances and invented words.