Julián Herbert is a brash, exciting, young Mexican novelist, poet and musician, and it’s a special honour to be able to publish on NC this excerpt from his 2011 novel Canción de Tumba (Song of the Tomb), a fiction based loosely on his childhood, his mother (who died of leukemia in 2008), and their impoverished, wandering life in the 1970s and 80s. As the translator, Brendan Riley, points out, the language here is neither artfully embellished nor romanticized; but the text is packed with story, casual violence, large personalities, and the tragicomedy of life. A terrific read, it wakes you up, does what fiction ought to do, make the world seem vibrant and flash with energy, even the saddest things seem grand.
I find value in Julián Herbert’s words because they feel true, they relate a powerful variety of suffering and marginal behavior without surrendering to melodrama or getting stuck on the sentimental flypaper that makes some pages of Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, or even, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, pretty overwrought. To take a more contemporary, and Latin American example, Antonio Ungar’s Tres Ataudes Blancos is a terrifying novel, but it’s also a leering, artful dodger of a book which flexes its literary technique with real panache. With Julián Herbert I feel more like I’m in the pages of something like Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs; with no need for guile, Herbert simply shows us the sad, sordid life he was forced to endure as a prostitute’s child, and this is what gives the story its power.
All writers reassemble the past but there is not a jot here that feels unlikely or necessarily embellished. Life routinely outstrips fiction. By comparison, a highly stylized, smoothly poetic story like Roberto Bolaño’s “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, whose narrator recalls the life of his porn actress mother, feels crammed, baroque, and cloying. Maybe therein lies an authentic difference between pornography and real prostitution. Bolaño’s story is comically blue, making fun of the weird toil involved in committing sex to celluloid. “Mama Leukemia” succeeds by way of its hard, simple, realism: the exhausted prostitute taking her boy to the market in the morning, a family having all its belongings repossessed, surviving for three years in a self-constructed cinderblock hut with a cardboard roof.
You only get one mother. And I sure got one.
Armando J. Guerra
Mama was born on December 12, 1942 in the city of San Luis Potosí. Predictably, she was named Guadalupe. Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. Nevertheless, she assumed –in part to give herself an aura of mystery, in part because she perceived her existence as a criminal event– an endless number of aliases throughout the years. She changed her name with the same insouciance with which another woman might dye or curl her hair. Sometimes, when she took her kids to visit her narco friends in Nueva Italia, or her volatile aunts-in-law in Matamoros or Villa de la Paz, or the old señoritas in Irapuato for whom she’d been a maid after she ran away from my grandmother’s house (there’s a photo: she’s fourteen years old, her hair is cropped very short, and she’s wearing a blouse with appliqués which she ironed onto the cloth herself), she’d give us instructions:
“Here my name is Lorena Menchaca; my cousin is the famous karate expert.”
“People in this place call me Vicky.”
“Around here I go by Juana, like your grandma.”
(My grandmother, usually, called her Condenada Maldita –that is, “Goddamned little bitch from hell”– as she gripped her by her hair to drag her across the patio, smashing her face against the flowerpots.) Her most consistent identity was “Marisela Acosta.” That was the name my mother used for decades when she made a living as a prostitute. I don’t know in which moment exactly she became Marisela; that’s how she was known when I met her. She was very beautiful: very small and slender, with her long straight hair falling down to her waist, her well-built body, and some shamelessly lucent indigenous features. She was a little over thirty but looked closer to twenty. Very much the go-go girl: ample hips, nicely rounded buttocks, and a flat stomach all which she used to her advantage, wearing only jeans with a wide scarf crossed over her lean breasts and knotted in the back. Sometimes she pulled her hair back into a ponytail, put on some sunglasses and, taking me by the hand, led me through the dark, squalid streets of Acapulco’s red light district –at seven in the morning, while the last drunks staggered out of La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels leaned out on the metallic sills of tiny rooms to call me “cutie” –to the market stalls along Canal Street. With the spleen and exquisite abandon of a sleepless whore, she would buy me a Chocomilk shake and two coloring books.
All the men eyeing her.
But she was with me.
There, five years old, satisfied, I made the acquaintance of this nightmare: the avarice of being the owner of something that you’ll never manage to comprehend.
