by Julián Herbert
translated by Christina MacSweeney
Graywolf Press, 224 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
What an odd book Tomb Song is. It contains prose both beautiful and profane, extensive self-awareness and a troubling level of self-ignorance. Its author and its narrator blur together into an entity that is never quite one or the other, and it doesn’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction with especial meticulousness. That is, the narrator and the author have the same name, the same wife and child, the same job, and the same literary accomplishments. It remains undefined whether, in what passages, and to what extent Herbert has fictionalized his life to write this book, which a reviewer in a Chilean newspaper called “an elegy to his mother.”
The book is, in fact, summarily about the narrator’s mother dying over the course of a year in and out of the hospital, but the reader will find the scope to be much wider. The narrator examines his childhood, his marriage, his perspective on Mexican politics, his drug use, and his struggle to make the world conform to his needs, or vice versa. Since this is Herbert’s first book translated into English, it’s difficult to determine whether the voice in Tomb Song—which most resembles a petulant, smart-alecky boy—is a gesture toward the filial relationship at the book’s center, or is the author’s usual tone. Off-putting though this voice may sometimes be, Herbert’s style, and his skill with the boundaries of genre and narrative distance, are singularly accomplished. Herbert, a poet and essayist, won the Jaén Prize for unedited novels and the Elena Poniatowska Prize for the original Spanish version of Tomb Song.
Destabilization is a key texture that the reader must appreciate in order to enjoy Tomb Song. For instance, the narrator, in exploring the hospital where his mother lies dying, dreams or hallucinates or genuinely takes part in a conversation with a man in the basement whom he identifies as “Bobo Lafragua, the hero of the unfinished novel I’d attempted to write a couple of years before.” Thirty pages later, he meets “the conceptual artist Bobo Lafragua” in Cuba for a dissolute vacation, complete with hookers, opium, and existential conversations. It is unclear whether the section in Cuba is adapted from life, as so much of this novel seems to be, or lifts a passage from that previously mentioned novel. The name is the only indication that we may have moved genres from nonfiction to fiction, and its reappearance causes a fine little frisson.
The prose, particularly in the Cuba passages, recalls Kerouac in its freshness and enthusiasm, and indeed, the literary performance of Tomb Song is captivating. Translator Christina MacSweeney, in recreating such a performance in English, made a daunting task look easy.
The prose, particularly in the Cuba passages, recalls Kerouac in its freshness and enthusiasm, and indeed, the literary performance of Tomb Song is captivating. Translator Christina MacSweeney, in recreating such a performance in English, made a daunting task look easy. The author’s exposure of his inner weather is unsparing and precise, and his one-liners are without equal:
Every household runs aground at the feet of a domestic myth.
T]he main objective of true revolutions is to turn waiters into bad-mannered despots.
There’s no route to the absolute that doesn’t pass through a fever station.
Berlin is a civic graveyard project into which has been drained the best of its sacred art: dead bodies.
Herbert pulls no punches, exploring his narrator’s flaws and the desperate circumstances of his childhood mercilessly, as if writing about a character he doesn’t especially want to shield. The glitches in this objectivity appear during certain passages about the narrator’s—Herbert’s—mother, who was a prostitute. Herbert is capable of standing back enough to see the irony in insulting someone by calling them “son of a whore” when his narrator’s circumstances embody that insult. But the pointed self-awareness that characterizes the narrator’s relationship with his mother sometimes slips, and the prose reveals an unsettling mishmash of innocent devotion, sexual desire, and contempt. “Some days she’d tie her hair up in a ponytail,” he writes,
put on dark glasses, and lead me by the hand through the lackluster streets of Acapulco’s red-light district, the Zona de Tolerancia, to the market stalls on the avenue by the canal (this would have been eight or nine in the morning, when the last drunkards were leaving La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels would lean out over the metal windowsills of tiny rooms and call me “pretty”). With the exquisite abandon and spleen of a whore who’s been up all night, she’d buy me a Choco Milk shake and two coloring books.
All the men watching her.
But she was with me.
At the age of five, I first experienced the masochistic pleasure of coveting something you own but can’t understand.
Later, as an adult:
Out of sheer perversity, out of sheer self-loathing, out of pure idleness, I scanned the leftover girls of the night, trying to decide which one reminded me most of my mother.
In passages like these, when Herbert’s self-awareness is missing, the reader notices. Particularly if the reader is female. Men’s experiences are front and center in Tomb Song, whether as sons, fathers, carousers, authors, or mourners. The novel is so subjective, so purposely claustrophobic, that the dearth of women who appear as autonomous creatures, rather than “sex on legs,” is not as egregious as it might be in other novels. But it’s there. “I wanted to settle accounts with the mother goddess of biology,” he writes, “shooting a pistol at her, ejaculating in her face.”
One of the words used in the promotional material regarding this novel is “incandescent.” This is true, inasmuch as the word has two meanings: the ordinary, meaning light-emitting, brilliant, exceptional; and the obscure, meaning furiously angry. Anger comes off this book in nearly visible waves.
One of the words used in the promotional material regarding this novel is “incandescent.” This is true, inasmuch as the word has two meanings: the ordinary, meaning light-emitting, brilliant, exceptional; and the obscure, meaning furiously angry. Anger comes off this book in nearly visible waves. Mexico eats its own heart, politically, and the narrator is angry. A boy grows up in grasping poverty, and the narrator is angry. A mother dies, and the narrator is angry. The narrator snorts liquefied opium continuously out of a sinus-medication bottle, and he is still angry. With this anger comes pointed critique, gleaming insight, and an entertaining method of ADD-like writing, but the reading experience toes the line between exhilarating and exhausting.
Tomb Song is not a continuous story as much as it is a patchwork, a coat of many colors made from memoir and imagination and scintillating intellectual reflection and political diatribe and self-excoriation. What seams it into a single garment is Herbert’s voice, his energetic, free-associative, sardonic, charismatic voice. This tone, in which Herbert paints being the middle child of five siblings by five fathers, approaches “rollicking,” but doesn’t quite make it. Is that a flaw, a miscalculation, or a demonstration of the situation’s tragic absurdity? The reader will have to determine for himself whether the voice of Julián, in its variations, attracts or repels.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.