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Death as Translation – a Review of Signs Preceding the End of the World

Written By Roxane Llanque

Roxane Llanque is a German-Bolivian writer, artist, and filmmaker. Her award-winning short film “Aberration” was selected for The Madrid Human Rights Festival and her micro “The Tell-Tale Present” won the 2023 Outstanding Miniature of World Pride Australia. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on social media @roxanellanque

What remains of us after we die? Is death an ending or a transition? Yuri Herrera’s novella Signs Preceding The End of the World provides some fascinating answers to these questions by finding the ultimate simile for death: translation. His story of the indigenous mediator Makina crossing over the Mexican-American border to find her brother contains several cultures, mythologies, and languages, converging in her person. She moves through them like a shapeshifter, granting us unique insights into the transcendental dimensions of immigration and language. Herrera forgoes words like American, English, Mexican, or Spanish in his book; instead, he invents his own terminology, laying a linguistic foundation of mythical proportions that builds on the novella’s use of underworld legends. Many have likened his Makina to a Mexican Orpheus, but this novella takes his pan-mythical arc of Katabasis—a living being’s voluntary journey to the afterlife—to provoking new heights. The concept Herrera’s work proposes is this: What if Orpheus decided to stay?

The Messenger

“I am dead,” reads Signs‘s very first sentence, marking the beginning of the journey to the underworld. A hole in the asphalt breaks open and swallows people into the underground. This mystical opening is commonplace in Makina’s nameless mining town in Mexico, “riddled with bullet holes from centuries of voracious silver lust.” The violent underworld the novella unveils is both mythological and dirt-real, a place of wandering migrant souls and phantasmal gangsters and deities.

Navigating this perilous terrain is Makina, a translator and messenger between the people of both border sites, fluent in all three languages spoken by those she connects through their harsh realities. Makina identifies strongly with this role: “You are the door, not the one who walks through it,” she tells herself. But when her mother sends her to bring back her impressionable brother from across the US border, where he has been lured by the false hope of property, she journeys from her hometown to the Rio Grande, finding herself in a dark world full of coyotes, vigilantes, and border patrols.

The Parallels of Aztecan and Greek Underworlds

We find both the Aztecan underworld of Mictlán and the Greek/Roman underworld of Hades/Orcus interwoven in Signs. Herrera first throws the western readers into the familiar waters of Greek mythology in chapter two, “The Water Crossing.” Here, they get the obvious hint with the appearance of a psychopomp of dead souls: the ferryman Charon. We meet him in the character of Chucho, who smuggles Makina across the Río Bravo/River Acheron via a tractor tube.

According to Greek legend, the souls that cannot pay the ferryman for crossing are forced to throw themselves into the Acheron in desperation. When Chucho and Makina cross the river, at one point their tube is turned and “the world turned cold and green and filled with invisible water monsters dragging her away.” It appears the jealous souls of the debtors are trying to pull Makina with them; Chucho pulls her out and delivers her safely to the other side. And here begin Signs‘s merging of Mictlán and Hades.

Mictlán consisted of nine distinct levels giving the book’s chapters their names. The first is Itzcuintlán, where the dead have to cross the Apanohuacalhuia River—border between the living and the dead just like the Acheron—under the watch of the psychopomp god Xolotl. Some see Chucho as Xolotl, however, to cross the Apanohuacalhuia with that god, the dead would require the help of a Xoloitzcuintle, one of his dogs, who decided if the deceased was worthy or not; otherwise, they were eternally stranded. Chucho appears to be a Xoloitzcuintle, much more befitting of a modern coyote: someone who smuggles people over the border.

Katabasis

The ability to enter the realm of the dead whilst still alive and to return is often interpreted as proof of the classical hero’s exceptionalism. An individual who returns from the underworld overcomes eschatological themes such as the cyclical nature of time and existence, achieving defeat of death and the possibility of immortality. The most famous Katabasis narrative, and the one Makina is often adhered to, is the one of Orpheus, who enters the underworld in order to return his deceased wife Eurydice to the world of the living. In Makina’s case Eurydice being her brother, who passed into the underworld of North America. But if the US is Hades/Mictlán and the Mexicans represent the souls crossing over—why is it that they do it so willingly?

Hades Plouton, Bearer of Riches – The Capitalist Side of Death

Most of the knowledge about Mictlán is tragically lost in consequence of the Spanish Conquista and near elimination of Aztecan culture; the story takes place in Mexico for just one chapter, which appears as the world of the living, while the United States is given the role of the underworld. The US, more than any other country in the modern world, has modeled and mythologized itself as the successor of the Roman Empire. Thus, Herrera’s approach of the Underworld as a desired destination is perhaps best explained from the Roman perspective, who themselves invented a new perspective on the lord of the dead. Around the 5th century BC, the Greeks started referring to Hades as Ploútōn, with the root meaning “wealthy.” They figured that from the abode below come riches like fertile crops and metals. Consequently the Roman incarnation Pluto both ruled the underworld and distributed riches.