As a boy I was called Favio Julián Herbert Chávez. Now, however, in the civil registry office in Chilpancingo, they insist that’s not the case: the official register reads “Flavio”, whether thanks to some wicked mischief of my parents or because of some error by the old or new bureaucrats, I really don’t know: I can’t manage to distinguish (among the tons of crappy government propaganda and the hypocritical “¡Viva la familia!” video clips broadcast by Televisa. What family? The country’s one and only happy Family with roots in Michoacán is a clan of narcotraffickers whose members are experts in decapitation) between one and another. When it came time to renew my passport and my voter registration, I was required to use that name, “Flavio”. Thus all my childhood memories come, fatally, with a misprint. My memory is a hand-lettered cardboard sign posted on the outskirts of a modern airport equipped with Prodigy Mobile, a Sanborns department store, and a Casa de Bolsa bank office: “Welcomb to México”.
I was born on January 20, 1971, in the city and port of Acapulco de Juárez, in the state of Guerrero. At the age of four I met my first corpse: a drowned man. At five, my first guerilla: my godmother Jesu’s younger brother Kito, who was serving time for bank robbery. According to the nomadic conditions which my mother’s profession imposed on our family, I spent my early childhood traveling from one Mexican city to another, from one pimp to the next. Year after year, armed with a burning patience, I traveled from the deep south until reaching the splendid cities of the north.
I thought that I’d never manage to escape the country. I thought that I’d never not be poor. I’ve worked –and here, with no desire to offend, I paraphrase an illustrious Mexican statesman, a prime example of our sublime national idiosyncrasy– doing things that even blacks would refuse. I’ve had seven wives –Aída, Sonia, Patricia, Ana Sol, Anabel, Lauréline, and Monica– and very few occasional lovers. I’ve fathered two sons: Jorge, who is now almost seventeen (he was born when I was twenty-one), and Arturo, who will soon turn fifteen. I’m going to be a father for the third time in September, exactly one year before the bicentennial: no one can ever accuse me of being unpatriotic. I’ve been a cocaine addict throughout the course of some of the happiest and most atrocious times of my life: I know how it feels to surf upon the shoulders of what Dexter Morgan called “the dark passenger”.
Once I helped to recover a dead body from the highway; I’ve smoked crystal meth using a lightbulb for a pipe; I did a fifteen day tour as a vocalist for a rock group; I attended university and studied literature; I’ve swallowed absinthe until I was blind drunk while making the rounds through the Spandau quarter of Berlin; I smuggled a chunk of opium through customs in Havana, Cuba, by distracting the officer with my t-shirt for the Industriales baseball team; I lost the school learning achievement competition whose prize was getting to meet Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado; I’m left-handed. None of those things prepared me for the news that my mother was dying from leukemia. None of those things reduced the sordidness of the forty days and nights I spent in vigil by her bedside, Noah plowing a flood of blood chemistry, caring for her and hating her, seeing her grow feverish to the point of asphyxiation, watching as she went bald.
I’m the sort who travels, swollen with vertigo, from the south to the north. I’ve followed a return path back from the ruins of the ancient civilization towards the conquest of a Second Coming of the Barbarians: Free Market; u.s.a. ; your motherfucking mother’s dying day.
I don’t have much experience with death. I suppose that could eventually present a serious logistical problem. I should have practiced with some junkie cousin of mine or some grandmother with a weak heart. But no. I regret to say that I lack experience. When it happens, I’ll end up making my debut in the Big Leagues: burying Mama.
One day I was playing my guitar when someone knocked on the door. It was the neighbor. She was sobbing.
“We’d like to ask you to stop playing your guitar. Cuquín got run over by a Coca-Cola truck. It killed him. We’ve been holding a vigil for him in the house for sometime now.”
I was fifteen, a useless layabout. I did them the courtesy to stop playing. Instead I slipped on my Walkman and switched on “Born in the USA.”
After a while, someone knocked again, insistently. It was my friend and namesake, the neighbor woman’s son and dead boy’s older brother. He said:
“Come with me to buy some bags of ice.”
I put on a t-shirt –it was summer: in the 117˚ summer in the Coahuila desert, people live inside their houses semi-naked–, I hopped over the fence and walked with him to the beer distributor.
He explained to me:
“He’s starting to smell. But Mama and Papa are pretending not to notice.”
