Quiet on the Border
Borders are weird, bureaucratic spaces whose illogic unfolds under the sign of the Kafkaesque. Borders are an uncanny contradiction, an anarchic totalitarianism. On the one hand, a border is a frontier, a place where the nation-state ends, where the Weberian sense of “modernity” comes apart; on the other hand, borders are where the nation frays and becomes only the state, where a militarized sense of total security takes over.
Because borders are so weird, words proliferate. Along with arbitrary, nonsensical violence—and strange, unpredictable exceptions—people talk a lot and lots of papers get filed, even as all of it is, in practice, evacuated of meaning. Nothing promised at the border really means anything, but it means it at least twice. Borders are tedious and boring and empty, but also you might die, you never know, anything can happen. Borders are where the pretenses of modernity come apart, where even the wealthy might stand naked in front of the Rapiscan—except, of course, mostly the wealthy don’t need to, because of all the usual reasons. Everyone takes off their shoes, and opens their trunk, unless, of course, you don’t have to.
This weirdness is what borders mean (or un-mean) in the modern world (or the world which thinks itself modern): borders are when you’re not in Kansas anymore, when whatever truths you hold to be self-evident can come false in the blink of an eye
What if you were never in Kansas in the first place? Kansas is as far from a national border as you can get, and still be in the United States. What if you live on the border?
In one sense, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World comes at the border from the other side, and from that side, it’s not the same border at all. Even the ground is not self-evident in the “Little Town” where Herrera’s protagonist—a hard-boiled, trilingual switchboard operator named Makina—begins the novel. “Riddled with bullet holes and five centuries of silver lust,” as she describes it on the first page, the ground is always falling out from under your feet. And so, the first lines of the book are “I’m dead”: as she watches, a hole in the ground open up to swallow a man while he’s crossing the street, and this is the fate that is waiting for everyone who lives in Little Town.
What terrors could the border hold for such a person? From Makina’s side, there is nothing Kafkaesque about the space that separates Mexico from the United States. For her, the border plays by very specific and predictable rules, rules whose reliable violence might almost be comforting. Before setting out to find her brother, for example, she goes to see the “top dogs,” the three powers that be in her little town, and—unlike Kafka’s K—she has no trouble finding them, nor in making a deal. They are in their castles, waiting, and their terms are simple and clear. Makina doesn’t wake up, one day, transformed; she has always been what she is, because she has always been where she is. No one needs to tell lies about her: her crime is the original sin of being born on the wrong side of the border. “I’m dead,” she says, and she is.
At the same time, Makina is also a character out of noir—reminiscent of Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammett—because, like their hard-boiled protagonists, she struggles to make their way through a inhuman machine, minding her own business and keeping her head down. “You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business,” she tells herself; “You are the door, not the one who walks through it.” She is a switchboard operator for the only phone in her tiny town, far from everywhere, and she speaks three languages, but only to pass along other people’s words.
In this sense, Makina doesn’t live on “the other side” of the border; she lives inside it. She is the border.
In a way, Signs is a 21st-century Pedro Páramo. In 1955, Juan Rulfo’s tiny little book changed the course of Mexican literature because it displaced the dominant, social realist mode of fiction with something haunted, gothic, and uncanny; in a time when urbanization was emptying out the countryside and “The Future” was the epic that animated the present, Pedro Páramo turned back to the ghost cities that the great urban future was creating. The repressed past from which Mexico struggles to awake, to forget, and to leave behind, and from which—in 1955—it was easy to imagine that it would. It was a novel, then, that began inside the dream of mid-century modernization—and the sturdy conventions of social realist fiction—only to fall them apart and watch the repressed return: midway through the novel, our protagonist dies, and then narrates the rest of the ghostly novel from his grave.
Like Herrera’s Signs, Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is the story of a mother sending her child to look for a family member in the shadowy space that haunts the high hopes and optimism of Mexican modernity. But Yuri Herrera’s novel begins where Pedro Páramo ends: Makina is already dead, as are the literary conventions (and social democratic dreams) that sleepwalking Kansans might blissfully take for granted, but which Makina’s generation has never even expected to find. She isn’t disillusioned, then, because she was born without any; she expects nothing, not even to survive. She already lives among ghosts in a ghost town. That the novel begins, in a very literal sense, with a narration from the grave, is exactly the point. But the magic of this novel is that it doesn’t end there…
You can read this slender prose epic in a single, dreamlike sitting, as easily as falling asleep on a bus and waking up on the other side. It’s barely a hundred pages long—with generous typesetting—and so, you can travel across worlds in a few hours, and wake up at the end of it with only the vaguest of memories of where you’ve been. And maybe that’s the point. You don’t have to know the Mexica mythology that Herrera borrowed to feel what he is using it to portray, the border spaces where everything is left behind, where there is nothing left but the blankness of an empty page. Perhaps words proliferate at the border because we always know the silence that waits, and we struggle to fill it? But if there’s one thing Yuri Herrera’s novels are filled with, it’s silence, blankness, and emptiness.