Split Lip REVIEWS
Julián Herbert's Tomb Song
by Lauren Dostal
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Publication Date: March 2018
Herbert expertly traverses the landscapes he inhabits—from a Mexico as flawed and perilous as the mother he loves, to the sublime, melancholy spaces of Berlin, to his audacious opium-fueled La Habana; yet each flight of fancy is marked by moments of overt literary action, as if Julián the narrator is constantly calling out, this is fiction! This cannot be real! None of this is happening to me! Which, of course, it isn’t. And it is. His mother really is dying (dead). The last act written, the book closed. As Julián the writer says, I had to draw away from that time in order to write about it. How like grief, to be as wild and uncontainable as an entire city and all of history reimagined, while remaining as bleak and suffocating as a cramped underground room with no doors and no windows.
Tomb Song is a work that is always pulling back, folding its author in upon himself until “Julián” is a mere suggestion. Within these pages, Herbert wrestles the ambiguity of grief and reminiscence into structure and form, transforming the vulgarity of life into a book that is both brutal and beautiful.
Lauren Dostal is an assistant prose poetry editor for Pithead Chapel. She graduated from Florida State and now lives in a steamy, mosquito-ridden suburb of Tampa, FL where she devours books like her life depends on it (it does). Her recent work can be found in Entropy, Philosophical Idiot, and Always Crashing. She tweets at @ell_emm_dee.
On the back cover of Tomb Song, Julián Herbert looks out from behind a glass window. The photographer’s reflection obscures the curves of Herbert’s face, turning him into a vague suggestion of himself. This image perfectly captures the elusive temperament of Tomb Song, a book that lives within the grey space of speculative memoir and nonfictional novel. Herbert has said that the novel contains three Juliáns: Julián the character, Julián the narrator, and Julián the writer. These three intertwine to create a rich narrative, true to its core yet fevered in its inability to distinguish fact from fiction.
Written during and about the time in Herbert’s life when he was confined to his mother’s bedside as she battled leukemia, Tomb Song eschews the traditional sentimentality of the “medical crisis memoir.” Instead, Herbert turns a hard, often self-deprecating eye at his life from his impoverished boyhood as the son of a prostitute to his feverish need to father children who are better than himself, to his travels abroad both in Berlin and La Habana. Throughout, Herbert questions what writing within the context of a loved one’s demise says about the soul of the writer, and alternately, what it says about the reader consuming such a tale. At one point, he even contemplates what will happen to his book if his mother ends up living: “How can I progress with this task if the lyrical leukemia of my main character is brought to its knees by a science I lack…” This tongue-in-cheek play with the narrator’s role creates a fascinating medium where Herbert both condemns and conspires with us in his increasingly elaborate tale.