Tomb Song, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2018. Original: Canción de tumba, 2011) is an elegiac account of a writer who tries to reconcile himself both with a troubled past and with a present marked by imminent loss. We follow a mourning trajectory that begins with the narrator’s personal crisis – triggered by his mother’s illness – and leads to a form of lucidity as precarious as a cease-fire.
The book is narrated in the first person by a writer called, not coincidentally, Julián Herbert, who is watching over his dying mother in a hospital. Also in its structure, divided into three sections, the novel conveys a trajectory that starts from death, goes through madness and reaches lucidity: the writing evokes, from the start, and in a fragmentary way, the narrator’s personal crisis. Then, the book assumes an eminently delirious and cathartic tone; and, at last, it ends with an almost reconciliatory look at the past and at the present. The narration is, for the main character, both a form of evasion and the only possible way of arriving somewhere.
In the first section, entitled “I don’t fukin ‘care about spirituality”, the narrator’s experiences in the present time, in which he takes care of his sick mother in a hospital, are interspersed with his recollections of events in his childhood and youth. The narrator follows, constantly, in this section, a pattern of coming back and forth – like one who moves in circles; one who is searching for something with despair, and who finds no exit. As if running away from the present and seeking refuge in his childhood memories, the character tries to escape from the pain he is suffering at his mother’s deathbed; on the other hand, by returning to the present time, marked by sickness and imminent death, it feels as if he is also trying to escape another kind of pain – that caused by the memories of a miserable childhood, dominated by an absent maternal figure. Either way he goes – past or present – there is no escape from confronting grief. In the process, the narrator assumes both the role of prosecution body and that of acquittal court. Returning to the present, next to his mother in the hospital, the narrator is preparing himself to say goodbye to a maternal figure he has just rediscovered in his memories.
In the second section of the novel (“Hotel Mandala“), as a result of this incessant process of walking in circles (like the circles of hell), the character experiences the height of his frenzy, oscillating between delirium and euphoria. In “Life on Earth“, the final section of Canción de tumba, the narrator then emerges from the circle of pain in which he had locked himself, and reaches, in a cease-fire that is only provisional, a personal form of reconciliation with the past, with his mother, with fatherhood, and with death.
You share with your narrator not only the name, but also the difficult childhood, during which you led, along with your mother, a wandering life in Mexico. You and your narrator also share something else: your mother died in 2008 due to leukemia. As a work of autofiction, Tomb Song enacts, however, a playful (and cathartic) rupture, on three levels: a rupture between the identity of the writer, the identity of the narrator, and the identity of the self that is narrated to us.
On the one hand, we have a series of recent events, often happening simultaneously to the writing of the novel itself, which belong to your personal history as an author; on the other hand, the book narrates not only these events, but the very process of its transmutation into fiction – the process of its writing. The time of the thing lived, the time of the writing, the time of the narration, and the time of the thing narrated – all get mixed with each other. The author, the concrete subject, is only apprehensible through the narrator, the abstract subject who produces the discourse, as well as through the character, the product of this discourse. Even memory ceases to act as a point of support or agglutinating principle of these identities: “fatally, all my childhood memories come with an errata”.
The original title of the book (Canción de tumba) plays with the sonorous similarity between the words cuna (cradle) and tumba (tomb): canción de cuna /canción de tumba (lullaby, cradle song / tomb song). Although not original, the contraposition between birth and death is not gratuitous here: if we begin to die when we are born, we are also reborn when something dies. The book frequently juxtaposes the roles assumed by every child: as a baby in the cradle, pampered by its mother; and as an adult who watches over his own mother on the deathbed. The writing often makes use of exaggerations and somewhat forced images, but, in general, this feature contributes to the feverish tone of “immediate and uncut writing” – the sharp tone of catharsis and delusion that permeates the novel.
Initially based on the author/ narrator/ character’s nominal identity, the fictional identity between the narrated object and the narrative collapses throughout the plot: the author’s aesthetic choices gradually make themselves more visible, as the narrator’s frenzy intensifies itself to the point of madness. This literary artifice (‘narrating how one narrates something’) reveals not only the meta-linguistic exercise in which this piece of metafiction sustains itself, but also the illusion of simultaneity between fact, writing, narration, and reading; and, finally, it uncovers the fiction on which we sustain our attempts to narrate what has been lived. “J’est un autre” proclaims, at one point, the narrator, quoting Rimbaud.
Who, after all, is Julián Herbert? He is, for the reader, at one and the same time, a vanishing point, a whole trajectory, and the very point of arrival of the narrative he presents to us. The catharsis, in the novel, resides, precisely, in the reversibility of this kind of relationship between reality and fiction – between author, experience, and novel; as well as in the confrontation with (and reinvention of) pain, through an artistic representation that allows the author (you, and reader), at the same time, to evade the real, to make sense of it, to revive it, and, finally, to make something new out of it.
“First they requested five units of red blood cells. They already had B positive, so it didn’t matter which blood group we deposited in exchange. Over twenty donors turned up. Almost all of them women. Only three candidates passed the test: all the girls were anemic, and the majority of the males were promiscuous, took drugs, or had gotten tattoos in the preceding months. Then they asked for more: four, five, six, seven bags. They are like livers embalmed by Mattel. One Tuesday, around eighteen of us got together to collect the rest of the transfusions Lupita needed. The Grand Intellectual Marathon for a Good Cause: join up, help, participate.
One by one, we went in.
The blood bank has an Aztec altar blade. Those who have been rejected come out with tears in their eyes, ashamed, folding the piece of paper with diagrams explaining why their blood isn’t right for the sacrifice. Periodic poets. Malnourished singers. Painters with thin veins. Historians with an excess of red cells. Virus-laden journalists. Culture professionals without platelets. A whole altarpiece of champions of civilization made ridiculous by a frigging needle.” – Julián Herbert, Tomb Song
‘Don’t open it, lad, never open it. A vampire owl lives in that tree over there.’ Smiling, I agree. They’re crazy, they like me. People in this fucking country are so ignorant. After a while I prepare a syringe. I’m going to give Mamá an injection for her fever. I know how to do it. I’m her doctor. In my dream, she’s lying on a hospital bed, identical to the hospital bed where she actually sleeps. I’ve told her I’m going to cure her. I ask for swabs, measure out the dose. A solicitous man with a mustache and gray hair, wearing a blue gown, asks if he can help me. He looks like Humberto, the head nurse on the evening shift in male medical at the U.H. I say no, turn my back on him. And suddenly I remember: shit, dammit, I’d opened the window. It’s the son of the frigging vampire owl that lives in the tree. I turn and see him in the bed, in Mamá. In, not beside. Not fucking her either. In: halfway inside her, as if they were twins, or as if one of them was a glove puppet. I grab its hand. I tug. I say, ‘Go fuck your mother, you frigging witch.’ But the vampire owl doesn’t come out from between the sheets. It just smiles. Without evil intent. A stupid smile.
I know that to beat it I have to pray like my great uncle did.
I can sing to it, tie it up, seduce it, say foul words to it, score its cheeks with a bottle top. Pray, no. Not praying is all I have. – Julián Herbert, Tomb Song
About the book
- Graywolf Press, 2018, tr. Christina MacSweeney, 208 p. Goodreads
- First published in 2011
- Original title: Canción de tumba
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for the Spanish and Portuguese Reading Months, hosted by Stuart and Richard