We bought four bags of ice. As we walked back, my namesake stopped on the corner and started to cry. I embraced him. We stayed that way a long time. Then we picked up the bags and I accompanied him to his house. Shouts and cries floated out from inside. I helped him carry the bags to the porch, bid him good afternoon, and I went back to my headphones. I remember that episode today because something similar happened to me the other night: I went out to buy water at the Oxxo convenience store across from the hospital where my mother is a patient. Returning, I noticed a pedestrian having difficulty dodging the traffic in the street. In one moment, just before reaching the spot where I was standing, he stopped between two cars. The car horns flared up blaring instantly. I set my bottles of water down on the sidewalk, went to his side, and I gently pulled him towards the curb. When he felt my hand, he slid both his arms round my neck and began to cry, murmuring something bout his chiquita –his little girl–; I didn’t know if he meant his daughter or his wife. He asked if I could give him a telephone card. I gave it to him. There’ s something repugnant in the embrace of a person crying about death: they hang on to you as if you were a hunk of meat. I don’t know a thing about death. I only know about mortification.
When I was a little boy I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. Sooner rather than later I discovered my lack of aptitude. It took me years to accept the fact that the Earth is round. Better to say, I wasn’t able to think about the Earth as a sphere. For a long time I only pretended to agree. Once in school –one of many: I attended eight different elementary schools– I stood in front of the class and explained, without stage fright, the movements of transit and rotation. Inspired by the textbook’s diagram, I used an orange decorated with blue crayon, and graphically illustrated these processes by piercing it with a pencil. I tried to memorize the illusory accounts, the hours and the days, the sun’s transit; the segments of each rotation. But, inside, no: I lived with that proud and lucid anguish that brought more than a few heresiarchs to die eviscerated at the hands of Saint Augustine. It was Mama’s fault: we traveled so much that for me the Earth was a gigantic basin circumscribed in all directions by railroad tracks. Curving tracks, straight, circular, elevated, subterranean. Ferrous and floating atmospheres that made one think of a disaster movie with sundering, crashing polar ice. Confines dark and inescapable as a tunnel, celestial as a cliff in Tarahumara, crackling as an alfalfa field upon which the sleeping stamp their feet. Sometimes, atop a rock or killing time atop a cliff along the Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán in Acapulco, I looked towards the sea and seemed to see rattling yellow train cars and diesel engines with the “N de M” emblem, more spectral than the breeze. Sometimes, at night, looking out a small train car window, I imagined that the glowworms under a bridge were those neighboring galaxies my older brother talked about. Sometimes, while I slept next to Mama, stretched out in a metallic hallway or hunched against a hard wooden seat, the whistle warned me that we were on the edge, that we might plunge into hyperspace. One day, while the train stopped in Paredón to change tracks, I reached the conclusion that the planet’s size and shape changed with each passing instant. This all sounds stupid, of course. It fills me with a monstrous sorrow. It makes me feel sorry, most of all, for Mama. Now that I see her completely wasted away in that bed, immobile, surrounded by translucent bottles of VenoPax stained with dry blood. With enormous bruises on both arms, needles, pieces of blue and yellow plastic and tiny BIC pen letters on the adhesive tape: Tempra 1g, Ceftzidime, Citarabine, Anthrcycline, Ciprofloxacin, Doxorubicin, poisonous solutions they shoot into her, mixed in black bags to protect them from the light. Crying because her most beloved and most hated child –the only one who could ever save her from her nightmares, the only one at whom she’s ever shouted “You’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re no better than a rabid dog”– has to spoonfeed her, see her withered breasts while changing her robe, carry her dead weight to the bath and listen (and smell, oh, how she hates smells) to how she shits. Without strength. Drunk from three blood transfusions. Walled away behind her surgical mask, waiting for them to remove a bone marrow sample.
I regret not having been, because of her (thanks to her hysterical life of traveling across the whole blessed country in search of a house or a lover or a job or some happiness, none of which ever existed in this Suave Patria––this Gentle Motherland), a model son; one capable of believing in the roundness of the Earth. Scientist or doctor. A man in a white coat who might be able to explain something to her. To recite something to her. To console her with a little bit of experience and wisdom and impressive medical machinery amid this hour in which her body shudders with wheezing and panic in the face of death.
In my final year of adolescence, at the age of sixteen, there was a second cadaver in my neighborhood. I didn’t dare to look at its coffin because, even now, I retain the sensation of having formed part of a shady plan for his murder. His name was David Durand Ramírez. He was younger than I was. He died on a September day in 1987, at eight o’clock in the morning, shot with a .22 caliber automatic pistol. His unfortunate death influenced my family to emigrate to Saltillo, and for me to study literature and choose a profession and, eventually, to sit myself down on leukemia’s balcony to narrate the sad and incredible account of my mother’s life. But, in order to explain how David Durand’s passing marked my life, I have to begin several years earlier. All this happened in Ciudad Frontera, a town of some fifteen or twenty thousand people which sprang up around the metalworking industry in Monclova, Coahuila. In that town, my family experienced its years of greatest ease as well as its whole catalog of indignities.
