Tomb Song: A Novel

Tomb Song: A Novel

by Julian Herbert


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An incandescent new voice from Mexico, for readers of Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk

Sitting at the bedside of his mother as she is dying from leukemia in a hospital in northern Mexico, the narrator of Tomb Song is immersed in memories of his unstable boyhood and youth. His mother, Guadalupe, was a prostitute, and Julián spent his childhood with his half brothers and sisters, each from a different father, moving from city to city and from one tough neighborhood to the next.

Swinging from the present to the past and back again, Tomb Song is not only an affecting coming-of-age story but also a searching and sometimes frenetic portrait of the artist. As he wanders the hospital, from its buzzing upper floors to the haunted depths of the morgue, Julián tells fevered stories of his life as a writer, from a trip with his pregnant wife to a poetry festival in Berlin to a drug-fueled and possibly completely imagined trip to another festival in Cuba. Throughout, he portrays the margins of Mexican society as well as the attitudes, prejudices, contradictions, and occasionally absurd history of a country ravaged by corruption, violence, and dysfunction.

Inhabiting the fertile ground between fiction, memoir, and essay, Tomb Song is an electric prose performance, a kaleidoscopic, tender, and often darkly funny exploration of sex, love, and death. Julián Herbert’s English-language debut establishes him as one of the most audacious voices in contemporary letters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977993
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 03/06/2018
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 394,282
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco in 1971. He is a writer, musician, and teacher, and is the author of several poetry collections, a novel, a story collection, and a book of reportage. He lives in Saltillo, Mexico.

Read an Excerpt



Mamá was born on December 12, 1942, in the city of San Luis Potosí. As so often happens, she was named after a virgin: Guadalupe. Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. However, she assumed a large number of aliases during her lifetime — both to give herself an air of mystery, and because she views her existence as a criminal event. She changed names with the nonchalance with which other women dye or perm their hair. Sometimes, when she took her children to visit her narco friends in Nueva Italia, or the old spinsters of Irapuato for whom she worked as a servant after running away from my grandmother's house in Monterrey (there's a photo: she's fourteen years old, her hair is close-cropped, and she's wearing a blouse with an appliqué design she'd sewn on herself), or the short- lived aunts-by-marriage in Matamoros, Lázaro Cárdenas, or Villa de la Paz, she'd instruct us:

"I'm called Lorena Menchaca here, and I'm a cousin of the Karate Teacher."

"My name's Vicky here."

"Here I'm called Juana, just like your grandma."

(My grandmother, for the most part, called her Damned Wretch while she dragged her around the yard by the hair, smashing her face into the plant pots.)

The most enduring of these identities was Marisela Acosta. For years, under this name, my mother worked in the prostitution industry.

That pseudonym contains a smidgeon of truth. Guadalupe's biological father was called Pedro Acosta. He was a musician (there's a photo: he's standing in front of his group, Son Borincano, with my great-uncle Juan — brother of my grandmother Juana — playing a tresillo guitar) who, the story goes, eventually owned a chain of grocery stores in La Merced. Mamá didn't know him well. She may have met him once, but what's more likely is that she never did, and didn't give him a moment's thought either. The man who accepted her as his daughter was a stepfather: my grandfather Marcelino Chávez.

I don't know exactly when she became Marisela; that's what she was called when I was old enough to be aware of her as an individual. She was very beautiful: small and slim, her straight hair hanging down to her waist, a firm body and unashamedly resplendent indigenous features. Although she was past thirty, she looked much younger. A real sexpot: to make the most of her wide hips, round buttocks, and flat stomach, she'd wear jeans with a long scarf wrapped crosswise over her small breasts and knotted at the back.

Some days she'd tie her hair up in a ponytail, put on dark glasses, and lead me by the hand through the lackluster streets of Acapulco's red-light district, the Zona de Tolerancia, to the market stalls on the avenue by the canal (this would have been eight or nine in the morning, when the last drunkards were leaving La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels would lean out over the metal windowsills of tiny rooms and call me "pretty"). With the exquisite abandon and spleen of a whore who's been up all night, she'd buy me a Choco Milk shake and two coloring books.

