Julián Herbert makes his English-language debut with Tomb Song, a 2011 work translated from Spanish this year by Christina MacSweeney. The novel joins the fictionalized autobiography trend in global literature, which includes prominent authors like Annie Ernaux and Karl Ove Knausgård.
Through pointed observations and a sharp critical eye, Herbert grounds the haziness of memory and drug-addled dreams in vivid writing. In a scene that takes him to Cuba, Herbert, high on opium, dances at a club and remembers “that Shakespearean conga: suddenly we were all jumping. An incendiary percussion section, tamed from the street, wild beasts on the bonfire: some phony told me I was a rocker.” As his protagonist alternates between sitting by his mother’s bed and wandering the hospital’s enclaves, Herbert takes readers to his hometown in Mexico, to Berlin with his wife Mónica, to Havana, and back to the present day.
Herbert rotates among the names he uses to refer to his mother, making her less a person and more a fluid idea. Her given name is Guadalupe Chávez Moreno—named after a virgin, as he points out, slightly insolently. When Herbert introduces his mother in the opening pages of the first chapter, he writes, “as so often happens, she was named after a virgin: Guadalupe.” On that same page, Herbert tells us his mother was a prostitute. But she frequently goes by Marisela Acosta, as well as a number of other pseudonyms that change with each new job she takes on and each new city she travels to. At one point, Guadalupe isn’t even a person: “my mother is not my mother. My mother is music,” Herbert writes.
In fact, names and facts don’t matter much in the world Herbert creates. As a hybrid of fiction and memoir, Tomb Song simultaneously champions and denigrates reality. The elements of truth give credibility and lend a brutal honesty to the most painful parts. But the flexibility of the genre allows him to deny fact, its ultimate hold on readers, and generates a sense of uneasiness that pervades the book.
Death is really the only certainty, and even in Guadalupe’s death her identity is subject to question. Because Herbert’s mother is accidentally admitted to the hospital as Guadalupe “Charles,” the hospital needs to make out two death certificates, causing a severe delay in the release of her body.
Occasionally, Herbert makes readers sharply aware of his writing process, knowing that in creating a work of autobiographical fiction, he is inviting readers to wonder what is true and what is falsified. At one point, the narrator suffers a fever and a psychotic episode and seems to use them as justification for his loose treatment of fact. He writes that while sick or mentally incapacitated, “it’s relatively valid to write an autobiographical novel in which fantasy has set up camp.”
Herbert employs a tone hardened to the corruption, brutality, and violence in the Mexico of his childhood, putting up a shield that makes it impossible to determine what is real and what is fantasy. He reverts to this tone when he writes, for instance, on the death of a young boy in his neighborhood: “In the last year of my adolescence, when I was sixteen, there was a second corpse in the neighborhood…He died one September day in 1987, at eight in the morning, from a shot fired from a .22-caliber pistol.”
Still, a slight falter in the brusque voice Herbert uses throughout the novel comes at the end, cluing us into a real pain that cannot be masked by brusque language. In the last chapter, after his mother dies, Herbert writes, “What made me hit the floor when the doctor came to inform me she’d finally died was the simple revelation that I’d never hear her voice again.” Though Herbert tends toward lofty literary and philosophical references, here, there are no comparisons to Kafka or overwrought psychoanalyses. The sentence, so simple as to be almost clichéd, is the one instance in which Herbert seems to let go of his status as “writer.”
MacSweeney’s translation delicately preserves the lyricism of the novel, including the occasional, but somewhat unfortunate, overindulgent use of some unnecessarily ornate words and lofty metaphor. The narrator, for instance, sees reproduction as “megalomaniacal theodicy” until he meets his wife.
At times, the novel reads more like a series of frenetic notes than a cohesive work. Though stream of consciousness narrative gives readers a look into the mind of the author, Herbert’s work often feels slightly too contrived to offer a true window into his psyche. And at other times, the thoughts are too half-baked or nonsensical to communicate anything meaningful. Still, Herbert writes with bold authority and without squeamishness, even when describing some of the unsavory details of his life. Where he lacks in elegance, he furnishes exuberance.