The Violence of Autobiography: Julián Herbert’s “Tomb Song”

By Ignacio M. Sánchez PradoNovember 23, 2018

The Violence of Autobiography: Julián Herbert’s “Tomb Song”

Tomb Song by Julián Herbert

IF JULIÁN HERBERT were a soccer player, or if literature could be described in soccer terms, one could say that he scored a hat trick of masterpieces in the short period of four years. The first one was Canción de tumba (Tomb Song, 2011), a shattering autobiographical novel centered around the terminal illness and passing of Herbert’s mother, Guadalupe, a prostitute who roamed different Mexican cities for decades. The second one, Álbum Iscariote (Iscariot Album, 2013), is a stunning and original collection of visual poems based on the challenge of the idea of memory and the archive as fixed categories around sources such as pre-Columbian manuscripts and photographs found in a flea market. The third one, La casa del dolor ajeno (The House of the Pain of Others, 2015), is a marvelous hybrid nonfiction book that — through a mixture of chronicle, gonzo journalism, and essay — tells the story of a massacre of Chinese immigrants and residents in the city of Torreón during the early years of the Mexican Revolution. So far, these three books are the crowning achievements of one of the most impressive and prolific oeuvres in contemporary Mexican literature. Until the publication of Tomb Song, Herbert’s reputation stemmed from his influential books of poetry, which challenged and dismantled many inherited paradigms of writing and opened new paths for younger writers. This is the case of his exceptional Kubla Khan (2005), in which he departs from the idea of the failed poem seeking absolute knowledge (posed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the famous text from which Herbert takes the title) to gradually dismantle the cognitive and epistemological possibilities of the poem. Herbert was already more than a poet: he was also a lucid and controversial literary critic, and he had already released some prose books and a major novel, Un mundo infiel (An Unfaithful World, 2005), a book of dirty realism constructed through the tensioning of poetic prose and cinematographic narration. His trio of masterpieces, along with a continuous flow of works in different genres throughout this decade, have turned Herbert into one of the most indispensable and widely read authors of contemporary Mexican literature.

English-language readers now have the chance to access Herbert’s writing, thanks to the publication by Graywolf Press of Tomb Song, in Christina MacSweeney’s translation. It is also significant to note that Graywolf has announced The House of the Pain of Others to be forthcoming in 2019, also translated by MacSweeney. One can only hope that this opens the door to publish Herbert’s poetry too, although Álbum Iscariote’s graphic nature makes it unlikely that a press will invest the resources needed for a proper translation. In any case, Tomb Song provides an intense and powerful introduction to Herbert, and is, in itself, one of the most significant Latin American literary works of the decade. The book has obtained near-unanimous recognition since its original publication. It received the Jaén Novel Award in Spain, which is granted to writers yet to achieve critical recognition to the genre, and a year later it won the Premio Iberoamericano de novela Elena Poniatowska, which the Mexico City government confers to the best Spanish-language book of the previous year.

Seven years after its original publication, the book has not lost any of its literary power or worthiness of its previous exceptional praise. The book is emotionally intense and uniquely original in its execution. A central axiom in Herbert’s idea of literature is that writing can no longer afford to be practiced in a self-evident way. Thus, a hallmark of his style is the fact that his poems and novels have the very act of their writing rendered visible within them. In poetry collections like Kubla Khan and Álbum Iscariote, there is a frontal attack on the idea of poetic language as an instrument of transcendent knowledge or as a superior form of writing that reaches a superior cognitive stage — an idea central to Octavio Paz’s influential The Bow and the Lyre in the 1950s and a central principle of Mexican poetry for the remainder of the 20th century.

In Tomb Song and other narrative works, Herbert enacts a radical resistance to the work of allegory in fiction. His narrative refuses to turn his fictional self into a stand-in for the nation or any other community and breaks with the idea that a political unconscious is underlying the literary form. Herbert’s prose instead deploys deconstructed and extrapolated resources from all forms of prose writing (fictional and nonfictional, from the novel and the short story to the memoir and the historical chronicle) into textual hybrids that render visible both the formal workings and the ideological implications of everything said.

The very first paragraph of Tomb Song already shows the power of Herbert’s writing style:

As a child, I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. But all too soon I discovered my lack of aptitude: it took me years to accept the roundness of the earth. In public, I faked it. Once, in a classroom (one of many, as I went to nine different primary schools), without a hint of stage fright, I gave a visual demonstration of the terms rotation and orbit using — as the textbook suggested — an orange decorated with blue crayon and pierced by my pencil. I memorized every illusory story, the segments captured in midrotation, the hours and the days, the transit of the sun … But inside, no, I didn’t believe any of it. I lived with the proud, lucid anguish that had caused so many heresiarchs to be flayed to death at the orders of Saint Augustine.

