The book is about the migration journey of Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a macho world. The book explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds as they move from one country to another, especially when they realize that there is no coming back.
The book is beautifully written and tells a compelling story of crossing the US-Mexico border in the seek of the brother who is lost in the new land. Especially given the global context and current US-Mexico relation, the book is worth reading–readers will have a clearer understanding of what it means to leave one’s home to an unfamiliar “land of hope”.
The myth of a wandering soul—Realism or Romanticism?
Signs preceding the end of the world
When the breathtaking journey of crossing the border encounters mythological elements, a book like Signs Preceding the End of the World is born. Like traditional stories of migration, the book tells a tale of traversing from one territory to another and the physical and mental struggle that come along. The book, however, also challenges the stereotypical telling of such stories with its unique style and tone—the book is the story of the myth of a wandering soul and the signs preceding the end of the world of the protagonist Makina that tells a seemingly realistic story in a romanticized way.
In traditional narratives of moving from one country to another, we often read struggles, despair, barriers, and the loss of identity. All these elements are present in Signs preceding the end of the world. On top of the traditional elements, Herrera adds a layer of romanticism and mythological factors to the story, making the storyline both mysterious and even fantasized. The stories of crossing the border seem to lean towards the direction of realism, as the journeys are often strenuous and challenging, which requires “accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction”, rejecting “imaginative idealization in favour of a close observation of outward appearances.” Herrara challenges the conception and delves into the intense journey of migration while maintaining an idealized and romanticized style.
Herrera has the ability to romanticize even the most difficult journeys of migration. For instance, when Makina experiences snow for the first time after crossing the border, Herrera describes the snowflake as coming “to perch on her eyelashes”, and looking “like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate.” He then builds the connection between the small natural element to the vast process of migration by narrating that “when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world — some countries, some people — could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile.”
The romanization inevitably disguises the realistic side of the story. Readers are left to wonder how exactly the protagonist manages to find her brother by walking, what the character experiences in the migration process, or the specific challenges and setbacks that are more realistic in the process of crossing the border to look for one particular person. Everything is romanticized in the book: the characters, the plots, the language, and the migration journey. The fact that Makina remains invincible and escapes death several times challenges the common perception of traversing the continents as a dangerous task. The romanization reaches its peak when Makina improvises a poem that startles the “patriotic” and racist police. “We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either,” she writes her ten-line poem, “we who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire…We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.” The poem attests the romanticism of the book itself; the plot that Makina and other undocumented migrants escaped the police with the simple help of the poem is also unrealistic and fantasized.
The contradiction between the realist nature of migration stories and the techniques and styles Herrera chooses to use can be troubling in one aspect. The audiences fail to understand the actual danger, challenges, and loss of identity in the process of migration. Instead of being told of a story in a straightforward way, the readers become more aware of other elements, like the underground business and common distrust between the anglos and Mexican migrants.
Despite the strong romanticist factors in the book, realism is not completely absent. It remains in the lines where Makina speaks of her perception of the new town and people, which is a different perspective from how anglos view themselves; the realistic factors are present during Makina’s brother-seeking and losing process, when she experiences the despair of being incapable of finding her brother and realizing a lost of hope and beloved brother when she finally finds him. The realistic elements and the romanization work very well together in the telling of compelling stories. In the case of the book, for instance, the encounter of the two siblings and Makina’s sadness is perfectly characterized as “like he was ripping out her heart, like he was cleanly extracting it and placing it in a plastic bag and storing it in the refrigerator to eat later.” The romanticized sadness reveals the harsh reality of a Latino being forced to join the US army and ending up forgetting what he sets off for in the new land of America.
Asserting the book to be completely romanticized would be an overstatement. Herrera creatively tells a story that is often associated with realism in a romanticized way, building a aesthetically-pleasing yet arresting in a realistic manner.
information: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman)