Guadalupe Nettel - With raw language and a brilliant sense of humor, both delicate and unafraid, Nettel strings together hard-won, unwieldy memories—taking us from Mexico City to Aix-en-Provence, France, then back home again—to create a portrait of the artist as a young girl
Guadalupe Nettel, The Body Where I was Born, Trans. by J.T. Lichtenstein, Seven Stories Press, 2015.
From a psychoanalyst's couch, the narrator looks back on her bizarre childhood—in which she was born with an abnormality in her eye into a family intent on fixing it. In a world without the time and space for innocence, the narrator intimately recalls her younger self—a fierce and discerning girl open to life’s pleasures and keen to its ruthless cycle of tragedy.
With raw language and a brilliant sense of humor, both delicate and unafraid, Nettel strings together hard-won, unwieldy memories—taking us from Mexico City to Aix-en-Provence, France, then back home again—to create a portrait of the artist as a young girl. In these pages, Nettel’s art of storytelling transforms experience into inspiration and a new startling perception of reality.
"Nettel's eye…gives rise to a tension, subtle but persistent, that immerses us in an uncomfortable reality, disquieting, even disturbing—a gaze that illuminates her prose like an alien sun shining down on our world." —Valeria Luiselli
"It has been a long time since I've found in the literature of my generation a world as personal and untransferable as that of Guadalupe Nettel." —Juan Gabriel Vásquez
"Nettel reveals the subliminal beauty within beings…and painstakingly examines the intimacies of her soul." —Magazine Littéraire
“Guadalupe Nettel’s storytelling power is majestic."—Typographical Era
Guadalupe Nettel, Natural Histories, Trans. by J.T. Lichtenstein, Seven Stories Press, 2015.
These five dark and delicately written stories unfold in fragile worlds, where animal behaviors parallel the ways in which human beings interact with one another and react to their environments. Siamese fighting fish, cockroaches, a cat, a snake, and a strange fungus are mirrors that reflect the unconfessable aspects of human nature we keep hidden, buried. The traits and fates of these animals illuminate such deeply natural, human experiences as the cruelty born of cohabitation, the desire to reproduce or the struggle against it, and the inexplicable connection that can bind, eerily, two beings together.
In her precise writing, subtle and spellbinding, Nettel renders the ordinary unsettling, and the grotesque exquisite.
In each tale Nettel creates, with tightly wound narrative tension, a space wherein her characters feel excruciatingly human, exploring how the wounds we incur in life manifest themselves within us, clandestinely, irrevocably, both unseen and overtly.
"The gaze [Nettel] turns on madnesses both temperate and destructive, on manias, on deviances, is so sharp that it has us seeing straight into our own obsessions." –Xavier Houssain
"Guadalupe Nettel is one of the most interesting voices of the new Mexican fiction." –J.A. Masoliver Ródenas
"Seasoned readers will delight in this literary voice, new to the landscape of Latin American literature, a voice sophisticated as it is original." –Arcadia
"Guadalupe Nettel reveals the subliminal beauty within beings of odd behavior and painstakingly examines the intimacies of her soul." –Magazine Littéraire
"It has been a long time since I've found in the literature of my generation a world as personal and untransferable as that of Guadalupe Nettel." –Juan Gabriel Vásquez
"The career of this young storyteller is worth keeping an eye on. A master of style, with a marvelous poetic naturalism, her ideas and manners distinguish her from what we are accustomed to in Mexican literature." –Joaquin Marco
I happen to be reading two collections of short stories that focus on human relationships. Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico City, 1973) is a world-class writer, slowly emerging out of Mexico and just now available in translation. Natural Histories, translated by J. T. Lichtenstein, was published in June by Seven Stories Press in the U.S., and you can read a lovely, illuminating, and entertaining piece on the process by Lichtenstein in Asymptote’s July 2014 issue.