In the deceiving clarity of this paragraph, one can discern the way in which Herbert introduces layers of subversion into his own narrative: Herbert sets up a small triumphant morality tale, which gradually morphs into a story of failure that is not so much a failure of knowledge but of faith. Yet, in a wink, Herbert closes the paragraph with an erudite reference that undoes his own narrative of incompetence.

These gestures become more radical as the book moves along, and Herbert goes as far as to require his own reader to be skeptical of the story: “And if Mamá doesn’t die? Will it be fair to you, reader (as nineteenth-century egomaniacs called this vein of anguish), if I lead you along false trails through a piece of writing with no daggers: a plasma discourse…?”

It is central to the experience of reading Herbert to embrace the fact that the emotions elicited by his narrative and his writing style are consistently at odds with each other. The beauty and brilliance of Herbert’s literary works is precisely the result of this tension, one that never resolves into any kind of closure or anagnorisis. This is why he constantly defies expectations regarding genre and tone: “This thing I write is a work of suspense. Not in its poetics; through its technique. Not for me, but for you.” This statement clearly shows that Herbert breaks with the convention of the memoir and the autobiography as books of self-discovery. He refuses to illuminate, and he rather keeps uncertainty at the center of the story he tells. The book’s emotions are not empathy or identification, the hallmarks of the memoir as we know them, but rather about distance, disgust, disenchantment. It is not about the making of a subject through the narrative of formation. Rather, Herbert pushes forward the undoing of the fiction of the subject and of formation. He turns the autobiographical text into a reflection of the impossibility of the Bildung through digression, humor, and numerous lines of flight. The unfocused nature of Herbert’s writing is the key to its power.

Given the sordid and personal nature of the material Tomb Song narrates — the unapologetically violent sexuality of a Mexican man, the thanatological atmosphere of a hospital room housing a terminally ill cancer patient, the memory of a childhood spent in brothels and in the houses of strangers — style is crucial to its success. Textual self-awareness is what stops this book from falling into exploitation, melodrama, or any other allegorical mode that allows for deriving moral and political lessons from the exemplum of a tragic life. There is no catharsis, no hidden meaning, no recognition in Tomb Song. Rather, Herbert provides an honest portrayal of the experience of a death, and of the ways in which personal and social ghosts consistently haunt every minute of it. The first section of the book is entitled “I DON’T FUCKIN’ CARE ABOUT SPIRITUALITY” for this very reason. It is the story of a life in which all the horrors are material and present, and the promise of redemption rings hollow. “Every so often, in the darkness,” the narrator tells us, “when I’m most afraid, I try to convince myself I’m watching over the delirium of a stranger.”

The suspension of melodrama and morality allows readers of Tomb Song to experience the fears and pains of life and death without being bailed out by easy life lessons or by cheap solutions appealing to the transcendent or the divine.

Personal as it is, Tomb Song is also a book brimming with history, as it the life story of a lower-class Mexican family living a precarious life in the shadows of the country’s modernity project. In one passage, for example, we learn that Guadalupe, Herbert’s mother, moved to the state of Michoacán because of a given that the construction of highways and other public projects increased the demand for prostitutes.

Another section of the book explores the Saltillo University Hospital, where Guadalupe is dying, and the ways in which it was part of a failed development policy. Herbert describes its construction as a “good example of Mexicans’ great talent for making themselves look foolish.” His prose has no need to allegorize the nation or the political in its individual subjects. His characters are always part of a history that is never latent or invisible but rather painfully material, present, and known. A good example of this is the 1982 economic crisis, which is experienced by Guadalupe’s family with particular pain:

At the end of ’83 we were evicted, and all our possessions seized. Almost all of them: at my express request, the clerk of court allowed me to remove a book or two before the police loaded our things onto the van. I took the two thickest: the complete works of Wilde in an Aguilar edition, and volume 13 of the Nueva Enciclopedia Temática. Literature has always been generous with me: if I had to go back to that moment, knowing what I know now, I’d choose the same books.