We moved there after the brothels in Lázaro Cárdenas went belly up. Mama took us there in search of sympathetic magic: she thought that with its flourishing iron and steel industry, the bonanza times we enjoyed in Lázaro Cárdenas would return to grace our home, the times before the Dry Law imposed by one of the most conservative PRI politicians of those years: Governor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano.
At first, she wasn’t wrong: in a brothel called Los Magueyes she met Don Ernesto Barajas, an old cattleman from the area. He began to visit her regularly, like any other whore, but as the months went by he began to realize that Mama wasn’t stupid: she read a lot, possessed a rare talent for mathematics, and –however absurd this might sound– she was a woman of unbreakable principles. She was, above all, incorruptible when it came to talking about finances –something that in this country makes a person practically a foreigner.
Don Ernesto hired her to be his eyes and ears in a few business ventures: a different brothel, and the town’s only gas station. He offered her a decent salary and affectionate treatment (which did not prevent him, after four tequilas, from slipping his hand into her pants; advances she had to manage to avoid without losing her composure or her job).
Marisela Acosta was happy. She trained her children to take care of each other so she wouldn’t have to shell out any more money for neurotic nannies. She rented a house with three bedrooms and a small patio. She acquired some furniture and a shoddy, sky-blue Ford. She brought black soil cultivated at a nursery in Lamadrid and with it sowed, at the end of the property, a small plot of carrots that never grew. Our neighborhood sported an ominous name: El Alacrán –the Scorpion. But, however stuffy it might sound, (and it will: what more could be expected from a story set in la Suave Patria?), we lived at the corner of Progreso y Renacimiento –Progress and Renaissance. There, between 1979 and 1981, our childhood unfolded: my mother’s and my own.
Then came the crisis of `82 and, within my childish pantheon, José López Portillo entered the ranks of posterity as (these are my mother’s words) El Gran Hijo de Puta – “The Great Son of a Bitch”. Don Ernesto Barajas gave up on suburban business ventures; he went back to livestock and let Marisela go. We kept the house but once again began to move from place to place: Acapulco, Oaxaca, San Luis, Ciudad Juárez, Sabinas, Laredo, Victoria, Miguel Alemán. Mama tried, for the umpteenth time, to earn a living working as a seamstress in a Teycon clothing factory in Monterrey. But the pay was criminal and they only hired her part time, two or three shifts a week. So she ended up returning to the daytime brothels on Villagrán Street, sordid dives which by mid-morning were overflowing with soldiers and lawyers more interested in the drag-queens than in the women, a fact which gave the competition a violent and miserable air.
Soon it was impossible to keep paying the rent on the house. At the end of `83 they evicted us and repossessed all our personal belongings. Almost all: by express petition the actuary allowed me to keep a few books before the police loaded our junk into the moving truck. I took the two fattest books: the Aguilar edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, and Volume 13 of the New Thematic Encyclopedia (Literature has always been good to me: if I had to return to that instant knowing what I know now, I’d choose the very same books). We spent three years in absolute misery. Mama had acquired a small bit of property on some disputed communal lands, but we possessed nothing more on that plot of land than dead cacti, a few little sand dunes, enough gravel to fill half a truck, two bags of cement, and three hundred cinder blocks. We built a tiny room about as high as my shoulder, without any foundation, atop which we laid sheets of cardboard for a roof. We had neither water nor drainage nor light. My older brother Jorge quit high school and found work shoveling corn flour in the tortilla factory of an industrial cafeteria. Saíd and I sang on buses for spare change.
After a year, Jorge exploded: he grabbed some clothes and left the house. He was seventeen. We received word from him again on his twenty-third birthday: they’d just named him shift manager in the Vidafel Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. He made it clear in his letter that it was only a temporary job.
“I was born in Mexico by mistake,” he told me once. “But one of these days I’m going to fix that once and for all.”
And he did: before he turned thirty he emigrated to Japan, where he still lives.
