8 September 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally published in Spanish in 2004 and translated by Lisa Dillman, is Herrera’s third novel to be published in English (though the first he wrote in Spanish) and it completes his loosely-connected triptych of border novels. In his other novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) and The Transmigration of Bodies (2016), Herrera tackles the experience of crossing the border, the conflicts between crime families, and the effects of disease within the context of the US/Mexico border. Taking on the upper echelons of narco-culture in this text, Kingdom Cons examines the possibilities of language, artistic creation, and the construction of power in a way that feels staggeringly contemporary and necessary.

Herrera’s writing can perhaps best be characterized by the ways that he blends myth and reality. In Kingdom Cons, a drug lord becomes a King, his cartel is depicted as his court, and his palatial residence is transformed into his kingdom. This structure can partly be explained by the author’s writing approach; in an interview published in “Latin American Literature Today”: http://www.latinamericanliteraturetoday.org/en/2017/april/literature-political-responsibility-interview-yuri-herrera-radmila-stefkova-and-rodrigo, Herrera explains that he writes lists of words that he will not use (such as Mexico, United States, border, drugs, and narco-trafficking) as a way of avoiding clichés, but this also means that his writing takes on a more mythical feeling as it is distanced from the specific culture depicted. While it clearly engages with the genre, Kingdom Cons is not a narco-novela because of this approach and the underlying critique of narco-culture that is embedded in the novel.

The novel is told from the perspective of Lobo, or the Artist, who makes his way into the court by composing and singing songs—or narcocorridos, as they are commonly known—about the grandeur of the King and his court. Also referred to as Songbird, he is an artist-figure navigating a world of crime and violence. He plays and records his songs and the recordings are sold on the streets—“After all, isn’t that the way we do business?” muses the king—and this circulation contributes to the construction of the King’s grandeur. With roots in Spanish romances, the corrido is a traditional Mexican musical form that typically narrates historical events and functions as a primary means of circulating information and news before the advent of radio and television. Narcocorridos draw on these same traditions, but they engage with narco-culture. As can be seen in the novel, this music is banned from public spaces, such as the radio, in an attempt to suppress narco-culture, but they nevertheless have a significant function within these societies as they create and circulate the narratives that legitimize the authority of those in power.

In the novel, the Artist is quickly incorporated into the kingdom because of his ballads, becoming visible to the rest of the community when he is needed to compose or perform. In the meantime, he almost invisibly moves through the kingdom, learning the secrets hidden there and getting involved in a somewhat predictable illicit affair. As the kingdom begins to collapse and the Artist returns to the world he previously occupied and witnesses another kingdom where all he can see is that “it was all the same,” he begins to understand that he has become a part of a system that makes an individual all-powerful, but that he still maintains agency within this system: “Who was the King? An all powerful. A ray of light who had lit up the margins because it couldn’t be any other way as long as it wasn’t revealed what he was. A sad sack, a man betrayed. A single drop in the sea of men with stories. A man with no power over the terse fabric inside the artist’s head.”

For me, the plot and characters of Kingdom Cons are not as compelling as those I found in Signs Preceding the End of the World, which does mark a greater maturity on the writer’s part, but the beauty and importance of this novel resides more in the underlying questioning of power and the narrative itself. Herrera’s inventive use of language is well-matched by Dillman’s own linguistic artistry, leading to a staggeringly beautiful piece of writing. The narrative itself feels like it comes from another time, creating resonances with medieval Spanish literature or the music of the early twentieth-century United States. There is something subversively jazzy about the pace, improvised words, sparsity, and marginality of the narrative that is reminiscent of the Beat writers. For example, there is a heavy use of verbs, some of which are invented, which gives the novel a greater sense of agitated movement, such as in the following example: “The man backed up and cactus-armed in fear.” Dillman skillfully adapts Herrera’s creative use of language into the English—a challenge that she discusses in her Translator’s Note in _Signs Preceding the End of the World_—by using similar techniques to play with the sounds of the language and the images that it conjures. As an example of this, Dillman renders lush imagery while also paying particular attention to the repetition of certain sounds in the following passage: “He heard tell of mountains, of jungles, of gulfs, of summits, in singsong accents entirely new to him: yesses like shesses, words with no esses, some whose tone soared up so high and sank so low it seemed each sentence was a journey: it was clear they were from nowhere near here.”