With arresting incisiveness, in her collection Nettel reminds us that the matter of man is an overlooked marker of his mettle: from toe fungi to first pregnancies, these bodily stories (that is, natural histories) are as visceral and empathetic as any psychological realism. Even when the stories are narrated in the introspective first person, it’s the physical world, not any interior characterization, that finds its way under our skin. From the first page, Lichenstein’s shrewdly alliterative English prose pecks away at us, introducing an aural dimension to the fleshly images Nettel paints. So, on the death of a pet fish, the narrator says, “It pained me to see him there, alone in his container. […] That’s what saddened me when I saw him yesterday, floating like a poppy petal on the surface of a pond.” And pop, we’re there by the fish bowl, where no more little bubbles will appear at the surface and pop, because the pet fish is dead. Thus, through attention to sound, Nettel and Lichtenstein strive to make us, the reader, feel that absence. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that some of Nettel’s stories are as atmospheric and emotionally battering as Chekhov’s. “Bonsai,” translated beautifully by Rosalind Harvey for Words Without Borders from Nettel’s untranslated collection Pétalos y otras historias incómodas, has the time-bending quality of “The Lady with the Dog,” where the main character’s entire romantic history—a messy eternity—plays out in fleeting encounters and in a few thousand words. - Sophie Hughes
“All animals know what it is they need, except for man.” We may not care to admit it, but it is difficult to argue with such a resonant statement on human nature—or, at least, this is what we’re compelled to believe after reading Guadalupe Nettel’s Natural Histories.
The book’s title, as well as the quote above, which serves as an epigraph for the text, come from Pliny the Elder. The naturalist and author from Ancient Roman times posited in his “Naturalis Historia” that humans are essentially an oddity in the realm of zoology. Whereas for other creatures, both large and small, self-preservation is an inherent part of their makeup, we two-legged beasts find spectacular ways to sabotage our own well-being.
It is this dark fact of existence that Nettel explores in her own “Natural Histories.” In each of her five short stories, Nettel places humans under the microscope and examines them at their most fragile and desperate. Her findings work largely to unsettle the reader: As her protagonists undergo emotional stress, we observe them crack under pressure and give into their baser instincts—however surreal those instincts may appear be, such as cultivating fungal infections on purpose.
Natural Histories—for which Nettel won the 2013 Ribera del Duero Short Fiction Award—is her first book to be published in English. Prior works, including her collection of short stories Petalos and her novel El huésped, have established her as one of the foremost new Mexican writers.
What is so beguiling about Natural Histories is that, despite the often grotesque oddities of the characters, their actions remain relatable to readers. This sense of normalcy—or at least of suspended acceptance—comes from Nettel’s decision to prime her audience with animal versions of her characters. Their choices, no matter how bizarre, are informed and foreshadowed by their varying furry, scaly, or fungal counterparts.
In one story, the protagonist takes on the persona of a fungus as she grieves the loss of a love affair that has largely run its course. She keeps herself hidden from sight unless sought for in the dark corners of her apartment, infesting the life of her sometimes lover with her incessant need for more.
The character’s emotions are understandable. Her perverse attachment to her own fungal infection—a venereal disease, begot of her love affair, with which she feels solidarity—is less comprehensible.
Yet Nettel’s protagonists despite these striking, odd personality traits, can appear startlingly normal. That’s not to say that Natural Histories does not succeed in disturbing the reader. In fact, it is this acceptance of the strange—of the animal in each of us—that sets the book on its edge. For if we as third-party observers can understand the ease with which these characters revert to their baser instincts, even in the slightest degree, then what does that say about us?
The protagonist in “Fungus” explains our attention-seeking impulses succinctly:
“Parasites—I understand this now—we are unsatisfied beings by nature. Neither the nourishment nor the attention we receive will ever be enough. The secrecy that ensures our survival often frustrates us.”
