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. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); 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 English language debut came in February 2014, with the publication of “Mama Leukemia” (trans. Brendan Riley), a chapter from his novel Canción de tumba, which has been translated into Portuguese and Italian. 2014 also saw the publication of Jesus Libt Dich Nicht / Cristo no te ama (Christ Doesn’t Love You), a bilingual Spanish-German anthology of his poems translated and compiled by Timo Berger.
In January 2015 Julián Herbert completed his novel La casa del dolor ajeno. Crónica de un pequeño genocidio en La Laguna. (The House of Someone Else’s Pain. Chronicle of a Minor Genocide in La Laguna ).
La casa del dolor ajeno revisits a shameful event from Mexican history: the worst massacre of Chinese immigrants to have occurred in the Americas, which took place in the city of Torreón de Coahuila, in northern Mexico, between May 13th and 15th, 1911. As Herbert describes it:
“The Chinese community that settled in that area were merchants. They even had their own bank. Part of the massacre had to do with resentment from the local people, but also envy from the Mexican businessmen. It was carried out at the behest of the bourgeoisie. After the Chinese were killed, their bodies were thrown into a common grave.”
Herbert points out that some things have not changed in over a century:
“Mexico is full of pits filled with the bodies of people who disappeared. A few years ago in Coahuila, a whole town disappeared: 300 people were found buried in a common grave. And none of these cases ever get solved.”
This includes the tragic events of September 2014, in which 43 Mexican student-teachers disappeared from Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.
“In the case of the 43 students,” Herbert says, “the response from politicians shows an egregious level of cynicism and indifference,” and, in mordant summation adds, “I’m starting to get depressed.”
Set in a hellish, crumbling Mexico City that refuses to die, Herbert’s story “Z” offers a wry psycho-sexual twist on the ever-popular zombie motif. The story, whose narrator might be the last sane man in Mexico, focuses on the tenuous trust between analyst and analysand, and ponders the problem of whether we are the engineers or willing victims of our own languid apocalypses.
“Z” was originally published in Spanish in October 2014 in the multi-author collection Narcocuentos (Narco Tales) (Ediciones B).
I SPEND THE MORNING talking on the phone with my analyst. My analyst’s name is Tadeo. Tadeo pretends to be an impartial judge but I think that he’d really prefer that I let him take a bite out of me. It couldn’t be any other way: they started slowly devouring him almost five months ago.
“This really isn’t a question of ethics,” he says. “This is about loneliness. What your increasing isolation means for you at an existential level.”
I almost burst out laughing: he talks about existentialism as if he were really alive. He’s a nice guy from UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I change the subject simply to avoid laughing about his condition.
“Y’know, it might be better if you come over and we can talk face to face. Or at least mouth to ear.”
“We’re already talking mouth to ear.”
“Through the door, I mean.”
“No, my friend,” he responds in a very sober tone, with the hypocritical tranquility instilled in him by his studies. “I’ve acquired the discipline of not sniffing my patients.”
“Except for Delfina,” I say, to rile him.
Tadeo guards a brief silence, then answers:
“Delfina doesn’t smell anymore. And she’s no longer my patient.”
For more than a year I’ve lived in a room on the fourth floor of the Majestic Hotel, overlooking the Zocalo, the great central square of Mexico City. Once a week, Tadeo comes over to my place and guides me through a session of psychoanalysis. At first he always came up to my room. We’d make ourselves comfortable ––he’d sit on the badly upholstered little armchair, I’d recline on my bed–– and chat with the television on low to make some background noise and to muffle the bloody carnivorous chomping sounds coming from my next-door neighbor’s room.
Tadeo was the most sensible man I’d ever met until Delfina (I’ve never seen her: I imagine that she’s quite pretty) seduced him and took, by way of tribute, several bites from his left forearm, infecting him and thereby destroying for me (without meaning to, I’m clear about that) six months of therapy.
Since then we’ve had to conduct our sessions through the insipid tones of the phone downstairs in the hotel vestibule.
“Human,” I say.
“You mean that Delfina no longer smells like a human. Wouldn’t it be just the same if you phoned me from your office?”
“Human, yes . . . As far as coming over here, I swear I’m not doing it out of desperation. It’s a question of professionalism. Besides, who else was going to give you the message? There’s not a single soul left down here.”
He talks about professionalism but he’s had sexual relations with a number of his patients, and eventually fell for one of them. And now, for the sake of love, he’s let himself be transformed into a beast. Well, not entirely a beast: a transitional cannibal. I’ve said as much to him and he’s admitted it. Now he adds sadly:
“Maybe I should be your patient instead.”
It’s a polite thing to say. We both know that I’m a rotten person, a selfish and frightened master of ceremonies, incapable of helping anyone at all; never mind that half the world is currently mutating towards death or depression.