The US pull on many immigrants is founded in this understanding: land of riches, land of dreams and relief, but also the evil flagship of capitalism, soul-dead and empty. Though this image decreased dramatically in recent years, people everywhere in the world still cling to the concept of North America being the best, the most modern, the promised land—despite overwhelming evidence it is not so, the old legend persisting as only legends can. The first description of this underworld-understanding by a crossed-over soul in Signs is from Makina’s brother, who writes home: “It’s really lonely here, but there’s lots of stuff.” Makina describes the “dead” souls of the US:

“Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered (…) salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else. (…) How miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens.”

It is an apt description of the golden cage of capitalism. She is highly critical of this world and from the beginning she refers to her kinsmen’s journey in terms of the passage of the dead which she then applies to herself. She feels herself “casting off guilt like one may shed belongings,” she is struck by a bullet like a ghost, it doesn’t harm her.

When she finally finds her brother, they do not recognize “the specter of the other.” The promised land belied its promise to him; the property was a lie. Why not leave, Makina asks him, and he has no answer but that he is resolved to his ghostly existence now, a mindless ghost of the Greek Asphodel fields. So why does Makina, not tempted by wealth, not return to the living?

Shedding and Rebirth

In Hades, the blessed souls of Elysium can choose to be reborn, a little-known aspect of Greek mythology, that, however, defines the goal in the underworld of Mictlán. In the nine circles of the Mexican underworld, the soul sheds itself of its identity with each layer and in the final one gets to be reborn. The concept of shedding is referenced throughout the novella, until by the end Makina realizes: “I’ve been skinned.”

According to Socrates and Plato, Elysium dwellers could drink from the river Lethe; to forget selectively or to forget all. But they had to drink from it in order to be reincarnated. Forgetting, leaving behind, is a core theme in Signs; and both the Greeks and the Aztecs seemed to have been unable to separate the idea of rebirth from forgetting and betraying; it is no coincident that Dante’s last circle of hell is treachery.

Versing, as the process is called in Signs, is always a treacherous act in the end, to the ones you belonged to in your first world. For what could be more hurtful to people than forgetting them and yourself? Makina is a living soul presented with this opportunity and she makes a choice that breaks with Katabasis convention.

The Choice of The Buried Seed

The point of Katabasis usually is that the hero returns to the upper world, a triumph of the living over death; Herrera presents a new angle. Certainly, there is much to be desired about Hades: you have immortality, an endless variety of people you could have never met in life, and maybe even a shot at the party of parties: Elysium. What happens when the underworld presents a more attractive living than the cruel reality of life?

At the Greek-imagined border between life and death stands an elm where false dreams cling under every leaf, the perfect parable for the cruel Mexican-American borderlands. The elm tree is hope bred in despair, the desperate kind that is needed to survive the horrors of civil war and poverty so many Latin Americans flee. Makina has been mostly untarnished by these horrors but a deep-seeing witness…and ultimately verses.

As the Romans discovered in the legend of the marriage of Hades and Persephone, Makina discovers death and life can be married to each other and present their union in the buried seed that can come to life anew. Potentially even as something better. With all her initial despise for American Hades, Makina soon finds admirable wonders in it:

She witnesses a same-sex marriage, a black man living in a pretty house; triumphs of the “other” not often found in her home. Elysium tellingly derives from the Greek verb eleusô, meaning “to relieve” or “release.” Death as the merciful ending of suffering is no new concept, but the curious mercy of forgetting oneself in the anonymity of plenty is a fresh and honest perspective. Drinking from Lethe—trying to extinguish one’s often shamed origin—is sadly a frequent road immigrants take.

Not looking back is also the most curious aspect of the Orpheus myth. Hades allows the bard a chance to bring Eurydice back, but under the condition that he must not look back at her; this has been the object of discussion for centuries. The same narrative appears in the Bible: in the book of Genesis Lot’s wife, against the angel’s decree, turns and looks back at the city of Sodom—famously depicted as the ultimate place of sin and unholy freedom—whilst trying to leave it. As Orpheus loses Eurydice to Hades by turning back, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt. In Judaism, one common view of her ending is as punishment for failing a test. By looking back at the “evil cities” she betrayed her secret longing for that way of life. She was deemed unworthy to be “saved.” But could it be that she simply recognized the freedom of the underworld?

The Sublimity of Rebirth in Translation

What Makina feels most drawn to from the beginning in this other world is the “homegrowns” who are not Mexican nor American, but something more, something new. She observes them warmly:

“They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. (…) More than a midpoint of homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born.“

The nebulous process of translation, giving something or someone a new meaning while also holding on to its last, chamfers Herrera’s novella: the meeting of the ancient and the new, realized in the collision of death and life. Reaching the ultimate step in life one can imagine possible—rebirth—Signs Preceding the End of the World manages to become a story never before told, neither in the Greek nor in the Aztecan myths it takes its inspiration from. A story of a heroine reaching Elysium and being rewarded for rendering herself into something new, that transcends both the old and the present, the established borders of upper and lower world, the United States and Mexico, and ultimately presents the heroic overcoming of the manifest destiny bestowed upon a soul by the circumstances of her birth. Makina is not gone at the end of the story; but something more.