Review: In the Body Where I Was Born

Novel by Guadalupe Nettel
Review by Sebastian Sarti
Issue No. 10 – December 2015

In her newly translated novel, The Body Where I Was Born, Guadalupe Nettel uses the same quiet and naturalistic style from her short story collection Natural Histories, but rather than explore discrete episodes of crisis in which solitary characters graft their stories and emotions onto animals, her novel has each event permeate into the rest of the narrator’s life. The added space allows Nettel to expand on the collection’s themes and form a more complex and nuanced work.

The novel portrays an adolescent girl’s attempts to graft the traits of others onto herself, only to fail and have to start again, in order to find the semblance of identity she desires. The narrator recounts her childhood and adolescence, one of unexpected turmoil, to a silent psychologist. Her need to confess her life to a psychologist already hints at the persistence of her wounds. From birth, her body is a burden. A white spot over her right cornea reduces her sight, and the treatment done in hopes of future vision causes her to spend half the day with the other eye also blind. Each day, the world appears in indistinct blurs until she is allowed to use her left eye. It is then that she cherishes the tightly contoured world, absorbing and describing all the clear and vivid details.

Through their unorthodox approach, the narrator’s New Age parents only exacerbate her struggles. They tell bedtime stories that start with descriptions of pregnancy. When she’s six, they describe sex and explain it is for pleasure, “like dancing or eating chocolate.” Later, once the parents have separated, the mother takes the narrator and her brother to live in a commune where they consider everything public property, including the children.

Yet the mother has her own traditional instincts, which reveal themselves as the story progresses. She constantly berates the narrator for her poor posture, calling her “Cucaracha”(cockroach). Though she spoke of sex openly, when she discovers the narrator masturbating in a household staircase, she orders her to do it only in private places, establishing it as an act of shame. Even the commune event shows her inability to fully embrace the bohemian lifestyle—she leaves after only a few days.

These inconsistencies give narrator very little with which to anchor her life, and the problem worsens once her mother goes to France to study and leaves her and her brother with their grandmother. While she praises her grandson, the grandmother scolds her granddaughter more harshly than the narrator’s mother had. The narrator’s life becomes a series of quiet struggles and resignations waged and lost against adults. It doesn’t help that the narrator seems dispossessed of her own body. Her bad vision, poor posture, and physical inability to compete with boys all seem to conspire against her.

Eventually, the children reunite with their mother in France. They move to a poor neighborhood, and the narrator’s loneliness deepens. She makes few friends, and often the friendships are short-lived. Nettel shows these relationships for what they are: transient acts of lasting effect. Though her relationship with her mother is as intimate as it is turbulent, it degrades rapidly and forces her to return to Mexico and her grandmother for her last year of high school. Her relationship with her mother worsens, and she returns to Mexico and her grandmother for her last year of high school. Throughout these episodes, the narrator doesn’t have much say about the path she is on. She appears as a malleable object, grafting others’ identities onto her own and tossing them off once she realizes they don’t coalesce. Her parents, grandparents, and peers determine her course, and even in a rare act of violent assertion, it is as if her body “started acting by itself.

In Mexico, back with her grandmother, she begins to gain freedom, grabbing at it in spontaneous bursts. She develops agency, if not exactly identity, and she connects with her bold cousin who encourages her rebellion. Still, rather than a pronunciation of self-discovery, the novel ends with an inconclusiveness; it is likely that she will soon shed this new identity as well.

Since there is no singular driving force for her life, the novels’ formless structure mimics the narrator’s disjointedness. Nettel does not try to squeeze shapeless lives into cohesive narratives. Instead, in her stories, life passes by, drifting, with occasional fits and starts. The changes accumulate at an almost glacial pace. At times, the narrator becomes anxious and disrupts her story to ask the silent psychologist rhetorical questions, revealing that the turmoil from her narrative, though many years in the past, has not completely receded. These deliberate disjunctures can at times cause the narrative to feel too slow or too inconclusive. The lack of a clearly defined plot causes each anecdote to appear isolated. Yet Nettel connects these disparate accounts through her constant reference to the narrator’s body as an object that’s been thrust upon her.

The novel’s title locates the narrator’s body as a place, and the body’s geography determines much of her life. It gives her poor eyesight, which, ironically, leads her to make detailed observations. Her growing breasts limit her ability and end her obsession with soccer, and her newfound hormones spark a curiosity in boys. Her poor posture gives her the nickname Cucaracha and stifles her confidence. Most importantly, these traits isolate her and cause her to turn to books and corners, where she finds an affinity in the shadows’ cockroaches and Kafka’s Samsa, and where, most importantly, she discovers the liberation of writing.

Her writing prevents the novel from being one of endless restrictions and turns it into one of discovered agency and loosening borders. From her interspersions, we learn that she has published books, has met Octavio Paz, is friends with Alejandro Zambra, and has traveled throughout the world. Most of all, her love of writing gives her the power to tell her life’s story and make it her own.

Yet, ultimately the novel revolves around issues of maturation. The narrator sums up these incremental transformation best when she says, “Many of the people and places that used to make up my recurrent landscapes have disappeared with astonishing ease, and many of those remaining, through accentuating their neuroses and facial gestures so fiercely, have turned into caricatures of who they once were. The bodies where we are born are not the same as the ones we leave the world in.” This transformation from quiet object to narrating subject occurs in a style reflective of the soft, unnoticed manner of life’s minute changes. Nettel’s eyes and voice allow us to see what we so often overlook, and so her lithe novel becomes like one of those incidents about which she writes so well. It is short in duration but long in effect.

In the Body Where I Was Born
Guadalupe Nettel
Seven Stories Press
208 pages, $18.65

Sebastian Sarti is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s had previous reviews published in Word Riot and Mulberry Fork Review. He currently lives in New York.

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