Julián Herbert is a poet and novelist famous in his native Mexico for his dazzling wordplay. Tomb Song, his 2011 novel, is the first of his books be translated into English, fluidly by Christina MacSweeney who also translated Valerie Luiselli’s wonderful The Story of My Teeth.
Tomb Song is another entry in the recently popular “autofiction” genre, novels that cleave closely to actual facts of the author’s life and experiences but with occasional fictional variations.
Over the past few years I’ve read some great examples of autofiction, from Ben Lerner’s To the Atocha Station and 10:04, Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy and Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick to Sheila Hetti’s How Should a Person Be? The modern king of autofiction has to be Karl Ove Knausgaard and his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle.
The frame of Herbert’s novel is the death of his mother from leukemia and the text is meant to be his written thoughts as he keeps a bedside vigil in her hospital room, ministering to her fragile and sore-spotted dying body.
To say that Herbert’s feelings for his mother are conflicted would be an understatement. She was a mestiza prostitute who led a wandering life from one brothel or red light district to another, spending “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.”
Herbert’s mother, Guadalupe, had five children by five different men, mostly her johns, and Herbert grew up in varying degrees of poverty. He recalls one shack in particular where the cardboard roof blew off in a storm.
Not all of his siblings remained close to Guadalupe after they reached adulthood but Herbert did, although he clung to a stubborn love/hate relationship with her.
He remembers “That I hated her from September 1992 to December 1999. That during those years I religiously set aside a moment for hating her every day with the same devotion others employ in saying the rosary. That I hated her again a few times in the following decade but unsystematically just out of habit: without a fixed timetable. That I’ve always loved her with the unbroken light of the morning she taught me to write my name.”
The “present tense” of the novel, as Herbert types on his laptop by his mother’s bedside, provides the grounding continuity of the book as Herbert attends to mundane details.
“This month, my life is more like a political campaign than a tragedy,” he says early on. “I listen for my cell phone the whole day. Shake hands. Hug people. I give the nurses books and candy. I treat my wife and sister as if they were my media coordinators, the doctors like backers, the officials like my party leaders, my acquaintances like a moronic, easily influenced bunch of voters … I treat my mother’s weakened body as if it were a piece of proposed legislation.”
In the quiet times of waiting through dark nights in the hospital Herbert lets his memories of his life and his mother’s influence on it bounce around like memories always do. He recalls his troubled sex life, his two teenage sons, his divorce, his drug addiction, his suicide attempt and his new wife who is pregnant with a son who will be born just days after his mother dies.
Herbert’s set-piece recollections occasionally question personal memory as he retracts some, doubts the reliability of others and admits to differing interpretations. There is also a political strand running through the book as the state (“this Sweet Nation”) is also seen as a delinquent mother.
It is the fault of government corruption and indifference that Guadalupe had to turn to prostitution to survive in a ravaged economy; it’s the state’s fault that she is dying in a shabby underfunded hospital; it’s the state’s fault that narcoterrorists and sicarios rule the poorer neighbourhoods of Mexican cities.
Herbert doesn’t shy away from his feelings of anger and disappointment with the state or with his mother (or for that matter with his own sordid behaviour) but he takes pains to look at all of these shortcomings through realistic and compassionate eyes.
“I write in order to transform the perceptible,” he writes. “I write to give voice to suffering. But I also write to make this hospital chair less uncomfortable and ordinary. To be a man capable of being inhabited (if only by ghosts) and, therefore, of being passed through: someone useful to Mamá… So long as I can type, I can give form to what I don’t know and, in that way, be more human. Because I write to return to her body: I write to return to the language that birthed me.”
Tomb Song is a beautiful testament to art’s ability to help us endure the messy business of life and to rise to what Herbert calls “the challenge of conquering a certain level of beauty: achieving a rhythm despite the sound-proofed vulgarity that is life.”
Tomb Song by Julián Herbert (translated by Christina MacSweeney) Graywolf Press, 207pp.