Tomb Song: A Novel
- By Julián Herbert; translated by Christina MacSweeney
- Graywolf Press
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Jenny O’Grady
- March 19, 2018
Dazzling language and a sympathetic (if unreliable) narrator elevate this autobiographical tale.
In the introduction of the new English translation of Tomb Song, Mexican author Julián Herbert explains that as a child he simply couldn’t believe the world was round. He casually blames this on his mother, a career prostitute, and on the fact that he and his family of half-siblings traveled constantly “because of her hysterical life crisscrossing the whole blessed country in search of a house or a lover or a job or happiness, none of which have ever existed in this Sweet Nation.”
As a teen observing the neighborhood trainyard in motion, he is struck by the sudden realization of his mistake. Life is much more fluid than he thought — and memories, as well. And we all search madly, and often unsuccessfully, for the same things his mother sought.
Set against the backdrop of his mother’s on-again, off-again hospitalization for leukemia, Herbert’s autobiographical novel drags his readers through a dream-like, drug-infused tour of pinnacle points of his life, interspersed with musings on the successes and failures of his career as a writer, son, and father.
Fidgeting in his mother’s hospital room, faced with the indignities of her illness, he drives himself to memory partly out of boredom, and partly to escape truths he can’t quite accept. We learn about his eccentric but brilliant mother’s five husbands and the children these unions produced.
We learn about the seedy neighborhoods they lived in, the friends and father figures who come into their lives as she moves between brothels, and Herbert’s troubled relationships with women and his own children.
Among his Spanish-speaking fan base, Herbert is known for his dazzling language, and this, his English debut translated lovingly by Christina MacSweeney, does not disappoint. Simultaneously gorgeous and dirty, he brings us poignant moments of beauty only to quickly destroy them with the filth lurking naturally behind. This is his life — driven by opium one moment, by love or sense of duty the next — and how he chooses to see, feel, and write it.
As much as Tomb Song reads like a disjointed memory maze, the format feels appropriate for a man whose life so closely resembles his mother’s. In a section titled “Fever,” Herbert spins a weird tale of sex, drugs, and writing conference after-parties, only to later take it all back. It was all a lie, he says — the fabrication of a week-long fever that suddenly blurs his past and present.
In one of her more fragile moments in the cancer ward, his mother tells him about her life after his grandfather’s death (and her memory of the lights of “La Habana” at night), and while realizing he’s “her only apostle, the sole evangelist of her existence” and steward of her life story, Herbert also admits to himself: “I no longer know if it’s the fever or my mother speaking.”
Time and truth are troublesome in Tomb Song. It’s easy to excuse the inconsistencies of Herbert’s memory; he often succumbs to his addictions or his ego, and he’s also digging out from beneath the grief and confusion of his mother’s ailment, so he’s as unreliable a narrator as they come.
He has at least once attempted suicide. He’s a bit of a lovable rogue but also earnestly excited to have a new child on the way. Perhaps this is why it makes so much sense to present these lives and events as a fiction.
“Whenever you write in the present...you’re generating a fiction, an involuntary suspension of grammatical disbelief,” he explains within his own novel. “I always narrate in the present in the hope of finding velocity. This time I’m doing it in the hope of finding consolation, while I perceive the progress of the plane through the sky as a free fall into an abyss on pause.”
Whether we trust him or not, the stories weave elegantly. And whether you like him as the protagonist or not, his performance leaves you intrigued and invested. That personality plays out as he accepts “the challenge of conquering a certain level of beauty: achieving a rhythm despite the sound-proofed vulgarity that is life.”
In other words, life is beautiful and not beautiful. And Herbert, like anyone who approaches his problems creatively, can re-frame, or rationalize, or take what’s terrible and precious and either deal with it or run away. As he ponders the end of one life, the beginning of another, and the failures that have brought him to this place in time, he chooses to stay and examine it.
Love rises above truth. And in the end, he can offer “a love encoded in words.”
Jenny O’Grady edits UMBC Magazine by day and the Light Ekphrastic by night. She also makes strange books from beans and Shrinky Dinks and whatever else catches her fancy.