Although Mexican author Julián Herbert is well into his forties, has won numerous awards, and has written well over a dozen books in various formats, he is only now making his long overdue debut in English with his 2011 “novel” Tomb Song, in Christina MacSweeney’s translation.
I give the word novel those scare quotes because, in Herbert’s hands, the novel transcends its usual confines of fiction to embrace forms like memoir and essay. He is a writer about whom nothing should be taken for granted, an inveterate and playful line-crosser who has crafted his own unique and variable style. I reached out to Christina, a colleague and friend, to learn more about Herbert and this book with which he is entering the Anglo literary sphere.
Christina’s name should be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Spanish literature over the past half-dozen years. She has translated multiple works by Valeria Luiselli, as well as the recently released novel Empty Set by the lauded Mexican author Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and the excellent Among Strange Victims by the very talented Daniel Saldaña París, among many others.
Scott Esposito: This is the English-language debut for Herbert. Who is he, and why is he worthy of translation?
Christina MacSweeney: “Who is Julián Herbert?” sounds like it could be a title for one of his novels. He’s a Mexican poet, novelist, essayist, musician (he is indeed the lead singer for a band called Las Madrastras), he lectures, leads workshops in cultural programs… It would probably be easier to list the things he doesn’t do. He was born into poverty in Acapulco in 1971, and much of his early life was spent travelling around Mexico with his mother, who supported her family by the only relatively steady work open to her: prostitution. But she also seems to have inculcated her son with an intense love of literature, and a very edgy way of looking at life. He is worthy of translation because, in my view, he brings a very different perspective to Mexican writing, one that is both deeply inclusive, deeply generous, but also intensely disrespectful of accepted perceptions of his country, and of what literature and music are. But if that might simply sound anarchic, he is also a very disciplined writer whose work delves into the concept of the self and existence in a truly philosophical way.
SE: Herbert is known for blending genres in his writing, and the publicity materials for Tomb Song describe it as “break[ing] open the genres of fiction, essay, and memoir.” What genre would you describe this book as fitting into, and what was your experience of it like?
CM: The only way I can answer that question is to say that I wouldn’t even start to try to categorize Tomb Song: it would be an exercise doomed to failure. As a reader, you walk a slippery high wire above a chasm of constantly shifting scenes, unfixed realities. I loved that aspect of the work when I first read it, and also the absolute authenticity of the writing, the generosity with which Julián invites you to touch the raw nerves of his life, and then the mischievousness with which he then pulls down his sleeve and tells you none of that was true. Or maybe it was. I adored that sense of never being completely certain where the next sentence would take me. And the musicality that underlines the whole book, the beauty of the writing often dealing with very ugly situations, the disrespect for convention: these were all enormous draws for me.
SE: Toward the beginning of Tomb Song, Herbert remarks “in the majority of cases, a postmodern novel is nothing more than a costumbrismo cross-dressing as cool jazz and/or pedantic rhetoric a la Kenneth Goldsmith that spends a hundred pages saying what Baudelaire said in three words: spleen et ideal.” First of all, could you give us some idea of what a costumbrismo is. And secondly, this kind of writing that Herbert is railing against here, how does this assertion work itself out in Tomb Song?
CM: Wow, that is a question and a half, Scott. But I do love that sentence, and it gave me a great deal to think about on my first and subsequent readings of Tomb Song. Ummm. To start with, costumbrismo began as a style of painting in 19th century Spain. In terms of literature it could be described as realist, there is usually an omniscient narrator who tells us what is happening and what the characters are thinking, and it emphasizes the description of everyday life and customs. But it also has a moral element that I think favors a notion of social cohesion. In this sense, it is perhaps rather flat, two-dimensional, as readers we are offered a full-face view of the characters and their environment, with little attempt at perspective. A 20th century example of costumbrismo that I think exceeds some of the traditional boundaries of the genre is Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). So my understanding of Julián’s rant is that “the postmodern novel” is at times only laying a cloak (or any other item of clothing you might mention) of intellectualism and form over what ends by being descriptive: a description of postmodernity and its mores. So I think he is saying that there is at times no true search for identity or self-perception involved, or any real questioning of values, of modes of thought (philosophical, political), or apparent reality, none of the transformative impulse of modernity or any real “spleen”, no “ideal”. But it would be really interesting to know how your readers feel about my analysis, Scott, because I’m sure there are other ways of thinking about it.
SE: True, it’s a very open quote in terms of just how one can read it (and congrats to you on a beautiful translation of it). I think among other things Herbert is voicing a little frustration with how postmodernism can become a bit of a pose, particularly where he references Kenneth Goldsmith—whatever you think of Goldsmith’s work, he really does trade very heavily on the idea of postmodernism, as well as the kind of identity of a “postmodern writer.” Herbert by contrast seems much more down to earth, the kind of person who doesn’t want to say in 1,000 words what he could just as well say in a dozen. And I think that comes through in the plain-spoken tone of this book, despite dealing with some rather life-or-death issues, including the death of the narrator’s mother. What would you say is the status of postmodernism in Mexico right now?
