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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer

Julián Herbert's ‘Tomb Song’: fact, fiction and the contemporary bildungsroman


Irresponsible post-modernists tend to leave a broad, often vacuous, gash of absurdity (read: crap) in their literary wake. The acutely self-aware (semi) post-modernist, Julián Herbert, explains: “In the majority of cases, a post-modern novel is nothing more than a costumbriso cross-dressing as cool jazz and/or pedantic and/or pedantic rhetoric a la Kenneth Goldsmith that spends a hundred pages saying what Baudelaire said in three words: spleen et ideal.”

Spleen et ideal, translated to spleen and ideal, may be the only descriptor for “Tomb Song,” Herbert’s haunting epic, and first translated to English, which places the writer’s past — specifically his relationship with a dying mother — under the spleen’s microscope (the Roman physician Galen believed the spleen to be source of melancholy and spite) and doctors the memories with an aesthete’s vision of the ideal. Consequently, “Tomb Song” becomes a simultaneously physical and ephemeral work that, instead of shattering the boundaries separating the novel, memoir and essay, ignores their existence outright.  

Herbert’s spleen — the stark truth at the heart of his narration — pierces the reader’s protective layers through Herbert’s often humorous deadpan delivery.

“The light of the real world feels brutal,” Herbert says of his “first 36-hour shift” at his dying mother’s side — “coarse powdered milk made atmosphere.” To explain such a light, and the colors of his mother’s cancer, her unchosen lifelong occupation (prostitution) and Herbert’s unorthodox developmental history as her son, the reader might expect Herbert to assume an exclusively cynical voice. But, the writer explains, “It’s not reality that makes a person cynical. It’s the sheer impossibility of getting any sleep in cities.”

It is in trying to cope with the exhaustion of his past and the pressures of that present that Herbert allows himself to drift in and out of fevered dream states — the fiction element of “Tomb Song.”  He envisions himself as an Oscar Wilde type, plastering the aesthetic forefather’s words — “I am simply a self-conscious nerve in pain” — onto the page just before his accounts veer off the tracks of reason.

Herbert’s idyllic dreams melt the hospital’s walls (where the sheer power of his mother’s presence locks him into a cycle of love and guilt) into a drunken, violent and unkempt realm — characterized by spells of punk rock, political radicalism, sexual exploits and gambling — where an insecure writer can indulge in his own toxic masculinity. Herbert goes so far as to invent a character, the hard-partying communist Bobo Lafragua, to say and do the things that Herbert, as a creature of reality could never do. Bobo makes sense when nothing else does. He’s necessary, according to Herbert, because “One is moved by the story of a logical sequence.”

The spleen and the ideal of Herbert’s text converge through his characterization of his mother. Born Guadalupa Chávez Mareno (but almost never represented as such), the woman becomes the focal point around which Herbert’s factual, spiritual, psychic and literary streams flow. Her virtues (acute intelligence and unrelenting kindness), supposed vices (a life spent as a sex worker), rapidly shifting identity (constant changes in her name and the character assigned to it) and devotional perspective (embodied in her relationship with Herbert), developed beneath the author’s literary and purposely unreliable eye, cast her as a warped Odysseus character of sorts. Though Herbert serves as the novel’s principle actor, his mother’s life-force implicitly underlies his every move. Her influence informs Herbert so heavily that her potential death presents him with a predicament beyond sadness — his own loss of identity.

“I don’t have much experience with death,” Herbert admits, wondering how his writing career could possibly continue without his sacred muse. “I guess this could eventually become a logistical problem.”

Herbert extrapolates the nuances of his pseudo-fictive mother figure to reflect the Mexico’s precarious position as a cultural entity. As with his mother, Herbert makes no effort to hide his nation’s flaws (he speaks of his nation’s aptitude for achieving “pyrrhic” victories), yet, the nation is also the wellspring from which he, as a writer, drinks. Without Mexico (and, likewise, without his mother), Herbert believes he’ll find only emptiness.

Herbert’s “Tomb Song” aims to suspend the memories and relevant myth in a literary solution in the hope that he might preserve the fleeting character that his mother and Mexico created for him. Because it’s meant to be an honest portrayal of the mind, it makes sense that Herbert would not confine “Tomb Song” to a singular literary genre. As a preeminent character in the text, Herbert intuitively knows he could to have done so honestly. Rather, he must deliver the language of his gaze as is, ripe with wounds though it may be. To do otherwise, to strive unreflectively toward the truth, would be to obscure the truth entirely.