Nettel’s other characters similarly have epiphanies with the help of their animal complements. In “The Marriage of a Red Fish,” a young woman witnesses the crumbling of her marriage through the lens of a pair of Siamese fighting fish, whose perilous cohabitation reflects in the actions of the husband and wife. “War in the Trash Cans” sees a young man relate to a cockroach in the face of his parents’ divorce, while the protagonist of “Felina” comes to terms with her miscarriage by observing her cat’s relationship with her kittens. “The Snake from Beijing” demonstrates that not all serpents are as poisonous as they may seem: As our lead character watches his father’s obsession with a pet snake take precedence over his family, it is revealed that the real danger does not slither, but walks on two feet—the father’s infatuation with a woman miles away is the real cause for worry.
Nettel’s prose is precise. Perhaps because of Pliny’s influence—his own “Naturalis Historia” is structured as an encyclopedia—her protagonists seem to be recounting the details of a science experiment. The clinical—sometimes stilted, but always tense—tone of the text suppresses the characters even further, making the stories more heartbreaking, and difficult, to read. This is a credit to Nettel as much as it is to J. T. Lichtenstein, her translator, who has captured the dark and forbidding quality of Nettel’s work without losing the characters’ sympathetic qualities. They yearn for understanding, pulling on a tender chord in readers, yet we are kept at arm’s length. It feels, in fact, like we are on the other side of a terrarium observing the lives of these creatures Nettel puts forth for our assessment. - Kristina Fazzalaro
Natural Histories is a collection of five stories, each narrated in the first person. They cover extended periods of time, focused on a significant period in the narrator's life, often with a great shift in personal relationships. Each also has a connection to animal life -- or, in the case of 'Fungus', fungal life.
In 'The Marriage of the Red Fish' the life of a married couple, expecting and then with their first child, seems almost a direct reflection of what goes on in their fish bowl (and then aquarium), where they keep their fish -- Betta splendens, Siamese fighting fish. They get two of them as a gift, a few month before the narrator is to give birth; later, they get a third (naming it 'Oblomov'); like the couple's relationship, the fish do not fare well.
The animals in the stories are used as a variety of counterparts to the narrators and others in these stories. In 'The Snake from Beijing' the animal takes on a weighty symbolic role, while 'War in the Trash Cans' sees a household war waged against an invasion of cockroaches (though ending also with a symbolic lone orphaned cockroach, much like the forlorn-feeling narrator at that time). Animals -- or a fungus -- can help the narrator during a time of transition: 'War in the Trash Cans' is a story where the narrator admits early on: "My fascination for insects emerged at a young age" (the narrator meanwhile having become a biology professor, specializing in insects), while the cats in 'Felina' are a stabilizing influence for a student preparing for the next stages in her life (as, for example: "The cats, unlike the roommates, provided genuine and stable company").
Each of the stories is almost exactly the same length -- twenty pages --, save the longer first one, and each takes its time, focusing not on a single incident or episode, but following characters in transition. In some cases -- the young child of 'War in the Trash Cans', in which the separating parents more or less abandon the child, sending it off to live with relatives -- it is the external circumstances that change, but regardless, there is a tremendous effect on each of the narrators. Each story is marked by a failed relationship, with Nettel's focus less on any possible reasons than in just describing the disintegration.
Nettel presents these tales well: each unfolds nicely (if often rather darkly), the focus on description rather than analysis helping draw the reader into these situations and lives. Yet as neither simple vignettes not full-fledged life-stories, the pieces in Natural Histories can feel uncertain in purpose: there is the occasional hint of what becomes of the characters ("I've been a biology professor at the Universidad de Valle de México for over ten years", the narrator of 'War in the Trash Cans' explains before leaping back into the past that led to that), but most are left at loose ends of sorts.
