KR Reviews

Love Is a Powerful Drug: On Tomb Song by Julián Herbert

Translated by Christina MacSweeney. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2018. 224 pages. $16.00.

Though the term has existed since the late 1970s, “autofiction” is experiencing a renaissance in contemporary literature thanks to recent titles by authors like Karl Ove Knausgård and Rachel Cusk. Essentially fictionalized autobiographies, these works permit the author to tell personal tales while amplifying details or toying with narrative form. Joining the ranks of notable new autofictions is Mexican scribe Julián Herbert’s absorbing Tomb Song, a novel that chronicles the author’s bedside vigils of his mother, Guadalupe, as leukemia slowly eats through her body. A mix of anecdotes and metafictional self-awareness, Herbert’s narrative—skillfully translated by Christina MacSweeney—rises above its gloomy premise to meditate on the idea of family while questioning the ways we engage reality and relate our experiences to others.

The novel is broken into three parts, with a brief introduction situating the reader in a Mexican hospital room before diving into Herbert’s childhood for stories of local soccer clubs and Guadalupe’s life as a prostitute, complete with aliases depending on her location—“both to give herself an air of mystery,” Herbert writes, “and because she views her existence as a criminal act” [7]. Herbert’s youth—that is, his character’s youth—is a series of scattered memories, reinforced by the nomadic lifestyle established by his mother and his own fractured family tree, as none of his siblings share the same father, and it is in this first part of the novel that the author speaks to the uncomfortable realization that comes with constructing a book based around a potential tragedy. He explains, “What I’m writing is a work of suspense. Not in its techniques: in its poetics. Not for you, but for me. What will become of these pages if my mother doesn’t die?” [30]. By calling his own actions into question, Herbert lets his concern bleed through, and by doing so, the text avoids the coldness frequently found in criticisms of metafiction. Yes, the author ultimately manipulates the unfolding of scenes while knowing their impact, yet as the novel progresses, the fictionalized Herbert becomes so consumed by the narrative he’s telling that his feigned lack of control allows for uncertainty to simmer below the surface.

By the novel’s midpoint, Herbert transcends reality: exhausted, after days of staying with Guadalupe as she fights a fever, he sneaks away to smoke a cigarette. Sitting in a stairwell, he has a brief conversation with a man he later realizes to be one Bobo Lafragua, the protagonist of his own long-abandoned novel. From here, Tomb Song segues into a fantastical, drug-fueled Cuban adventure, with Herbert and Lafragua snorting liquid opium and causing general ruckus around Havana, while ostensibly on the island as part of a business trip to organize “concerts and exhibitions of the work of Mexican artists” [117]. The longer he is away, the more the insecurities and vices of Herbert the character flourish. An imagined memory of an old female lover who preferred anal sex turns into an examination of Herbert’s own sexuality, for example, and his inebriated state in Havana speaks to the character’s past struggles with sobriety. In addition, his journey alternates with chapters detailing Guadalupe’s own upbringing, and these stories eventually merge with the Havana narrative. The result is a fascinating exploration of the frenzy that accompanies the caring for an ailing parent, as well as the consequences of ignored self-care during times of crisis—as it turns out, Herbert battles the same fever as his mother, and his hallucinations take over his writing, birthing his Cuban exploits. Herbert’s flirtation with what is real and what is fabrication gives the entire novel a sheen of artifice that forces the reader to confront the autofiction format and ask: why do I believe this to be true? Why do I believe this to be false?

Herbert himself grapples with the structure of writing a fictionalized version of reality, and late in the novel, he considers certain fortuitous moments as gifts to render the best possible ending for his book: his partner, Mónica, gives birth to their son Leonardo, and Herbert hears from his long-estranged father, who passes away before he is able to reconnect in person. Both, the author believes, provide the kernel for a good final chapter, writing, after he hears of his father’s passing, “A muffled inner voice (the voice of the cynical, abusive, Hartista son of a bitch that I am) said: ‘This is good material for the ending of your novel.’ I cursed Paul Auster and his poetic feeling for chance” [200]. Yet as Tomb Song comes to a close, the truth behind Herbert’s journey is less about big moments and more about emotion. The author recalls the first night he and Mónica spent living together. She describes Herbert as a “beautiful sea cucumber” [184] and explains to him the creature’s defense mechanism of “extrud[ing] their inner organs” [185] to snare attackers in sticky goo. A few pages later, Herbert returns to this imagery as he describes sharing a meal with Mónica’s family, who to him are relative strangers:

There’s no way to be human, sufficiently human, without at the same time feeling an urge something like that of the sea cucumber: the desire to escape by hurling your guts at your neighbor. If we manage to prevent this from happening in family situations, it is due to an impulse more radical than fear: love. Fear acts like a mammal. Love, on the other hand, acts like a virus . . . Love is a powerful virus. [193]

By navigating his mother’s illness and death, and his own personal demons, Herbert comes to realize the command love has in his universe, regardless of his attempts to avoid its reach time and time again. It is a striking conclusion to a wild and inventive novel and a message that, particularly today, feels increasingly necessary to observe.

Benjamin Woodard is editor in chief at Atlas and Alice Magazine. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Atticus Review, jmww, Hypertrophic Literary, and others. Find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.