Tadeo says that it’s not a question of ethics but rather loneliness. What’s certainly true is that, lately anyway, it’s a question of food. I’ve been slipping out at night to look for some. That’s when there’s less of a chance of bumping into the ones I call mature sleepwalkers: they prefer to hunt by day, although their favorite time is sundown.
(There are no precise facts but it seems that the prolonged consumption of human flesh ends up destroying –among other things– their retina: the intense light damages them, and in the dark they’re as blind as moles. When they become completely blind they turn into carnivorous flowers: groaning invalids writhing about on the ground. They continue to be dangerous but being almost completely sedentary they’re relatively easy to avoid.)
At first I was frightened of going outside, so I lived on stale foodstuffs from the hotel kitchen: semi-rotten cutlets, rancid cheese, chocolate, frozen soups, dried fruit . . . . As the months went by, however, I gathered my courage, not only to undertake excursions in search of food in nearby stores, but also to have something resembling a social life. My greatest success in this area has been serving as master of ceremonies at the skateboard tournaments in Eugenia Alley.
My quests for food manage to provide me with everything from Pachucan empanadas to granola bars. From gallons of purified water to all the bottles of booze I could drink. The other day I found a bag of marijuana and another one stuffed with pills stashed behind the counter in an old printing shop. I put them back where I found them: I’m strongly opposed to any kind of illegal substances.
As long as nobody kills me, it’s all mine. The country has become a minefield of fangs and grinding molars but also a vast open air bargain. Thanks to the vain imaginings of some, whose willful denial impels them to keep performing their daily duties, I enjoy certain services formerly taken for granted, tasks that once made life with other humans unconsciously pleasant. For example, fresh milk in Tetra Briks in the morning. The truck keeps showing up, dropping off its deliveries and invoices at the 7-11 on the corner of Moneda and Callejón de Verdad; maybe they don’t notice that the store, which was looted four times in the last week alone, is a mere shadow of its former self. It has no regular workers anymore, only the occasional looters posing as cashiers. With their face like junkies and their backsides all bitten and gnawed away, they stand there, trembling like old boxers stricken with Parkinson’s, ringing up my selections even though they’ve only come around to steal the little that’s left on the shelves.
A few nights ago I found some excellent spoils: some nice packages of moldy falafel and humus, nearly two pounds of pistachios seasoned with garlic and chile de árbol, half a strip of Coronado caramel lollipops, a bottle of Appleton Estate, and an iPod that included –among some tolerably dark gems– Smetana’s From My Life string quartet… I waited until sunset on Friday to celebrate my discovery. My plan was to have a little picnic in the open air: I put on my headphones and, loaded with goodies from my raids, I went up to the Majestic’s observation deck.
When I relate all this to him, Tadeo returns to the line of analysis he’s been trying to use on me for the past month.
“Have you thought about why you did that?”
“I already told you why, to celebrate.”
“And you don’t think there’s any other reason? Some stubborn strain buried deep in your need to put yourself in danger?… You know that sunset is your riskiest time of day.”
I try to change the subject again but he insists:
“How do you think your neighbors took it? Have any of them followed you to the terrace?”
“A couple of them came up to catch a whiff of me, of course. It always happens. But they did it politely: they sat down several tables away from me.”
Except for Leah, a Jewish woman ––still perfectly human and healthy–– who lives on the second floor, and who only leaves the hotel to scrounge for pirate DVDs around the Bellas Artes Metro station, all my neighbors in the Majestic are bi-carnal. Although they’ve not yet decided to attack me, they’ll follow me anywhere with a desperately transparent look, the very look that used to belong exclusively to the brain-fried crystal meth smokers on the street.
Tadeo just keeps insisting:
“Did you say anything to them?”
He’s really starting to bug me.
“I didn’t really pay much attention to them. I was keeping my eye on the soldiers.”
“The ones who show up every afternoon to take down the flag.”
Every day it’s the same routine: just before sunrise, a military squad marches along the esplanade of the Zocalo, unfolding an immense green, white, and red flag. They open it to its full size and then, after attaching it to a thick rope, they raise it up a giant metal and concrete flagpole, perhaps one hundred-fifty feet tall. This accomplished, they depart, marching away with the same gallantry as they arrived. The flag hangs there all day, fluttering and waving in the wind, magnificent, floating above thousands of shambling cadavers and hundreds of hungry carnivorous plants crammed together around the Metropolitan Cathedral. In the afternoon, shortly before sunset, the soldiers return to take down the gigantic flag: they perform their martial ballet in reverse motion, lowering, unhooking, and folding the linen of the motherland with exasperating solemnity. Part of their ordinance is to show up perfectly armed. It’s not just for show: almost every day they experience the tedious obligation of executing a few creatures that, completely out of their minds, attack the squad despite their uniforms. The soldiers usually fire at point blank range, directly above the temple: the .45 caliber slugs strike the flagstones with a dull crack, and the heads of the flesh-eaters, splitting wide open, rehearse the final Grand Slam of Mexico City. Even so, the soldiers find it quite difficult to completely avoid getting bitten; they rarely all escape unscathed. That must be why, invariably, more than one of them stumbles or tries to hide his stumps by readjusting the dirty bandages that cover his flaking, peeling flesh.