All the men watching her.

But she was with me.

At the age of five, I first experienced the masochistic pleasure of coveting something you own but can't understand.

It seems to me now that Mamá had one very good and one very bad eye when it came to choosing her gentlemen friends. I remember there was an Italian, Renato: he bought me a puppet dressed in a mariachi outfit. I remember a certain Eliezur — I rechristened him Eldeazure — who once took us to Choya the Clown's circus. She never spoke about them. Not to me, I mean. The only method I have for evaluating her love life is to observe it through the lens of her offspring, each child by a different father.

My elder sister, Adriana, is the bastard daughter of Isaac Valverde, an exceptional businessman and pimp, part owner of a fabled brothel: La Huerta.

La Huerta was on the other side of the canal. The premises stretched over perhaps half a block. It could have been the opium dream of any wealthy old man unafraid of catching dysentery or venereal disease. Even back in the seventies, it had personal reserved parking spaces, private security, and three or four salons specializing in the diverse proclivities of their clientele scattered between the mango trees and coconut palms. I never knew exactly what those proclivities were, and I daresay I can live without that knowledge. There was also a bar and a restaurant, water that was almost fit to drink, and a long, high redbrick wall — without any neon signs on the outside — that snaked along as far as the edge of Callejón Mal Paso. A wall that left you the victim of cliché since it produced the sensation of bordering a medieval fortress. It was the primitive Acapulco crossover, a labyrinth/laboratory of what Mexico is today for the American Way of Life: a gigantic, pseudoexotic whorehouse with the infrastructure of a gringo suburb, full of cheap bodies with assholes you can stick your finger in before dragging their human flesh to the other side of the wall. Once, while we were walking by that brick wall, Marisela said, "Lobo y Melón used to play here." I knew — as would any child who'd grown up in the vicinity of a brothel — that behind that bulwark the revolver of sex was camped out. And I had the vague notion that from sex sprung a volatile mortification of the flesh that mingled with ordinary things: money, the tumult of the night, and the silence of the day. Apart from that elusive, squalid insight, I didn't understand a damn thing. But thanks to Mamá's comment, years later I managed to associate sex with music, that other force of nature that has been scything misfortune with sweeps of the machete since the days of Stromberg-Carlson radios.

My older brother is the son of a madrina — a sort of unofficial police spy — in Monterrey who, by the early eighties, had become Commander Jorge Fernández, head of the investigative unit of the crime prevention squad. They say he wasn't the type to be cowed by anyone. He was killed in a drug raid some fifteen years ago. Jorge junior had seen him only sporadically. On one of those occasions, when my brother was fourteen, the commander gave him a motorbike.

My younger brother came from the other extreme. Saíd was the son of Don B, a Monterrey goodfella of not particularly high standing, but who was much loved in the profession. Even now, Don B is one of those decadent outlaws who have their photos taken with the Western film actors Fernando and Mario Almada. He was an exceptionally handsome man — a trait my brother inherited — and in his younger days his talent for doling out beatings was notorious. He never, however, laid a hand on my mother. My childhood memories have him buying me toys and treating me with more unadulterated affection than I ever received from any other adult man. He's something like a platonic father to me. Mamá claims I picked him out for her because I started calling him "Papá" before they became lovers. It's been more than twenty years since I last saw him. A few weeks ago, he sent me an Aldo Conti suit, accompanied by a note: "For my son, El Cacho." I never wear suits. And it didn't fit, either.

At the beginning of the eighties, Mamá had a daughter with Armando Rica, a session drummer nicknamed La Calilla for his muscular physique. He never saw Diana, my little sister: he lived in such an unremitting state of depression that, after a lover's quarrel, he filled his belly with barbiturates. The neighbors found him. They say he was trying to say something into the microphone of a tape recorder and froth spewed out of his mouth. Mamá, in one of her classic fits of gypsy hysteria, had fled — I'm not sure if it was to Coatzacoalcos or Reynosa — leaving behind both her pimp and her children. By the time she came back to Monterrey, La Calilla was rotting in a cemetery and we owed money everywhere.