Language, however, is not just an adornment in the novel, but something that is central to the underlying questions of power. Early on there is a discussion of the Artist’s love of language and the sounds it makes: “For him school was brief, a place where he sensed the harmony of letters, the rhythms that strung them together and split them apart.” Words were, for him, an escape from the world rather than a reflection or creation of it:

He started writing songs about stuff that happened to others. He knew nothing of love but he’d heard stories, so he’d mention it amid wisdom and proverbs, give it a beat, and sell it. But it was all imitation, a mirror held up to lives overheard. And though he suspected there was more he could do with his songs, he didn’t know how to go deeper. It had all been said before. Why bother.


Once he becomes a part of the kingdom, though, the Artist’s words take on a new significance as they are used to create power and to construct reality. Herrera’s words, on the other hand, reflect a certain reality as his novel demonstrates the ways that power can be systematically created through language in a way that is just as believable in the underground crime world as it is in the contemporary political scene.

1 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. 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.

Every once in a while, you come across a slim novel that packs a powerful punch. It’s as if the author boiled the story down to its most essential elements, and then served that up to the reader with the understanding that that reader would devour it in one sitting. I love coming across those novels.

I had the good fortune to come across two such books lately: Mon Amie Americaine by Michele Halberstadt (translated by Bruce Benderson) and The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman). The differences are obvious: one is from France, the other from Mexico; one dwells upon life and its disappointments while the other focuses on death and the threat of death; one is about friendship while the other is about professional relationships. Both are stunning in their own unique ways.



In keeping with their length, Mon Amie Americaine and The Transmigration of Bodies both have a small cast of characters with intense relationships. The two women in Mon Amie form a deep friendship based upon how their starkly different personalities complement one another. While one woman is vibrant and vocal, the other is quiet and contemplative, and it is their ability to appreciate each other’s strengths and faults that cements their relationship. But would you call the relationships in Transmigration “friendships”? They’re more like professional connections. When the main character (“The Redeemer”) is called upon to help negotiate the transfer of two bodies from the city’s two warring crime families, he pulls in a nurse and a bouncer type to help iron out the details and get the two families to agree to terms. We’re told that these characters had past dealings with one another in the past under similarly-sensitive circumstances, and that experience has allowed them to form a kind of loose posse.



Both stories also unfold against a backdrop of death/decay. In Mon Amie, one character’s battle with cancer leaves her a shadow of her former self, and forces her friend (the unnamed narrator) to grapple with how to express sympathy without implying pity, or how to sustain their friendship while still acknowledging that everything has changed. The enemy in this book—cancer—is out in the open and apparently vanquished, and yet it takes a heavy toll. The enemy in Transmigration, though, is everywhere and anywhere, since the story takes place during the spread of a deadly plague of uncertain origin. Indeed, one of the bodies being exchanged turns out to be a plague victim. Under other circumstances, the near-simultaneous deaths of two people from warring crime families would seem sensational; against the backdrop of a plague and a city on lockdown, though, it seems less remarkable but sinister nonetheless.

Because Mon Amie and Transmigration are short and powerful, they make you forget about things like appointments and errands and they make you read them in one gulp. OK, they don’t make you do anything per se, but once you start reading, you don’t want to stop. It would be like listening to a friend tell a captivating story and breaking in randomly to make a phone call or go grocery shopping. Who wants to interrupt a great story? Both Halberstadt and Herrera expertly draw the reader into the plot and then keep her there with spare but lyrical language. It doesn’t matter that they are completely different in terms of subject and approach; they both succeed in transporting the reader out of herself before she even realizes it. And isn’t that the mark of a great book?

4 May 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

May 4, 2016—The ninth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced this evening at The Folly in New York City, and at The Millions with Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, winning for fiction, and Angélica Freitas’s Rilke Shake, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan, winning for poetry.

This is the ninth iteration of the BTBA and the fifth in which the four winning authors and translators will receive $5,000 cash prizes thanks to funding from the Amazon Literary Partnership program.