I can’t talk about myself nor about my mother without recalling those days: not for the pathos and sadness, but because it’s about our own curious Mexican version of The Dhammapada. Or, better yet and more vulgar, our version of the mystical kung fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Three years of extreme poverty don’t destroy you. On the contrary: they awaken a certain kind of visceral lucidity. By singing on the intercity buses which transported the workers from the Ahmsa steel company back to the bone-dry archipelago of the neighboring towns (San Buenaventura, Nadadores, Cuatro Ciénegas, Lamadrid, Sacramento) Saíd and I got to know the almost crystalline sand dunes, black and white hills, deep walnut groves, a river called Cariño – which means “darling”–, fossilized pools of water with stromatolites and box turtles with shell patterns like giraffes…. We had our own money. We ate whatever we felt like. As runs the verse with which we concluded all our performances: esto que yo ando haciendo, es porque no quiero robar, which means “I sing for my meals because I’d rather not steal.” We learned to think like artists: we were selling a part of the landscape. Sometimes the howling wind was our Coahuiltecan version of the simoom, blowing so strong that it ripped the cardboard covering right off our shack. Then Saíd and I would go running after our roof spinning and flying away down the middle of the street.
Between 1986 (when Mexico hosted the World Cup) and 1987 (the year when David Durand died), things improved: we rented a house, bought some furniture, and slowly, gradually re-entered the class of “poor but honorable people.” Save that Marisela Acosta, without the majority of the neighbors knowing it, had to spend four nights a week in the brothels in Monterrey, trying to earn enough money so she could send us to school.
I was in my first year of high school and, despite the shame of half the town having known me as a child beggar, I’d managed little by little to make friends with the Durands –a blond family of French descent, without much money but quite popular.
One night Gonzalo Durand asked me to accompany him to La Acequia. He was going to buy a pistol.
Gonzalo was a kind of alpha male for our street corner gang that met at night to smoke marijuana and try to flirt with the junior high school girls. Not only was he the oldest: he was also the best fighter, and the only one who had a good, dependable job: he operated the desulphurization unit in Furnace Five at Ahmsa. He’d just turned nineteen. The age of armed fantasies.
Adrian and I were the ones chosen to share his rite of passage. In an illegal, unregistered `74 Maverick we headed straight over to the next neighborhood. First they offered him a revolver; in a thick pasty voice –surely from being stoned off his ass on cough syrup– the seller called the Smith & Wesson a Mita y Hueso. Then they showed Gonzalo the small automatic pistol. He fell in love with it right away. He bought it.
The next day, Adrián came to see me and he said:
“Something terrible’s happened: Gonzalo fired the gun by accident and killed Güerillo while he was sleeping.”
The first image that came to my head was ominous: Gonzalo, sleepwalking, murdering his family… But no: Gonzalo had come off the third shift and, sleepless and anxious, hurried home, climbed into his bunk, and started to clean his pistol. A bullet had slipped into the chamber. Gonzalo, who didn’t understand weapons, didn’t even notice. At some moment, the pistol slipped out of his hands. Trying to grab it, he accidentally fired. The bullet struck his little brother, who was sleeping in the bunk below, piercing his belly.
David Durand must have been how old? Fourteen? One time he’d run away with his girlfriend. Maybe because he wanted to get married. Both their parents beat the hell out of them.
Adrian and I attended the funeral, but we didn’t have the nerve to go to the wake. We feared that at any moment someone might ask us: “Where did that bastard get himself a pistol?”
Gonzalo was in jail, I think, for a couple months. That was the last I heard about him. Mama said to me, very serious:
“You’ll be sorry if I ever catch you looking at guns or hanging out again with those scumbags.”
The rest of the year went by. One day, shortly before Christmas, Mama came home very early, with alcohol still on her breath. Saíd and I were sleeping in the same bed, clutching each other against the cold. She turned on the light, sat down next to us, and sprinkled a light rain of wrinkled bills down on our heads. Her makeup looked clownish, and a small red wound stood out on her forehead.
She said: “Let’s go.”
And just like that, without packing or taking apart the house, we fled the town of my childhood.
Occasionally I return to Monclova to give a lecture or to attend a book launch. Sometimes we drive along the edge of Ciudad Frontera, on the way to the swimming holes at Cuatro Cienegas, or to pick pomegranates at Mario’s and Mabel’s ranch in Lamadrid. As we drive along the Carlos Salinas de Gotari beltway, I tell Mónica: “I spent my childhood on the other side of this airport.” She replies: “Let’s go see it.” I tell her no.
