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Border Crossings and a Third Language [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I’ve been planning for weeks to write about Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, which got under my skin in a way few books do. It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.
We meet Makina—the protagonist of Signs Preceding the End of the World and, in the words of Francisco Goldman, the “heroine who redeems us all“—as she stands on a different, but even more intractable border: the one separating life from death. In fact, the very first words of the novel are the beautifully impossible “I’m dead,” exclaimed as the ground at her feet, weakened by centuries of rapacious silver extraction, caves in—swallowing a man as he crosses the street “and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around, and even the screams of passers-by.”

Makina, however, refuses to be among those “sent packing to the underworld” that day—she has a mission to carry out. Her mother has asked her to deliver a note to her brother, who went missing after getting conned into crossing the border in search of land supposedly left to their family. To accomplish this, she first needs to visit another underworld: the lairs of three local gangsters who will help her make it to the other side. From there she travels to the border, crosses the stygian river that separates the two lands with the aid of a taciturn gentleman named Chucho (hired by said gangsters to act as her guide), is shot by vigilantes but somehow manages to escape, and is nearly arrested as she homes in on her brother’s whereabouts.

If all this sounds fairly epic, that’s because it is: one of the things that make this work so much bigger than the breadth of its spine is the way Herrera weaves allusions to pre-Columbian and Western narrative traditions throughout. Given the nine chapters that lead to our heroine’s descent into “The Obsidian Place with no Windows or Holes for Smoke,” we can pick Dante out as one of Makina’s travel companions, and the ordeals she faces as she crosses the border—not to mention her almost inhuman physical and psychological resilience—clearly bear the mark of myth.

In addition to this contact and flow between cultures past and present, zones of linguistic contact are central to the novel. As the switchboard operator and de facto interpreter of the small town where she lives, Makina, is herself a model of these modes of exchange. Though she is able to speak “native tongue,” “latin tongue,” and the “new tongue” of those who have gone up North, she knows “how to keep quiet in all three, too.”

Among the few possessions she takes on her journey is a “latin-anglo dictionary,” despite the fact that “those things were by old men and for old men.” The world, however, is not revealed to her through the neat equivalences of the dictionary, but rather through moments of non-transference between languages, when one shines through the other like a beacon. Standing firmly astride another border, a frontier almost as carefully policed as the one separating Makina from the land that swallowed her brother, Herrera deftly takes on the social politics of a language that is recognizably (though not explicitly) Spanglish:

More than a midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born . . . Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.

It is not just that this third tongue stands alongside the other two, its fluid definitions perpetually subject to change. What is so striking about Herrera’s description is that it is precisely from this unstable position at the border between two languages that this third one creates meaning more rich than either side alone could produce:

Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light, and the act of giving? It is not another way of saying things: these are new things.

Makina’s gaze makes things new in just this way, especially for the North American reader of Dillman’s vibrant, limber translation. Supermarkets are “cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand,” in which the “anglogaggle at the self-checkouts” purchases their goods and then seeks to “make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.” (“Anglogaggle“—a felicitous play on Herrera’s “gabacherío“—may well be one of the best words I’ve ever seen in print.) Baseball is a game the anglos play every week “to celebrate who they are” on “an immense green diamond rippling in its own reflection” set among “tens of thousands of folded black chairs, an obsidian mound barbed with flint, sharp and glimmering.”

Seeing the elements of a familiar world through the lens of an unfamiliar one makes the attributes of both resound, and what is not to be learned from this?

Though the exceedingly timely and nonetheless timeless Signs Preceding the End of the World does not hold back in evoking the violence and exploitation that haunts the passage across the US-Mexico border, Herrera was both sage and skilled enough to write a book that occupies this space in a way that, in its dizzying array of registers and allusions, refuses to be confined by the socio-political reality it depicts. In this virtuosic feat, he seems to have accomplished the impossible: he has offered a new and vital way of looking at a subject too often passed through the pulverizing mill of political rhetoric.



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