TOMB SONG

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TOMB SONG, BY JULIÁN HERBERT, TRANSLATED BY CHRISTINA MACSWEENEY

In Julián Herbert’s Tomb Song, the accomplished author consoles and celebrates his dying mother. She is music, he tells us, but also virus, plot point (“What will become,” he queries, “of these pages if my mother doesn’t die?”), body in hospital bed, and parent: a Mexican prostitute who raised Herbert with an awareness of and a great appreciation for literature. Here, the author is both young boy and mature writer in his prime, exploring and exploiting the elasticity of genre as he flits enviably, effortlessly between memoir, fiction, and essay. A childhood spent traveling Mexico is an exercise in character building and a memory; a trip to Cuba is wild bender, fictive construction, fever dream. The result of this genre-bending is clever humor and radiant vulnerability; here, we feel, is Herbert laying himself bare, pulling the curtain back to reveal the parts of himself that both shape and interrogate his world.

Throughout the book, Herbert’s points of artistic reference are both old and new, as wide-ranging (Thomas Mann, David Attenborough, the boy band Menudo...) as they are fearless in their audacity (the stolen penis of a Lego giraffe in Berlin, for instance). Translator Christina MacSweeney bends and serves with Herbert’s text, preserving a cadence that elevates this book beyond genre mixtape to swan song. The prose swells, dives, and crescendos, offering the recursive pleasures of a well-arranged symphony even as it tackles new ground. To ask where Herbert is ultimately going becomes beside the point; his finely-drawn loops of thought reward and challenge readers as they double-back, turning inwards to more keenly examine the book’s central questions: how does the landscape of one’s childhood shape one’s adult self? How can we convey complexity, sincerity, memory, truth—as we perceive them—on the page?

If there is an anthem, of sorts, in this book, it is Herbert’s repeated borrowing of a phrase from Oscar Wilde. “I am simply a self-conscious nerve in pain,” Herbert proclaims, quoting Wilde, and he’s right; it is our pleasure, as readers of Tomb Song, to witness this raw nerve’s transmission of pain, memory, genius.

Graywolf Press.