I leave the hospital after keeping vigil for 36 hours. Monica comes to get me. The light of day looks harsh, like the air has been sprayed with filthy powdered milk. Monica says that she’s gathering together all the bills to see if they’re tax deductible; that my ex-boss promised to cover, through the Institute of Culture, at least part of the expenses; that Maruca has been behaving herself but that she misses me terribly; that the garden, the kapok tree, and the jacaranda have been freshly watered. I don’t understand what she is saying (I don’t manage to make the connection) but I answer yes to everything. Exhaustion. To sleep fitfully on a chair without armrests you need a rope dancer’s agility and the fury of an off-kilter madman, far from the wall and very close to the reggaeton broadcast on the radio from the nurses’ station: mírala mírala cómo suda y cómo ella se desnuda ella no sabe que a mí se me partió la tuba. – “Look at her look at how she sweats how she strips she don’t know how it made me so hard my horn just split”. A voice inside my head woke me up in the middle of the night. It was saying: “Don’t be afraid. Nothing that might be yours comes from you.” I rubbed my neck and closed my eyes again: I supposed that it must be some greedy peddler’s koan recited by the TV astrologer and medium Mizada Mohamed on the television set in the next room. It’s not reality that makes one cynical; it’s how hard it is to get to sleep in the city.
We make it home. Monica opens the big garage door, parks and locks the Atos inside, and says:
“If you want, after lunch, you can come for a while to the garden to read and just sit in the sun.”
I’d like to tease my wife for saying such prissy things. But I’ve got no strength. Besides, the sun is falling on my face with a palpable bliss. On the freshly watered grass. On the leaves of the jacaranda… I tumble down and lie on the grass. Maruca, our dog, gambols out to say hello to me. I close my eyes. Being cynical requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sunshine doesn’t, no.
–Julián Herbert; Translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley
No matter how strong your command of Spanish, translating any piece, especially a literary one where you confront a personal voice, in this case a very personal one, forces you to encounter a variety of challenges. In addition to the fact that the Hispanic world contains dozens of countries, each one of them contains many different regions with a dizzying variety of idioms and local flavorings. This is well known. All those possible complications are increased when filtered through the mind and voice of an individual writer. But the need for communication provides a kind of governor, in both the source text and the target language. Unless writing for purely personal reasons or constructing some thanatoptic dream language, à la Finnegans Wake, grammar and orthography offer the translator some reassurance that despite whatever difficulties encountered, they are going to encounter meaning, and though there are often no exact matches there must be some meaningful equivalent. Finding that is part of the fun.
Another enjoyable aspect, especially in a memoir like “Mama Leukemia,” is discovering people and places. Reading and translating this text is like spending time in the company of the writer and the character, almost like getting to know them and the places they inhabit. Thanks to Julián Herbert’s precise prose I’m able to revisit Acapulco, where I once spent a beach weekend in 1984, when I was a senior in high school. I remember arriving there on a tour coach from Mexico City and, as I had been in the capital city, shocked by the close proximity of poverty and opulence, vast shanty towns clinging to crumbling hillsides just a short ride from luxurious hotels whose likes I’d never imagined. Julián Herbert’s harrowing experiences with and without his mother make those scenes I glimpsed in passing far more vivid because he populates them and sets them in motion.
I’m also grateful for having had the chance to correspond with Julián while working on this translation and to receive his generous and thoughtful feedback. He answered each of my questions and also spotted a number of details which needed correction, and he kindly, patiently discussed them and offered feedback. He helped me clarify some locations when I had conflated Acapulco with some of the story’s later locations in north central Mexico. He also helped clarify the term “cigarra” which is literally a “cicada” but also as slang carries the meaning of “layabout” or “loafer”. It’s interesting to see how the noun “go-go girl” can be used in Spanish as an adjective; Julián uses it to describe his prostitute mother when she was young: “Era muy agogó” which literally means, she was as vivacious as a go-go dancer. A very interesting localism appears in the Spanish phrase about a car: “Nos enfilamos en un Maverick 74 chocolate al barrio de junto.” I was working from a Word document I’d made from the PDF. In the PDF the word “chocolate” is italicized, but it didn’t appear that way in Word. Had I noticed that at first I might have paid more attention to it, but I simply took it to mean brown, and produced this sentence: “We got into a chocolate-colored `74 Maverick and drove over to the next neighborhood.” Julián pointed out to me that chocolate (with the Spanish pronunciation), as used here, comes from the word chueco which means “outside the law” and in the story’s context refers to an illegal, unregistered car, imported from the U.S. into Northern Mexico, without paying taxes. A similarly interesting corruption of pronunciation occurs in “Mama Leukemia” when, in this illegal Maverick, (whose real color, he tells me, was green), they go to buy an illegal gun, a Smith and Wesson, which the stoned Mexican seller slurs as “Mita y Hueso”. Interestingly those two words individually mean “myth” and “bone”.
Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. “Mama Leukemia” is a chapter from his novel Canción de Tumba (2011).
Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.