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from the April 2018 issue

Julián Herbert Watches Over His Dying Mother and Casts a Sharp Eye on Mexico in “Tomb Song”

Reviewed by Ángel Gurría-Quintana

Cuban writer José Lezama Lima once remarked that he began to grow old the day his mother died. A similar sentiment haunts the pages of Tomb Song, the novel by Mexican writer Julián Herbert, which is both a visceral lament about his mother’s death from leukemia and a scathing portrayal of the author’s home country.

Born in Acapulco in 1971, Herbert was already known in Mexico for his poetry, his essays, and a well-received collection of short stories. Tomb Song, first published in 2011 to much critical acclaim, cemented his reputation as one of the country’s most original writers. It won the prestigious Jaén prize in Spain and the Elena Poniatowska novel prize in Mexico.

The book’s title plays on the Spanish expression for a lullaby—a cradle song. Except that here the narrator—also named Julián Herbert—is keeping vigil over his dying mother in a hospital room in the northeastern Mexican city of Saltillo and writing the book as a way of finding comfort while coming to terms with her life.

And what a life it was. Guadalupe Chávez, we learn, had been a prostitute, dragging a young Julián and his hapless siblings from town to town, changing her identity as she went from one brothel to the next. The result of this itinerant upbringing was, for Julián, utter disorientation: “It was Mamá’s fault. We traveled so much that, for me, the earth was a wickerwork polygon limited in every direction by railway lines.”

From its pathos-filled prologue to its poignant closing lines, Herbert’s novel is shot through with fury and filial love. This sounds bleak—it isn’t. Indeed, it is one of the novel’s characteristics that it is able to swing from heartbreak to grisly humor within a few lines.

Herbert the author (as well as Julián the narrator) has taken on board the essential lesson from Laurence Sterne: that digressions are the soul of reading. The bedside vigil is interrupted by long descriptions of a trip to Berlin with his pregnant wife and a surreal escapade in Havana in the company of a fictional character called Bobo Lafragua. Beyond offering relief from the unflinching observation of his mother’s disease, these meanderings also allow the author to ponder the purpose of authorship.

Critics have made much of the explicitly autobiographical nature of the novel—Tomb Song has been described as “autofiction,” “self-fiction,” or even (as French literary critics would prefer) “ego-fiction.” It has been compared to similarly autobiographical novels by other Latin American authors, including fellow Mexican Guadalupe Nettel and Chile’s Alejandro Zambra.

Herbert himself seems to relish the deliberate blurring of the line between fact and fiction, mischievously declaring in a recent interview that he has simply written “a nonfictional novel” or produced an autobiography “using a novelist’s tools.”

Among the novel’s many fruitful digressions are the author/narrator’s musings on the no-man’s-land between remembered experience and fictional representation:

 

When you write in the present [tense] . . . you’re generating a fiction, an involuntary suspension of grammatical disbelief. That’s why this book (if this does become a book, if my mother survives or dies in some syntactical fold that restores the meaning of my digressions) will be eventually found in bookstores, standing upright on the dustiest shelf of "novels."

 

Elsewhere, Herbert justifies his creative license as a result of illness: “So, from inside fever or psychosis, it’s relatively valid to write an autobiographical novel in which fantasy has set up camp. What’s important is not that events are true: what’s important is that the illness or the madness is.”

Literary sleuths aiming to tease out the correspondences between the author’s life and the author’s work may be wasting their time. It is obvious where Herbert’s loyalty lies: “In contrast to Wilde, who believed that real-life testimonies are inane and that to transcend this inanity we must embellish our perception of the real by filling our surroundings with sublime objects, I find ornamentation . . . a form of nouveaurichism, of obscenity. Transforming a collection of anecdotes into structure, on the other hand, offers the challenge of conquering a certain level of beauty.”

But transforming his mother’s agony into art brings its own moral challenges: “What I’m writing is a work of suspense. Not in its technique: in its poetics. Not for you, but for me. What will become of these pages if my mother doesn’t die?”

This authorial self-awareness hangs heavily on the narrator. Toward the end of the novel, he remembers arriving in Acapulco for a literary conference, only to be told that his father has just died in the very same city.  “A muffled inner voice . . . said ‘This is good material for the ending of your novel.’ I cursed Paul Auster and his poetic feeling for chance.”

Beyond Auster, Herbert mines a varied seam of influences—from Pedro Páramo to Pulp Fiction, from The Magic Mountain to The Matrix. The cinematic canon is as conspicuous as the literary canon: “Forget it . . . it’s Chinatown,” says the fictitious Bobo Lafragua, as he and Julián traipse across the Havana night.

This potent brew of semifictions, rich in references and infused with Mexico’s vernacular Spanish, would cause even the most experienced translator to break out into a cold sweat. Christina MacSweeney has produced a version that radiates with Herbert’s original rage and raw energy, only occasionally missing the point—one of the novel’s best gags, involving a giraffe built out of Lego but also punning on an author’s giraffe-sized ego, is lost in translation.

“I always narrate in the present in the hope of finding velocity,” says the novel’s protagonist. “This time I’m doing it in the hope of finding consolation.” At heart, Tomb Song is the author’s knotty attempt to redeem his own mother and, in doing so, redeem himself.

One senses that, for Herbert, redemption may be harder to imagine for his country: “The whole of Mexico is the territory of the cruel . . . I’m a waiter in a country of waiters . . . here, all of us waiters uphold the civil code of spitting in your soup. First we waste your time with our proverbial courtesy; then we waste it with criminal stupidity. Welcome to the Sweet Nation. Tip, please.”

© Ángel Gurría Quintana. All rights reserved.

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