Almost the entire army suffers from some phase of the contagion. Who knows if this is due to their ceaseless patrols or their long, lonely nights in the barracks. While it’s true that the best vaccines are destined for the armed forces, it’s also true that on a daily basis (or at least that’s what CNN says: our own national media is completely extinct) cells of deserters appear, serving as security for roving bands of wormoisseurs. That’s how anything works that still works around here: corrupting everything in its orbit until it all becomes an allegorical mural of destruction.
However much these events resemble any other major epidemic, our situation began with a pair of isolated cases, indistinguishable from the furor usually caused by the sensational and now disappeared (or, depending how you see it: omnipresent) red line journalism. First, a construction worker murdered his lover and co-worker in the area near a building site. The authorities found fragments of intestines and human hearts roasted on a piece of sheet metal over some coals. During the trial, the suspect committed suicide. A year later, a young poet and professor from the University of Puebla was sent to jail when the authorities searched his refrigerator and found pieces of his dead girlfriend, which he used for masturbating. Although no one demonstrated that he’d killed her or consumed her flesh, the symptoms that this individual presented in the months to come left no room for doubt: he was ground zero for a new reality breaking out along the border, beyond the animal species and the plant and animal kingdoms: a walking virus.
The first person to come to Mexico to study the phenomenon was the English scientist Frank Ryan, a virologist whose theory proposed, in general, that humanity’s tremendous evolutionary leap forward was not owing to our DNA connection to other mammals but to the great percentage of viral information absorbed by the human genome. What at first seemed a polemical intuition capable of explaining sicknesses like AIDS or cancer turned into Ryan’s Evolutionary Law or the Clinamen of the Species: all organic entropy will eventually lead to the triumph of an entity neither alive nor dead, whose only activity will be to feed and reproduce itself by invading host organisms.
The most atrocious thing about our epidemic, and what makes it distinct from any other, is its irritating slowness. Once the sickness is contracted, the organism is defined by two characteristics: first, the unstoppable anxiety of having to feed on human flesh ––an impulse heightened by olfactory stimulation––; second, a gradual multiple sclerosis directly proportional to the quantity of human flesh consumed. It’s here where the individual willpower affects the processes, because one’s capacity for restructuring gluttony and administering consumption (such ridiculous but actual socioeconomic similes are issued daily by the Secretary of Health) define the speed at which the transformation will take place.
So far no formal catalog exists to describe the exact phases of the entity’s devolution. In my hours of leisure (which are many) I’ve derived four categories that I’ll here offer for the consideration of future carnivegetal realms:
The Transitional Cannibal: this refers to the phase in which my psychoanalyst currently finds himself. It can last from a week to a year, depending on the victim’s previous health, dietary habits, and experimental drug usage (“Retroviral and antipsychotic drugs have proven effective,” Tadeo told me the other day with a professorial thrill in his voice). In this phase, the infected person loses many of their vital functions, which allows them to stay alive while eating very little. Their interaction with his surrounding environment doesn’t change very much; for example, this group includes the President of the Republic and all his prominent detractors, opposition party leaders, many doctors and teachers, and almost all the business people that remain active. The only trait that distinguishes them from someone like me is that they show withdrawal symptoms ––nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation–– when they detect the smell of normal, healthy human beings.
The Bicarnal Beast: the individual suffering this phase is nearly unable to resist the temptation to take a bite out of you but, still governed by shame, delivers their overture with the classic exaggerated politesse of the well-bred Mexican: “Would you kindly allow me to accompany you, sir?” or some such courtesy. They turn out to be the most repulsive ones. I call them bicarnal because, to soften their anxiety, they deceive themselves by eating pounds and pounds of beef, pork, or lamb. I’ve come upon them in shattered minimarts, wolfing down frozen hamburgers straight out of the box. Once I even saw, from the terrace at the Majestic, the way in which a group of them sacrificed a fighting bull in the Zocalo (God knows where they managed to find it) and then devoured it’s raw flesh right there on the flagstones. I also call them junkies or wormoisseurs: their principal post-human activity is the buying and selling of cadavers. They are the lords and masters of what was once the Historic Center of the nation’s capital city.
