Men and Their Mothers: Mark Talks Two New Releases

Often when reading I’ll conflate the books I’ve recently read with the ones I’m currently reading, making connections, finding similarities and resemblances that may (or may not) be there. This could be the consequence of being a voracious reader, having an active imagination or, put quite simply, sometimes the similarities are just there, undeniably present and impossible to avoid, books like distant cousins or siblings.

Two novels were recently published that reminded me of one another in countless ways, from the seamless mix of memoir and fiction to the subject of young men taking care of their ailing mothers. TOMB SONG, by Mexican author Julián Herbert, tells of his unconventional life as he sits at the bedside of his mother who is fighting leukemia. In fiery and often hallucinogenic prose Herbert tells of his struggles as a child, his desire to be a writer and the traveling circus of his youth moving from city to city. Herbert’s mother, Guadalupe, was a prostitute and this makes the young narrator grow up fast; dark memories merge with hysterical scenes (has anyone ever read a book where a brothel starts a team soccer club?). At the root of this novel is a young man troubled by the mixed feelings he has for his mother, the courage Guadalupe had to fight for herself and her son. In interviews Herbert has said the book is a true story, part memoir, but also endowed with fiction; he insists people are too caught up in labeling the genre of books. The writing is stunning and always brutal, as when Herbert says toward the end: What was delicious during those first days of mourning was the exact instant of waking: when it still hadn’t dawned on me that my mother was dead, and I could enjoy the unrelieved anguish her suffering caused me for a year.

THE DESERT AND ITS SEED by Jorge Barón Biza is also an autobiographical novel and focuses on Mario, moments after his father has thrown acid on his mother’s face: a true story. The novel follows Mario and his stoic mother, Eligia, as she moves from a clinic in Argentina to a clinic in Milan. The descriptions of her face and the changes it undergoes are both harrowing and strangely beautiful. The dutiful son attends to her mother through countless doctors and surgeries and skin grafts. Speaking of his mother’s face, Mario says: The transformation of flesh into rock concealed the bright colors. I understood that the mirage of metaphor was over. Aaron's attack had converted Eligia’s whole body in a single negation. It wasn’t easy to construct figurative meanings upon it. The fertility of chaos had abandoned her. Mario attempts to deal with the violence upon his mother (by his own father, no less) as he navigates the provincial streets of a small Italian town, drinking with strangers and getting lost both literally and figuratively.

Both TOMB SONG and THE DESERT AND ITS SEED are books of great beauty pervaded by a brutal honesty. The narrators are flawed and distraught, confessing the unconventional stories of their lives through the lens of the relationship to their mothers. Both novels are visceral, haunting and hard to put down, the artistry of the writing overcoming the trauma of their subjects.

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