“As it nears its tenth year, the Best Translated Book Awards has become an annual literary highlight, shining an important spotlight on great international works that deserve to be introduced to U.S. readers,” said Neal Thompson, Amazon’s director of Author and Publishing Relations. “The Amazon Literary Partnership is proud to support international authors and their translators and to have contributed more than $100,000 over the past five years to the Best Translated Book Awards.”



Despite the prevelance of Spanish-language authors published in translation—and who have made the BTBA longlist—Yuri Herrera is the first Spanish-language writer to win the award for fiction. According to BTBA judge Jason Grunebaum, “Translator Lisa Dillman has crafted a dazzling voice in English for Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, a transformative tale of a young woman’s trip on foot from Mexico to the U.S. to deliver a package and find a brother. This novel of real pathos and unexpected displacement in self, place, and language achieves a near perfect artistic convergence of translator and author, while giving readers an urgent account from today’s wall-building world.”



Lisa Dillman has translated almost a dozen books over the past few years, including works by Andrés Barba and Eduardo Halfon, and teaches Spanish at Emory College. Her translation of Herrera’s next novel, The Transmigration of Bodies (also published by And Other Stories), comes out in July.



With Rilke Shake taking home the poetry award, Phoneme Media becomes the first press to win for poetry in back-to-back years. (Diorama by Rocío Cerón, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong, won last year). Hilary Kaplan also received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant to work on this collection.



BTBA judge Tess Lewis praised the collection, saying, “[Kaplan] has done the grant and Freitas’s poems justice, capturing the many shifts in tone in and between the lines, from playful to wry to sardonic to pathetic, even sentimental, to deadpan and back to playful, sometimes within a single poem. For all of Freitas’s lyric clowning, it’s clear she takes poetry too seriously not to dismantle it and use it to her own purposes.”

Next Wednesday, May 11th, from 5-6:30pm, 57th Street Books in Chicago will be hosting a BTBA party at the store. The event—which will feature a number of BTBA judges—is free and open to the public.

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Amanda Bullock (Literary Arts, Portland), Heather Cleary, (translator, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Kevin Elliott (57th Street Books), Kate Garber (192 Books) Jason Grunebaum (translator, writer), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Stacey Knecht (translator), Amanda Nelson (Book Riot), and P. T. Smith (writer and reader).

And this year’s poetry jury is made up of: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Council for European Studies), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer, translator), and Deborah Smith (writer, translator, founder of Tilted Axis).

For more information, visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter.

12 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stephen Sparks, former BTBA judge and bookseller at Green Apple Books on the Park. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of a young switchboard operator’s harrowing attempt to cross a border between worlds—Mexico and the United States, but also between reality and myth, between the living and the dead, between any here and distant there—in search of her brother, who like uncountable others before him has gone north to seek out a better life. Makina, Herrera’s plucky, hard-boiled narrator, undertakes an arduous journey from one hell to another: she leaves her remote mining town where a giant sinkhole has just swallowed a man, a car, and a dog, to enter into a realm strewn with the remains of those who have tried (and often failed) the crossing. During her journey she is assaulted, badgered, shot at; she passes through a stark otherworldly landscape; she survives physically unscathed, though perhaps bewildered.

A story like this already has a certain weight borrowed from the contemporary situation on the Mexico-US border, but Herrera ballasts his novel with myth, a decision that imbues the work with an almost vertiginous depth that resounds with echoes of the ancient past. Makina’s journey is, in fact, based on pre-Hispanic myths of the underworld. In these stories, the departed are forced to traverse several levels on their way to a final destination, much like Herrera’s narrator moves from supreme confidence (as the switchboard operator, she controls all information while serving as a go-between) to uncertainty (though she sets out with disdain for the north, planning on returning quickly, Makina finds herself less certain when she finds herself there). The “end of the world” referred to in the title refers both to the novel’s mythic roots and in the finality of the border crossing: until cheap technology made cell phones and calling cards available, many of those who went north were effectively cut off from contact with the old world.

Such layering is common in the book, and is accomplished both structurally and linguistically. During a conversation with Daniel Alarcon at Green Apple Books on the Park last spring, Herrera mentioned his use of obsolete words that, stumping his Spanish readers, must surely have provided difficulties for his English translator Lisa Dillman. As an example, he explained the use of the verb “to verse,” a seemingly odd choice until one considers that its Spanish counterpart is based on an Arabic-influenced poetic term (jarchar) from the 13th century that referred to women in transition. Dillman’s solution to this and other problems is ingenious and bold.