These are good stories, and there's a nice unity to the collection -- not too obvious and forced, but sufficient -- and, with only five stories, it feels just the right size. Still, it's also the sort of thing that reaffirms at least this reader's belief in the (complete) primacy of the novel; fully-formed and technically certainly good, these remain simply stories -- fine morsels but hardly a meal; appealing small studies, but not full-fledged works. - M.A.Orthofer
It’s been a fruitful decade for contemporary Mexican writing, and the English-speaking world has become more attentive our Hispanophone literary neighbors. Heavyweights like Sergio Pitol and Juan Villoro eked their way north to due praise, and Valeria Luiselli and Álvaro Enrigue are increasingly on the rise among Mexico’s beloved living exports. in this vein, J.T. Lichtenstein’s recent translations of Guadalupe Nettel’s short-story collection Natural Histories and novel The Body Where I Was Born stand out as some of the strangest and most sumptuous prose to emerge from this trend. Nettel is a linguist by training, and grew up between Mexico and France; appropriately her language, surely the product of a childhood of linguistic and cultural mobility, toes the line between the sympathetic and relatable and the radically bizarre. Both books—the former a series of encounters with animals, the latter a youth recounted in a therapist’s office—detail the psychological and even ontological degradation of familiarity between us as the world sees a greater propagation of bodies, movement, and cultural and economic encounters. The undercurrent of globalization permeates her texts, so it’s only appropriate her prose mirrors such proliferation.
Subsumed by a strange growth, the protagonist of Guadalupe Nettel’s story “Fungus” concludes, “Parasites—I understand this now—we are unsatisfied beings by nature.” The sentence transitions ever so slightly, ever so gradually from “it” to “we” in referring to the fungal infection, but the effect is glaring in retrospect. She contracted the infection from an extramarital affair, and it’s spread all across both their bodies. As her unrequited obsession continues to grow, so does the fungus, in a manner both horrific and tinged by humor (“My fungus wants only one thing, to see you again”), eventually becoming indistinguishable from the fabric of her desire. Like “Fungus,” each story in Guadalupe Nettel’s Natural Histories pairs its characters with unknowable creatures whose trajectories parallel the inevitable disintegration of their domestic comfort. On top of the fungal fever dream: betta fish exhibit strange behavior and fight savagely as a woman’s postpartum depression grows apace with her husband’s increasing distance; an exotic snake appears while a father longs for his ancestral homeland; a cockroach infestation reaches a head as a family reaches a new apex of madness; a pregnant cat births a litter, subsequently disappearing as a doctoral candidate aborts her pregnancy.
Nettel’s novel, The Body Where I Was Born, exhibits similar concerns and degenerative playfulness, and indeed it feels like an outgrowth or proliferation of what was seen in Natural Histories. On the surface, the novel is less surreal than the collection, certainly more informed by realism. But where the symbolism of animals and interpersonal/psychological deterioration is heightened in Natural Histories, at times even heavy-handed, The Body’s characters experience this spread much more organically. The novel’s narrative ecology seems more subtle, the familiarizing of difference (be it animals, or the protagonist finding herself among strangers in a new country) correlating directly with a degradation of familiarity in both empathy and language, among families, friends, and lovers.
Nettel’s ecology of longing is grotesque in the Rabelaisian sense. The Body Where I Was Born evokes both Bakhtin and Rabelais, and one of its starkest moments centers on the narrator’s aunt:
she was an exceptionally sensitive woman, a lover of the grotesque and the scatological, of Borges’s poetry, Rabelais’s novels and Goya’s paintings—invented a tale inspired by my surreptitious behavior, which she would tell us at night after reading from the children’s edition of Gargantua y Pantagruel.
In her stories, the body is literally open among animals and mycelium, and in The Body, physical marks and defects are points of both contention and camaraderie: “It was as if our strangest characteristics—my crossed eye, Blaise’s stature, and Sophie’s scar, to name a few—were actually markings we had chosen, like piercings or tattoos.” This is not to mention the way in which Nettel pits liberalized sexuality against the rise of post-sixties social conservatism: “That’s how, with the seventies in full swing, I joined the ancestral order of closet masturbators, that legion of children who rarely peek their heads out from under the sheets.” Nettel’s bodies are simultaneously open and closed off, and both the fear of and fascination with consummation is rife among her family and friends.