The Mature Sleepwalker moves a little clumsily, with a crooked shambling gait, and is always filthy with bloodstains from eating any living thing that happens to cross its path. It’s blind and weak and doesn’t utter a single word; beyond its terrifying aspect, it’s simply a depressing creature. Not really very interesting. Relatively scarce, its condition represents the shortest stage of the infectious process.
Lastly, The Blossom: the immortal aspect of what we will all soon become: nascent vegetative man-eaters in a perpetual and pestilent state of putrefaction. As the sclerosis overtakes them, Blossoms, with their last remaining shreds of instinct, search for some place where they can drop down undead. Although I’ve occasionally seen these flesh-eating flowers on their own, you usually run into groups of them, almost as if the need for socialization was the last human trait to die. Once I saw one of these living cadavers remain standing on two feet. But normally they end up stretched out on the ground, whether it be in the street or locked inside rooms, or sometimes on benches, planter boxes, fountains, the hoods of cars . . . . More than actually moving about, they suffer from spasms. They clamber over one another, biting each other, snapping at anything that moves near them, ceaselessly opening and closing their jaws clack clack clack clack clack all night and day, the sound of a teletype in an insane asylum. At first it kept me from sleeping, and later gave me long nightmares, but lately it has become a sweet lullaby.
The largest garden of flesh-eating flowers that exists grew spontaneously around the Metropolitan Cathedral, along one side of the Zocalo, facing the patio of my hotel . . . . Could it really be any different in a Catholic country? Not only do the terminally ill in this epidemic keep arriving at all hours: every day also delivers an almost industrial quantity of the nourishment they require. Every morning finds rows of buses parked around the Zocalo. The buses disgorge groups of fervent pilgrims who pray to God for the world’s salvation and, as a test of their faith, try to pass through the bramble rows of teeth separating them from the doors of the cathedral. Nobody ever even makes it halfway through the atrium: they’re all devoured alive in just a few minutes. That keeps the garden well watered with fresh blood. If Mexico weren’t already the vast cemetery that it is, this perilous garden would be considered the country’s most peculiar tourist attraction.
As my session comes to a close, Tadeo asks:
“So, are you going to come over to install it? . . . . I live in La Condesa, really close to Avenida Amsterdam, a block and a half off Insurgentes, along Iztaccíhuatl. Just get off the metro at Chilpancingo. It’s on the sixth floor. You can’t miss it.”
I think it over a bit.
“You don’t even need to come see me,” he insists. “We can do the whole thing over the intercom.”
“It’s not about you. I just never go that far.”
“Come on, man. Nothing’ll happen. I go out every day and nothing happens.”
“Sure, but you have a car.”
“Consider it an exercise in socialization within the frame of therapy: one way or another you’ve got to go on living in our world.”
In the end he convinces me and we agree that next Monday (today is Thursday) I’ll go by his apartment to install a satellite television hookup.
“On one condition,” I clarify: “None of this shit about doing everything over the intercom. I want to see you. I want to see your house. And Delfina, too, of course.”
“What for?” he asks, suspicious.
“I don’t know . . . . To see what kind of beauty could get you to agree to become a human sirloin steak.”
Now it’s Tadeo who’s unsure. But 142 TV channels and 50 different music stations, as well as 10 hardcore porn sites and an all-access password for Pay Per View––all for free––is the kind of high quality blackmail that nobody, not even a Lacanian psychoanalyst and cannibal, could ever resist.
“It’s a deal,” he says.
He hangs up the phone.
I consider myself the ruler of this realm but once, up north, I was the ruler of a different one: regional maintenance manager for one of the most important satellite television companies in the world. For years I accumulated a huge assortment of things in my desk drawer: all kinds of keys, serial numbers, computer chips, cards, code numbers. After the first outbreaks of the epidemic, I moved to Mexico City and brought with me masses of tools and toys and doodads. These small bunches of talismans represent the multitasking treasure that I sometimes spend in place of money: for example, I can use them to place bets in the skateboarders’ casino on Eugenia Alley, where young skaters leap over long rows of the bodies of full-blossom cannibals lying side by side on the ground; the kind of thing you used to see at monster truck shows. We spectators bet to see who can jump the most bodies on their skateboard. Some, the best skaters, survive. Most of them end up with their calf muscles chewed to raw meat from the strong, virulent bites. I’m not complaining. Sometimes, in that hippodrome of cadavers and imbeciles, I win enough money to rent myself a toothless whore. And when things don’t go quite so well, I pay off my bets by installing residential satellite service in some building in the neighborhood: the worst thing that can happen in a day is that I end up having to scale a wall and cross over twenty yards of rotting flesh without a safety harness.
The thing is, everybody wants to keep on zapping: surfing a never-ending wave of 140 different channels even as they’re being ripped to pieces by the love of their life. Everybody, including the dead.
—Julián Herbert; Translated from the original Spanish by Brendan Riley, 2015
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.
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 Fuente