Signs Preceding the End of the World stands on its own as an estimable work of fiction. It doesn’t need the backdrop of the current political firestorm raging over the US-Mexico border or the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe to prove its value—as long as there are borders, there will be injustice—but the fact that it so clearly and powerfully speaks to the state of migrants today renders it all the more powerful. I can think of no better reason for a book to win the Best Translated Book Award than this.

16 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on my last post, here’s the first entry in my manic series of year-end lists.

To kick this off, I thought I’d start with the list of the six books in translation that were the most talked about this year. I did some really heady numerical analysis to determine this—searching Facebook mentions, retweets, aggregating all the other year-end lists out there, tallying GoodReads reviews and images of bookstore displays—and came up with the works of fiction from 2015 that you should read if you want to be part of the general literary conversation. These are the “water cooler” books, the titles that, if you mention them randomly at a bar, someone might vaguely have heard of them. Conversely, mentioning them around anyone involved in the world of international literature will feel almost redundant.

I wouldn’t be surprised if all six of these made the shortlist for the next BTBA. And if you haven’t read them, you might want to. They’re not all on my personal list of 2015 favorites, but no one will scoff at you for spending a week with any of these.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

I read volume one of Ferrante’s quartet last year, and am currently listening to volume three, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave. To me, personally, all of the books are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t get me all that excited either. I guess in my opinion, the prose isn’t doing anything new, and this is a time in my life where I’m waiting for something new and different to blow me away. That said, soap operas have an addictive quality to them, and reading/listening to the life-long interactions of a group of people from the neighborhood plays to that directly.

If you want a slightly different opinion, check out David Kurnick’s piece in Public Books. I literally got an email from a publicist about this as I was putting together this post. Quick scan of the piece: He likes Ferrante!

In Ferrante, by contrast [to Franzen and DeLillo], we see what grand novelistic ambition looks like devoid of writerly vanity. When her novels point to the largest political and ethical scales, as they do, the gesture is fascinatingly equivocal, as if to thread a question about our access to those scales into the emotional texture of the writing.

Sphinx by Anne Garreta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum)

There are two very notable things about this novel (at least on the surface): 1) it’s the first work by a female member of the Oulipo to make it into English, and 2) there are no pronouns in this love story about A**.

Tom Roberge liked this book more than I did (in part, maybe, because I was distracted by the pronoun thing, which is interesting, but I’ve seen that before, and pulling that off is more mind-blowingly difficult in French than English), and spent a lot more time getting into the real meat of this book.

Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence. [. . .]

Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”

None of this praise is as valuable as the fact that one of the people from Pentatonix has been pushing it to all of their fans. One of the many reasons that Deep Vellum’s first year has been so wildly successful.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)

I’m pretty sure this was the only literary translation to be a finalist for this year’s GoodReads Reading Good People’s Choice Golden Book Awards. (Or whatever they’re called.) That’s pretty impressive, given that almost all of the other books were either insanely popular and trendy, or just bad. (Note: To Kill a Watchman won for fiction, so, yeah . . . )

I read this book immediately after I finished grading all the exams for my spring course, and while on the way to BEA in NY. Whenever I get done with my “required” reading, I tend to devour a bunch of stuff immediately, only some of which sticks in my mind. Which is why I probably need to reread this. I remember liking it, liking the way it plays with language, liking the general conceit and the issues it brings up, but also feeling like it was a bit slight. (I did apparently give it four-stars on GoodReads though.)

As time has gone on and more and more people have told me about how this is one of the greatest books of the year, I feel like maybe I read it too quickly and passively, that maybe I should go back and revisit it, so that it can “get under my skin” the way it did for BTBA judge Heather Cleary:

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.

It’s worth noting that And Other Stories is bringing out a new Herrera book—The Transmigration of Bodies—in May 2016.

My Struggle: Volume Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)

Similar to the Ferrante, I’m trying to catch up with the cool kids and am only on volume three of this seemingly endless series. I’ve talked on the podcast about what I like about Knausgaard—the glacial structural movements of each volume, the fugue-like time-shifts of the narrator’s memories, the mundanity of it as an antidote to the overblown nature of a lot of contemporary books—and I’m not sure I have much more to add about that here.