I'm the middle son. My father, Gilberto Membreño, is the least spectacular boyfriend Marisela ever had. He started out as a delivery boy in a drugstore but ended up as the sales manager of several establishments belonging to the Meliá hotel chain. In 1999, with his judgment destroyed by Chivas Regal whiskey and Sauza Hornitos tequila, he attempted to remake himself as a playboy: he packed in his job, married Marta (a Colombian girl of my own age), bought a 1965 Mustang, and launched a business that went bankrupt in less than a year. I haven't seen him since.

As I complete this list, I feel ashamed. Not for narrating embarrassing personal matters: but because my literary technique is lamentable and the events I want to recall have a veneer of stunning implausibility. I'm in room 101 of the Saltillo University Hospital, writing in the near dark. Writing with my fingers in the door. My main character is lying wrecked on the bed due to acute myeloid leukemia (AML, as the doctors call it) while I compile her most ridiculous variations. Her frowning face in the shadows tacitly reproves the glimmer of my laptop as, in her sleep, she perhaps longs for the asexualized love of her children.

Some time ago, at a cocktail party in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, a Mexican poet and diplomat said to me:

"I read the biographical note that accompanied a story of yours in an anthology. I found it entertaining but obscene. I can't work out why you would want to pretend such a terrifying piece of fiction is or ever was real."

Such observations make me pessimistic about the future of narrative art. We read nothing, and we demand that nothing lack nuances of either the ordinary or the sublime. And what's worse: demand it be ordinary without cliché, sublime without any unexpected change of accent. Aseptically literary. Efficient to the point of frigidity. In the majority of cases, a postmodern novel is nothing more than costumbrismo cross-dressing as cool jazz and/or pedantic rhetoric à la Kenneth Goldsmith that spends a hundred pages saying what Baudelaire said in three words: spleen et ideal.

"Technique, my boy," says a voice in my head. "Shuffle the technique."

To hell with it: in her youth, Mamá was a beautiful half-breed Indian who had five husbands: a fabled pimp, a police officer riddled with bullet holes, a splendid goodfella, a suicidal musician, and a pathetic Humphrey Bogart impersonator. PERIOD.

Her last partner dates from the early nineties. We'd only just moved to Saltillo (this city in which, now, while day is breaking, instead of birdsong, I hear the murmur of the infusion pumps that rule the hospital) when she got involved with Margarito J. Hernández. Journalist. Alcoholic. Ugly. It didn't last long. Mamá didn't love him.

Margarito gave me my first real job: copyediting at a corrupt political magazine. I was seventeen. One day, he offered me some advice:

"Just say fuck it all and get out of Mexico. Because you're going to be a writer. And in this country, a writer is no good for anything; he's dead weight."

In her midfifties, Marisela decided to accept that she was alone. Her three older children had stopped speaking to her. She had no friends. Not even her daughters-in-law or grandchildren came to visit her. She fractured three bones in the course of a few months. In 1997 she was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis. Little by little, as if unwillingly, she began to use her real name: Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. Spanking new, freshly extracted from the repository of her childhood.

What none of us knew was that, after undertaking that symbolic renunciation of her fantasy of being Other, Mamá had also decided to grow old. She never got to be an adult. It took fewer than ten years for her to pass from morbid adolescence to premature senility. And that record — or better still: that bad habit — is the only inheritance she will leave her children.

