Sometimes the simplest premises can result in complex, philosophically rich narratives. That’s certainly the case with Julián Herbert’s novel “Tomb Song,” which takes as its starting point an almost primal moment in the life of its narrator, a writer who shares several qualities with the book’s author.
As the book opens, the narrator’s mother is hospitalized, and it’s doubtful whether she will recover. “I don’t have much experience of death,” he says at one point — but this isn’t only the story of one person grappling with the sudden presence of mortality and the loss of someone close to them. Those are certainly elements of the narrative, but they’re not the only ones.
Early on, the narrator talks about how “my mother worked in the prostitution industry” — which involved her working under different names, and which led to his having several half-siblings.
In the present-day scenes of the novel, the narrator’s attempts at wrangling a geographically and temperamentally widespread family are one of several scenes that keep the book grounded.
Elsewhere, he takes a more philosophical and even experimental approach: The book leaps around in time and space, echoing the ways in which memory can follow an emotional trajectory rather than a temporal one.
Sometimes this involves descriptions of his own childhood and early adulthood; sometimes, his mother’s life; sometimes, other aspects of the family’s history.
“Tomb Song” leaves space for the high-minded, the sociopolitical and the pop culture-obsessed.
The changing political situation in Cuba is a perpetual touchstone throughout the novel. At one point, the narrator cites a number of creative works as references for a period of his youth: This includes Luis Buñuel’s 1950 neorealist classic “The Young and the Damned” and the beloved 1978 martial arts film “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.”
At other times, the narrator refers to the narrative we’re reading as a kind of coping mechanism to deal with his mother’s illness. He describes what we’re reading as a book, then delivers a parenthetical aside: “(if this does become a book, if my mother survives or dies in some syntactical fold that restores the meaning of my digressions).”
“Tomb Song” is an inherently contradictory book: The experimental aspects of its structure have a playfulness to them, which in turn contrasts with the (literally) life-or-death stakes at its core. That it’s also able to fold in such disparate elements as a meditation on perceptions of the Cuban revolution, ups and downs of a small-town soccer team and explore the nature of parenthood serves as a testament to Herbert’s narrative deftness.
This novel sprawls, but never loses sight of the human connection at its core — and it’s all the more moving as a result.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn.
By Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 207 pages, $16.