I do want to complain about the weird nature of the media love fest for Knausgaard—it’s like most of these reviewers just discovered that there’s literature being written in other languages, and probably can’t name five other living Scandinavian authors, much less speak intelligently about any of their books—but why bother. We all know that there’s very little appreciation of divergent opinions in mainstream review coverage, and once an author has been “chosen” every magazine and paper and blog and listicle generator imaginable will have to voice their opinion, oftentimes to the detriment of covering better books from the same country. This is how Murakami Haruki becomes the one Japanese author everyone has to write about, despite the fact that there are several others equally worthy of this sort of media fawning. (Although most aren’t published by Knopf, which does, for better or worse, make a difference.)

There’s nothing to be done about this—people in the media act like sheep and all want to have their voice heard about the big books everyone is talking about—and it’s not like Knausgaard is completely undeserving, it’s just frustrating to people who actually read a significant amount of international literature and actually know a lot about works from a particular country or region. Instead, there’s basically no point in publishing anything from Norway for the next few years, because it will be such an uphill battle getting attention for it, and any reviews you do get will just compare it to Knausgaard.

But whatever—that’s the sad lament of an every-struggling publisher. You should read these books since most everyone else has. (Or has taken an unwavering stance against him.) Or, better yet, read his review of Houellebecq’s Submission.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (New Directions)

Talk about getting all the love! This book is on every single year-end list I’ve seen, and a few others highlighting the best covers of the year.

The rebirth of Lispector—whose books have been available in one translation or another for decades—really started with Ben Moser’s new translation of The Hour of the Star back in 2011. That was followed by the release of four of her novels (three in new translations, one translated for the first time ever) in 2012, which generated a lot of attention for Lispector (in part because of Ben Moser’s unflagging enthusiasm). It all reached a crescendo with this massive volume though, which brings together all of her stories into one chunky, attractive volume.

I’ve yet to dive into this, although I have read a couple of the included volumes in their past translations. What I hope will happen a result of #LispectorFever is that New Directions retranslated The Apple in the Dark. I generally like Gregory Rabassa’s translations, but I feel like a new translation is well-deserved and would help find a much larger audience for one of her most ambitious novels.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)

Luiselli’s rise has been meteoric! In 2014 when I entered her novel Faces in the Crowd into the first ever World Cup of Literature (a contest she damn near won), it seemed like only a handful of people had read her. Now, with the publication of her third book and second novel, she’s being featured in the New York Times, New Yorker, Lit Hub, NPR, Slate, Huffington Post, Dissent Magazine, you name a media outlet and I’m sure they’ve run something about this book.

Which is all really wonderful. I’m actually using this book in my spring class, in part because I really like Valeria and her writing, in part because the story of how this came to be—and how it was edited in translation—opens up so many great topics for my students to think about and debate.

In short: Luiselli wrote this for the Jumex Foundation as a sort of serial novel for the workers at the Jumex juice factory. In the vein of the professional readers at the Cuban cigar rolling factories, she sent the workers one chapter at a time, which was distributed as a sort of chapbook to everyone at the factory. Some of these workers formed a reading group, and all of their comments about that particular section were sent back to Valeria, who listened to them, then wrote her next installment.

For the editing process, Chris Fishbach of Coffee House treated this like a book originally written in English, editing it more like an original text than a work in translation. (By contrast, most editors of translation focus on syntax, grammar, word choice, register, tone, etc. It’s still complicated and intensive, but slightly different.) The whole project became more collaborative with Christina MacSweeney adding a “Chronology” to the book that doesn’t exist in the original Spanish edition, and with Coffee House publishing a “Fact Check” booklet created by their proofreader. This is more than a simple novel—it is an artistic enterprise that is very layered and fascinating. And it features one of the most distinctive, enjoyable fictional voices in recent memory.

It’s worth noting that all six of these books—which truly are among the most talked about translations of 2015, all statistical jokes aside—are from independent and nonprofit presses, and that four of the six are by women writers.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a list that’s a bit more loopy.