CM: I think I’m a bit of a postmodernism agnostic. Rather than an actual phenomenon, it feels to me like a kind of way station from which the stagecoach has already pulled out: destination still uncertain. In Mexico there are other authors and artists who, like Julián, are exploding genre boundaries. One example that immediately comes to my mind is Verónica Gerber Bicecci, who describes herself as an artist who writes and uses imagery in her work as a form of bridging the chasms language often leaves in communication. Another boundary that is being eroded in Mexico is the marginalization of women in the creative world; some of the most exciting writing coming out of the country now is written by woman, and is finally being reviewed seriously instead of being thought of as a “nice hobby for the little woman.” And there are campaigns to address issues of sexual harassment and femininicide that precede MeToo by many years.
As to what Tomb Song can offer the U.S. at this moment, I’d say it could act as an antidote to the lack of authenticity in much public discourse: it’s certainly a lesson in not believing everything you hear/read! And the directness of the writing shatters any idea of euphemism to avoid talking about what really matters.
But there, I already feel pretentious talking about postmodernism, so I’ll stop before making a complete fool of myself.
SE: This is fascinating. Could you tell us a little about a point in the book when you began to feel that you couldn’t trust everything you were reading?
CM: I think that even the opening of the book casts some doubt on the trustworthiness of the content: the narrator/character/author tells us that he had difficulty in believing in the “roundness” of the world when he was nine. And that whole passage seemed to me, or seems to me, to be an invitation to speculate on the nature of the world we inhabit, on truth. In the paragraph that follows, he blames his mother for that inability to accept the explanation given in his textbook, says they lived in a “wickerwork polygon” of railroad tracks, and only then does he tell us that she is in hospital, dying of leukemia. All that, I think, is what Julián calls “technique,” and technique is a form of artifice.
SE: Herbert sounds like a very interesting author, and one that will appeal to a lot of readers of this website. I’m curious if you could tell us what other sorts of books Herbert has in his backlist, and which ones you’d particularly like to see in English translation one day.
CM: Julián has a long backlist that moves through different styles. My favorites among those I have managed to get my hands on are the short stories in Cocaina: Manual de usario (Cocaine: A User’s Guide); Ros Harvey translated an extract for Granta (available online), but otherwise it has not yet been published in English. I’d also recommend Álbum Iscariote (The Iscariot Album), which mixes poetry, poetic prose and images, and explores the situation of, among other things, no longer being a young poet. A treasure that I found on my last trip to Mexico is the small volume of poems Bisel (“Smell of ice in the lightning flash/of vodka on your breath.”), published by the Wonderful Guadalajara house, Impronta.
At the moment I’m working on the edit of The House of the Pain of Others for Graywolf. This is a crónica of the mass killing of the members of the Chinese community in the northern Mexican city of Torreón at the outbreak of the revolution in 1911. It has spine-chilling similarities to the xenophobia that seems to be stalking large parts of the world a hundred years later, and I think is a book everyone should read and reflect on. And last year Julián published another collection of short stories with the brilliant title of Tráiganme la cabeza de Quentin Tarantino (Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino), which brings together stunning pastiches of the work of some of his influences. I’m particularly love the story called “Caries”, which is a homage to Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (as I translated that novel into English, translating the story will to some extent a “translator translate thyself” experience!).
SE: Your answer here highlights the fact that you’ve worked with a lot of the more interesting writers to emerge from the Spanish language in the past few years. I think of you as working with a lot of very voice-driven books, books where the narrative voice is very important, and which are largely structured around these peculiar narrators.
CM: Yes, it’s been amazing to work with these authors. But I’m not so sure that I would describe their work as “voice-driven.” For me it would be truer to say that they don’t write plot-bound works; plot, to the extent that it exists in these books, is a sort of framework for supporting ideas, for exploring the very notion of voice, of subjectivity. And that is something that greatly attracts me. What I’m interested in right now is seeing how all this will develop and diffuse into more mainstream literature (because I’m sure it will): I’m interested in what the authors I’ve worked with—and those I haven’t, but admire—will do next, where they will go from here. And all this has implications for translation, for our practices as translators, the type of involvement we have with authors when writing their works in another language. Which in turn will, hopefully, feed back into the literary system and spark its own developments there. Translation has, historically, been a carrier of ideas, of change, but that process was somehow cloaked within the emphasis on “originality” that came along with modernism. I’m meandering a bit here, but what I’m trying to say is that the works I want to see down the line will take these trends and run with them… do exciting things that change our experiences as readers.