‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera – You Don’t Mess with Makina


‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera   (2009) –   107 pages     Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman



‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ is a tough little Western novella written in distinctive heroic prose.  Every sentence has a fearless attitude.

The young lady Makina is on a mission for her mother.  She lives in the middle of Mexico, but she must cross the border into the grim and foreboding United States.

“Her mother, Cora, had called her and said Go and take this paper to your brother.  I don’t like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?”

First Makina must meet up with a few shady guys including Mr. Aitch who “smiled and smiled, but he was still a reptile in pants”.

Here are the rules Makina lives by and which make her respected in her Village:

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.

You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business. 

You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.

You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”   

Then she must go to the Big Chilango, Mexico City.  You don’t mess with Makina; just ask the young guy who tried to grope her on the bus.  Later she will cross via inner tube the Rio Grande River where she will encounter the contempt of some roughneck Anglo bastards. Of course many of the people she meets on the northern side of the border are both homegrown (from Mexico) and Anglo.  The story maintains an epic heroic quality that is only partially diminished toward the end.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ was the surprise winner of the Best Translated Book Award for this year, deservedly so.  The translator Lisa Dillman should be recognized, because her translation of this novella is a sustained performance.  I have no doubt that the novella itself is a fine piece of work, but the difficulty here is to translate not only the words but the attitude.  It is the singular voice of the narrator of the story that gives this novella its edge. At times the language is strange and unique, and the translator had to come up with her own made-up words.  For example the invented words ‘to verse’ are used to signify someone leaving or exiting as in “She opened the door and versed”.

I can almost guarantee you that once you have read the first few pages of this sharp novella, you will be happy you chose it to read.


Grade:    A-


9 responses to this post.

  1. I read this last year and really loved it. I remember thinking at the time that it would be a great companion read to TC Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Have you ever read that, Tony?


    • Hi Kimbofo,
      I admire T. Coragressan Boyle and have loved some of his novels, especially ‘The Road to Wellville’. However I read ‘The Tortilla Curtain’ a few years back and don’t think it is in the same league as ‘Signs Preceding the End of the Universe’. I would call Boyle’s work mock-heroic while Herrera’s work is real-heroic. Boyle is one of those writers for whom I prefer their early work to their later work.


  2. This really appeals to me. Sounds just great.


  3. I just came across a mention of this writer recently. Odd, but I never hear about Mexican writers! Sounds excellent: I’ll keep an eye out for it.


    • Hi Kat,
      With all the attention foreign writers have been getting recently, it is nice to see Yuri Herrera, an exceptional Mexican writer, get into the limelight.


  4. Glad you enjoyed it. I reviewed this one at mine and I’m with you (though I’d give an even higher score). Given it’s now June unless the rest of the year is spectacular it’ll definitely be on my end of year list, and could even be at the top of it. A really superb little book.


    • HI Max,
      I can see how you could give ‘Signs Preceding’ an even higher score. I just felt that after Makina meets up with her brother, the excitement of the plot fell off a little. I did like the brother’s side story where Mexican guys become American citizens by enlisting in the US military and going to the Middle East to fight in the US’s many wars.


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