It is said that the extremely conservative turn taken by the generation to which I belong is due largely in part to the emergence of AIDS; I am convinced that our attitude is very much a reaction to the highly experimental way our parents confronted adulthood.
This is a clever play on the kind of carnivalesque, celebratory grotesque aesthetic so often picked apart by semioticians like Bakhtin and Kristeva. While the “true” (that is: original) grotesque according to the theoretical canon is gay and ambivalent, Nettel recognizes that the opening up of the body scared an entire generation into complacency under the hierarchies it sought to dismantle.
Nettel’s power structures aren’t inverted here so much as the text laments their reinforcement. Like dining on once-feared vermin, the status quo returns to normal, supremacies intact. This comes as a relief to some characters, but therein lies the tragedy. Elements of The Body are semi-autobiographical: the protagonist’s move to France, and fictionalized versions of Nettel’s peers, like Alejandro Zambra, make an appearance. The novel is framed in a therapy session, with the narrator looking back on her life. It’s a kind of anti-Portnoy’s Complaint; instead of foregrounding misogynistic solipsism, The Body focalizes feminine experience and the longing for empathy, and the attempt to break down physical and spiritual barriers, with varying degrees of success. As she confesses to her therapist in the final pages:
My own body that for years constituted my only believable link to reality now feels like a vehicle that’s breaking down, a train I’ve been riding all this time, going on a very fast trip toward inevitable decline.
In this way, the author conspires against her characters, their lives partitioned off by the very means that would grant access to a new world.
Nettel is well acquainted with the tradition at play here; she holds a doctorate from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, once home to Barthes, Derrida, and Lacan, to name a few. She appropriately toys with signification, not only with the grotesque poetics, but also with the otherwise familiar. Family turns strange on a dime, like in “The Snake from Beijing”:
The man standing in front of me had my father’s voice and face; he smelled like him and made many similar movements, but at the same time, something about that person made him a complete stranger to me.
In The Body Where I Was Born, the narrator’s desperate flight to her old home causes her to find that it’s become a home for the elderly, with a sign on the wall reading, “Learn to die and you will have learned to live,” a phrase that sticks with her into adulthood. What’s more, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake hits while she lives abroad, and, confused by the serenity of her French home, she wonders if the “past may have been utterly extinguished by little more than two minutes of terrestrial oscillation.” As signs are constantly in flux, Nettel shows us that the only reliable means to imbue a thing with meaning is the instance of beholding it: “Interpretations are entirely inevitable and, to be honest, I refuse to give up the immense pleasure I get from making them . . . I take comfort in thinking that objectivity is always subjective.”
Nettel’s success is both poetic and conceptual, and there are more that a few moments of linguistic sublimity that Lichtenstein triumphantly conjures into English. The translator is often successful, but not entirely. Like in many of the quotes above, both books shine when Lichtenstein can distill the author’s enchanting and frequently bizarre prose. But the language in Natural Histories isn’t entirely consistent, and at times it’s even awkward. Here’s a sentence from “War in the Trash Cans”: “When I came to their home my aunt and uncle received me with a mix of pity about the situation with my parents and the apprehension about the way in which I’d been raised.” Many of Nettel’s sentences do feel a bit confounding and chaotic, as they’re meant do. The translator did note the challenges she faced when translating the organic peculiarity of the Spanish prose, which ultimately earned Nettel Anagrama’s Herralde Prize for Después del invierno. Still, the translation is compelling, if structurally perplexing at times. The language does hit a stride in The Body Where I Was Born, which was translated after Natural Histories, the symbolism being much less overwrought, the structure much more fluid. And despite some inconsistencies with the language, both books signal Nettel’s exultant arrival to the English language. - Tyler Curtis
An Interview with Guadalupe Nettel