This passage illustrates how emotions circulate in Herbert’s writing. A tragic event, historical and personal, is fully laid out. The anecdote is sweet and moving, but more devoid of detail than it would seem. We do not know, for instance, the content of volume 13 of the encyclopedia, much less why those books were meaningful beyond being the thickest. Even at the verge of a lesson there is no lesson. The evocation of the luminous rescue of the books does not redeem or preempt the pain of losing everything to an economic crisis. The next paragraph does not begin with a reflection on the love of literature or the ways in which these books saved young Julián. Rather, it hits us with a straightforward statement: “We spent three years in absolute poverty.” In seven words, Herbert deflates any redemptive elements his books may have had.

It is fortunate that Herbert’s complex book found in Christina MacSweeney, a distinguished and brilliant translator, someone with the sensibility to deliver its many emotional and formal dimensions into English. MacSweeney has gained prominence thanks to her magnificent translations of and collaborations with Valeria Luiselli and has become a leading expert in Mexican fiction thanks to her translations of Eduardo Rabasa and Daniel Saldaña París. As is evident in her work with Luiselli, MacSweeney is uniquely able to render into English the type of Mexican literary style that is concerned with the possibilities and limits of form. Having read both versions, I would say that MacSweeney renders Herbert’s prose into the best English imaginable, preserving most of his poetic turns, his deceiving clarity, and his constant skepticism for the abilities of his own writing. The English version preserves the precise writing economy that makes Herbert’s books so rich without being overwritten, and that allows his careful modulation and use of literary resource to communicate layers of meaning without ellipsis or concealment. MacSweeney clearly understands Herbert’s prose as part of a trend (of which Luiselli’s books are a much different manifestation) in which Mexican literature derives its power from the skepticism toward itself. Contemporary Mexican literature is very lucky to have in MacSweeney such an exceptional translator and advocate.

Even though Guadalupe’s life, illness, and passing is its main engine, Tomb Song is also a telling meditation of the life of a lower-class man who becomes a literary writer and is thus confronted with a profession and a form of being typically reserved for members of the elite. The book’s narrative includes significant passages of Herbert’s complicated encounters with the cosmopolitan and transnational life afforded to a successful writer in the neoliberal era. There is the business trip to Cuba as an organizer of cultural events, where, during the flight to Havana, he sniffed liquid opium out of an Afrin bottle, and had nightlife escapades with a conceptual artist in the city. He interweaves his own sentimental education as a young and insecure man navigating normative masculine sexuality, as well as class and race difference. In this case, Herbert spares no detail — in his narration of sexual relationships, drug-fueled highs, and other excesses. In the hands of a different writer, this sincerity would have yielded a book with little beyond scandal. In Herbert’s writing, even the darkest moments become instances of unique lucidity. A recurring theme is Herbert’s trips to Berlin, most often for literary events. He discusses the fear and insecurity of going to Europe, a referent to fellow writers (“the magical land all my friends celebrated with gusto”) that remains an uncertainty to him. In the days before the trip, Herbert describes a nightmare in which he "never managed to see a damn thing. The buildings seemed too tall and hermetic, the sidewalks very narrow, the streets tortuous.” When the trip finally happens, the dread materializes: “A repugnant sensation that became more acute when we disembarked, in the middle of a freezing autumn, in Tegel airport: visually unappealing, crammed with passengers, narrow and functional, as if it had been constructed by a government housing agency.”

From this departing point, Herbert delivers a chronicle of Berlin that is both personal and brutal, always confronted by the horror of the Holocaust, which, in his experience, is not allegorical but palpable: “Berlin isn’t a wall. Berlin is a civic graveyard project into which has been drained the best of its sacred art: dead bodies.” One can say it with the Benjaminian commonplace: Tomb Song is in many ways about the documents of barbarism that underlie modern civilization — literary, economic, social, personal. Tomb Song, in the sections I have described here and the ones that I leave for the reader to discover, is one of the most important, exciting, and original works of literature to come out of Latin America in the past decade.


Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is professor of Spanish, Latin American Studies, and Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the editor of 13 books and the author of six, the most recent of which is Strategic Occidentalism. On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market and the Question of World Literature (2018).

LARB Contributor

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is the Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His research centers on the relationship between aesthetics, ideology, and cultural infrastructures in Mexico and Latin America, with a particular focus on literature, cinema and gastronomy. He is the author of seven books and over 100 articles, and the editor of 14 scholarly collections. His works include Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market and the Question of World Literature (Northwestern University Press) and Screening Neoliberalism. Transforming Mexican Cinema 1988–2012 (Vanderbilt University Press).


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