A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman

50697406._SY475_The alert was first raised at six in the morning: a fire was tearing through the El Bordo mine. After a short evacuation, the mouths of the shafts were sealed. Company representatives hastened to assert that “no more than ten” men remained in the shafts at the time of their closure, and Company doctors hastened to proclaim them dead. The El Bordo stayed shut for six days.

When the mine was opened there was a sea of charred bodies—men who had made it as far as the exit, only to find it shut. The final death toll was not ten, but eighty-seven. And there were seven survivors.

Now, a century later, acclaimed novelist Yuri Herrera has carefully reconstructed a worker’s tragedy at once globally resonant and deeply personal: Pachuca is his hometown. His sensitive and deeply humanizing work is an act of restitution for the victims and their families, bringing his full force of evocation to bear on the injustices that suffocated this horrific event into silence.


I jumped at the chance to read this book because I love Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World, and I’m always excited to read nonfiction in translation. And read that jacket copy above – mine disaster! Intrigue!

I expected a wild ride but the book is subdued. An exhaustive investigation of the circumstances is impossible 100 years after the disaster so Herrera does the next best thing, critically examining the records left behind.

After outlining the sequence of events as well as we can know them, he looks at what isn’t in the record. How the stories of relatives, often women, are replaced with legalese. What the judge didn’t order investigated. How newspaper accounts were riddled with bias, to the point of obscuring all fact.

The book is a mere 120 pages long and as I reached the end I realized I probably read it too quickly. Some themes I picked up right away – how women were silenced and pushed aside, for example – but others I missed until the very end. Why didn’t I notice the pattern of Anglo names? Did I glance over something early that pointed to the fact that the mine was owned by a US company?

I’ll have to read this book again, at a slower pace, to pick up everything Herrera is putting down. If you’re expecting narrative twists and definite answers you’ll be disappointed. But if you don’t mind following the author has he wipes a century’s worth of dust off of a supposedly settled case he has interesting things to say.

Thanks to And Other Stories and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman


25067884Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.


This book is a gem – it’s easy to see why it won the Best Translated Book Award. Short but deep, in turns slangy and lyrical, I’m already looking forward to rereading it.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful and light, perfectly fitting for whatever situation the main character finds herself in.  And deep!  So many layers.

    The stadium loomed before them. So, what do they use that for?

    They play, said the old man.  Every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are.  He stopped, raised his cane and fanned the air.  One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn’t get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.

    Do you like it?

    Tsk, me, I’m just passing through.

  • Makina is awesome.  Understated, street-wise awesome.
  • The translation by Lisa Dillman is wonderful and her note at the end is enlightening.  Translators are the closest to any text, maybe even closer than the authors themselves, because they process it in two different languages.  Her insights are wonderful and had me hankering to reread the book immediately to appreciate aspects I didn’t pick up the first time through.

The not-so-good:

  • This is the only the first book of Herrera’s to be translated into English.  I’m eagerly awaiting the second, soon to be published by the same press.

All in all I utterly love this book.  It didn’t rattle around in my head for as long as some others but it will reward rereading for years to come.