Made up of only nine short chapters, Yuri Herrera’s novella weighs in at just over one hundred pages. You might be forgiven for thinking you could knock it off in a few hours and move onto the next pressing book on the list that only seems to get longer but that would be a mistake. Herrera packs a great deal of food for thought into this short book. Reading Lisa Dillman’s illuminating translator’s note at the end of it might be best done before you start – there are a few hints as to the turns the story takes but plot isn’t the point here.
This is the tale of Makina and the journey she makes from the Little Town by way of the Big Chilango across the border to the United States in search of her brother who set off three years ago to lay claim to their father’s fabled patch of land. Makina is fluent in her own language, in anglo and in the lingo that has sprung up between the two. A switchboard operator, she’s privy to messages passed back and forth across the border, adept at reading nuance. She’s savvy, smart and – that word that’s always used for strong women – feisty, more than capable of fending off the endless lechery that comes her way. She has no intention of staying in the land of the anglos – she’s only going to please her mother. Her passage is eased by the repayment of favours owed by a gangster and what she finds is surprising. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Herrera’s novella tells of Makina’s journey – fraught with hardship and challenge – from one world to the other, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground.
The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid: a vigilante rancher’s ‘eyes shot bullets through the two windows between them’; ’you are the door, not the one who walks thorough it’ perfectly describes the job of the message carrier avoiding trouble. Makina is a memorable character, powerfully drawn, who makes you look at Westerners afresh. As she journeys from one world to the other, she wonders what to make of this place where there’s only one festival considered worth celebrating, where her fellow Mexicans tacitly recognise but dare not embrace her. She stumbles upon a gay marriage and wonders why the joyful couple might want to enter into this institution which seems to make so many people unhappy. Herrera – and Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving you pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.