13 November 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

10 March 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the handful of people who read these posts every month (I hope there are at least three of you), unfortunately, this one is going to be pretty short. I’m really strapped for time right now, with four trips (to New York, Bennington, Toronto, Seattle-Portland) and at least seven different events scheduled for the next month. And then, after than, AWP followed by two Jón Gnarr events. Summer “break” can’t come quick enough.

That said, yesterday was such a great day. Time jumped ahead and suddenly it was light outside after six pm. Not only that, but the “Real Feel ™” for Rochester was actually ABOVE zero. Really! Snow melted, children smiled, people took off their gloves. I actually thought (although only thought) about washing my car. The start of the baseball season (which kicks off with my beloved Cardinals playing the hated Cubs) is only twenty-six days away, and Selection Sunday for the Greatest Tournament on Earth is only six.

This horrendous winter is almost over.

So, in the spirit of all great Spring Cleanings, I’m going to pitch out all the things that I’m over, that have been annoying me, weighing me down. And then, I’ll brighten the corners with a handful of interesting books in translation. First up, all the crap that I’m just done with, in list form:

Grimy snow; seasonally enhanced depression; not being able to ride my bike; winter weight gain; the soundtrack at L.A. Fitness, which is equivalent to torture with its off-version remixes of every terrible pop song ever; the Kardashians; Time Warner’s On Demand being perennially out of date, probably because Time Warner hates its customers; getting frustrated when Open Letter titles are left off of hipster website lists; “Uptown Funk”; Kate Upton ads for iPhone games I will never play; pretentious coffee shops; Dick Vitale, Stephen A. Smith, and basically all sports pundits; Rochesterians who haven’t watched The Subterranean Stadium short; grading papers; readers who want books and TV shows to be “fun” and feature “likable characters”; bracket-based tournament competitions that are not about college basketball and instead feature things like cupcakes and fast food chains; all the awards ceremonies like the Grammys and the Oscars; and the guilt that comes from not keeping up with email.

And with that all cleaned out, here are some interesting things about a handful of interesting books:

The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated from the Irish by Alan Titley (Yale University Press)

Interesting Facts: 1) Ó Cadhain is considered to be the master of modern Irish prose writing, but has never been translated into English; 2) Dalkey is publishing another book of his, The Key later this year; and last, but most interesting, 3) from the press release, “Yale University Press will publish another translation of this novel, Graveyard Clay: Creé na Cille, translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, also as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series, in a special annotate edition in 2016.”

God’s Dog by Diego Marani, translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus Books)

I wish Diego Marani still wrote in Europanto.

I was just texting with my friend Brian Jay (not his real name!) about the Iona-Manhattan basketball game, and decided that Iona sounds like a college where you can major in “School.” (I’m sure it’s a fine institution.)

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)

“Yuri Herrera must be a thousand years old. He must have travelled to hell, and heaven, and back again. He must have once been a girl, an animal, a rock, a boy, and a woman. Nothing else explains the vastness of his understanding.”—Valeria Luiselli

The Musical Brain and Other Stories by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)

The cover of this story collection—Aira’s first story collection to appear in English—changes depending on what angle you look at it. (Lenticular printing? Something like that? You know it when you see it.)

Also, Aira is actually coming to the U.S. for this book, and will be doing an event with Open Letter author Sergio Chejfec on Monday, March 23rd at the Cervantes Institute in NY.

The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)

In 2008, we published a significant speech by Carlos Gamerro about Argentine literature. This was before And Other Stories started bringing out his interesting, unconventional fictions.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (FSG)

Vargas Llosa, who has something like twenty-four books available in English already, has two titles coming out this year—this new novel and Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. (Which, with its focus on the “death of the intellectual,” is right up my alley.)

Oh, Salaam! by Najwa Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (Interlink)

Interlink is the leading U.S.-based publisher of Arabic literature, and the fact that their books aren’t more regularly reviewed or included on lists like this is criminal. Also, it’s a great selling point when the jacket copy states that the book is “the story of three friends—an explosives expert, a sniper, and a torturer.”

The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

Way back in the day, I interviewed Horacio as part of our Reading the World Conversation Series:



The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Grove)

This is the fourth Yan Lianke book to make its way into English, which, according to our Translation Database, makes him the second most-translated Chinese author of the past seven years. Only Mo Yan has had more titles published in English during that time (five). There are a few authors who have had three books translated, including my personal favorite, Can Xue.

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