Signs Preceding the End of the World and Layering Imagery
Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman) is the story of a woman crossing the border from Mexico to the United States in search of her brother. The novel is a study in unsettling the reader to create an experience that is frightening, beautiful, and astounding.
I’d like to take a look at the way the book layers imagery with interpretation of that imagery to create complexity and depth.
First there was nothing. Nothing but a frayed strip of cement over the white earth. Then she made out two mountains colliding in the back of beyond: like they’d come from who knows where and were headed to anyone’s guess but had come together at that intense point in the nothingness and insisted on crashing noisily against each other, though the oblivious might think they simply stood there in silence. Yond them hills is the pickup, take you on your way, said Chucho, but we’ll make a stop first so you can change.
Then off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good one: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person, who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards. Makina turned to look at Chucho and see if he too had been fooled, but he hadn’t.
“First there was nothing” signals that the POV character, Makina, is looking hard for something. She’s trying to see, and she’s trying to understand. With “nothing but” and “then she made out,” we experience the way she is making sense of the shapes she sees. Meaning coalesces.
When the mountains reach her comprehension, they must be still, but she sees them as colliding. I love the technique of describing things in motion. It’s unsettling—in a good way. Often, stories seem to stop when we get a passage of physical description, and that can be frustrating, but the colliding mountains mean this story has not stopped at all. Rather we have a character actively trying to make sense of what she is describing. The motion of those mountains adds conflict. We feel the struggle of this quest to understand.
The description starts with concrete shapes and colors, but then we get a new understanding of the mountains and what they mean through something much stranger and more abstract: “they’d come from who knows where and were headed to anyone’s guess.” These mountains are both on a journey and about a journey, but it’s a mystery of a journey. Makina is using the mountains to explain her own situation to herself. She is also on a journey that is mysterious to her. We get her inner brain workings reflected in the world around her because of the way she can’t help but see that world.
Makina’s description is also deconstruction. A person who knows this view doesn’t see it in pieces. Once the reader has reconstructed the view, we see it both as a whole and as the series of shapes that Makina has described.
Finally, all of this sense-making collides with Chucho’s quick assessment of “them hills.” He is casual about what he’s already seen. He makes the mountains smaller. And they aren’t the point for him but simply a landmark on the way to the pickup.
And so in the reader’s brain, there is a jumble of all the ways we experience this landscape—as a nothing that turns into something, as abstraction, as mountains crashing and colliding, as “them hills,” and as the puzzle we put together of what it must really look like. This landscape is alive as it unifies and fragments in our brains.
And, yes, as all this happens, we are learning about the landscape. And we are learning about the character through the way she understands the landscape. But also the passage becomes an experience all by itself. And that experience echoes—and makes us feel—the experience of Makina and her own journey.
The next paragraph goes even further. First we get what Makina sees and tells us is a good omen: a pregnant woman resting under a tree. Then Makina sees she has misread the shapes in front of her. In fact, it is the opposite of a good omen: a dead and rotting man.
For Makina, it’s a quick trick of her eyes, but the reader necessarily gives weight to each image. We see the pregnant woman just as clearly as we see the corpse. This means that even when we’re told there is no pregnant woman, she still exists in our brain. This layering creates a depth and complexity to the experience of reading the book. It’s not just one thing at a time, but both images at once.
And it’s no accident these two are opposites—birth and death. A contradiction. A paradox. When we hold competing images in our brains it’s like mountains colliding. It makes a brain explosion that rips the reader out of one-word-at-a-time and into a submersive experience of the text.
An additional layer is added when Makina sees that Chucho never saw the pregnant woman. In that moment there is not just Makina‘s way of experiencing the man under the tree as both pregnant woman and dead body but Chucho’s assessment as well. The reader gets to experience all views and all understandings.
So what to learn from all this? When writing a story, should you create a description that the reader will see quickly or one filtered through the strangeness of your character? Or should you do both and let them collide? Obviously, it depends on your intentions for the story. Sometimes one layer is enough. But there’s profound beauty—and exquisite danger—in the crash of multiple ways of seeing and understanding the same thing.