I leave the hospital after my first thirty-six-hour shift. Mónica comes to pick me up. The light of the real world feels brutal: coarse powdered milk made atmosphere. Mónica asks me to save all the bills in case the medical expenses are tax deductible. She adds that my former employer promised the cultural institute would cover part of the cost. And that Maruca has been behaving well but is missing me dreadfully. That the garden, the ceiba tree, and the jacaranda have been recently watered. Not a word she says gets through to me: I can't make the emotional connection. I say yes to everything. Exhaustion. It would need the skill of a tightrope walker and the frenzy of an unbalanced mind to doze in a chair without armrests, far from the wall and close to the reggaeton playing on the radio in the nurses' station: Du-du-do you dare come out of the closet sh-sh-show yerself take off the varnish stop clothin' yerself cos the one who's gonna paint you is yerself. A voice in my head woke me up in the early hours. It was saying: "Don't be afraid. Nothing that's yours comes from you." I kneaded the back of my neck and closed my eyes: I thought it must be a huckster koan read out by the fortune-teller Mizada Mohamed coming from the television in the next room. It's not reality that makes a person cynical. It's the near impossibility of getting any sleep in cities.

We arrive back home. Mónica opens the front gate, puts away the Atos, and says:

"After lunch, if you feel up to it, come into the garden for a while to read in the sun. It's always good news when the sun comes out."

I'd like to tease my wife for uttering such banalities. But I don't have the energy. And anyway, the sun falls with palpable bliss on my cheeks, on the recently watered lawn, on the leaves of the jacaranda ... I collapse onto the grass. Maruca, our dog, comes bounding out to greet me. I close my eyes. Cynicism requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sun doesn't.

When she was admitted through the emergency room, someone misspelled her name: Guadalupe "Charles." That's what they all call her in the hospital. Guadalupe Charles. Every so often, in the darkness, when I'm most afraid, I try to convince myself I'm watching over the delirium of a stranger.

After a thousand failed attempts — Google searches, e-mails, Skype, and long-distance telephone calls to nonexistent accounts and numbers one digit short — Mónica tracks down my elder brother on a mobile phone with the area code for Yokohama, Japan. Would he call me? I answer. Solemn, without greeting me, Jorge asks:

"Is everyone at her bedside ...? You have to be there with her in these difficult days."

I suppose he's lived abroad for so long he's ended up swallowing the exotic pill of advertising via the Abuelita cocoa powder slogan: There's-No- Greater-Love-Than-the-Love-of-the-Great-Mexican-Family. I say no. Saíd is a mess and no doubt hooked on something or other; in his state, he isn't up to the stress of a hospital. Mónica is doing her part outside (I'd like to say "in the outside world," but today, for me, the outside world is immeasurable: hyperspace) as Director of Communications and Logistics of My Mother's Leukemia. Diana has two babies and can manage a shift only every other night. Adriana is lost to the world: she left home when I was seven, so I hardly even know her. I've seen her no more than a couple of times in my adult life. The last was in 1994.

"For the past week, I've been doing thirty-six-hour shifts, dozing or writing by the bed of a dying woman," I add melodramatically.

What I don't add is: Welcome to the Apache nation. Eat your children if you don't want the Palefaces, those white trash, to corrupt them. The only Family that gets along in this country is a narcotrafficking clan in Michoacán that cuts off people's heads. Jorge, Jorgito, hello: the Great Mexican Family came tumbling down like a pile of stones, Pedro Páramo dissolving under his illegitimate son Abundio's knife before the startled eyes of Damiana, the Televisa model who goes on robotically repeating: Coming to you from Lake Celestún, this is XEW ... Nothing: there's nothing left but pure, shitty, cunty nothingness. In this Sweet Nation where my mother is dying, not a single sheet of papel picado is left. Not a shot of tequila uncorrupted by the perfume of marketing. Not even a speck of sadness or decency or an outcry that hasn't been branded by the ghost of an AK-47.

Two nights before we took Mamá to the hospital, Mónica dreamed we were constructing a swimming pool beside the fig tree in our garden. The rubble we hauled away in wheelbarrows wasn't dirt or rocks: it was human thighs. That's weird, I said, I wasn't going to tell you, but I dreamed they closed down the elevated section of the Periférico beltway because a truck loaded with giant heads — like the one in that hyperrealistic self- portrait by Ron Mueck — had overturned. The eyes of the heads were open and the hair soaked in blood.


Excerpted from "Tomb Song"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Julián Herbert.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Lego Giraffe,
Fever (1),
Ghosts in La Habana,
Fever (2),

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