After an excursion to Spain’s North-West last week, Spanish-Language Literature Month takes us back to Mexico today, with my third review from the country this month. Once again, for those of you with Women in Translation Month in mind, it’s by a female writer, and it’s less a novel than a story of the life of a writer, a woman looking back at her formative years (from a rather comfortable vantage point…).
The Body Where I was Born (translated by J. T. Lichtenstein, published by The University of Western Australia Publishing) is a semi- (fully?) autobiographical novel from Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel, one in which she recounts her childhood while ensconced on her psychiatrist’s couch. The story begins with an explanation of her eye issues, with the poor young girl forced to wear an eye patch, strengthening her eye until she is old enough to undergo a vital operation:
My life was divided between two worlds: that of morning, built mostly out of sounds and smells, but also of hazy colors; and that of evening, always freeing, yet at the same time, overwhelmingly precise.
p.8 (UWAP, 2015)
It’s clear from this beginning that it all left a major impression on the life of the writer (or narrator, or character), even if she is eventually able to leave the patch behind.
However, this is just the start of the young girl’s experiences. Growing up in a home with liberal parents and attending a Montessori school, when her parents split up (and her mother flies off to France for study), the resulting culture clash with her strict grandmother is particularly severe. Even when the young girl and her brother eventually do follow their mother overseas, the picture drawn is of children on the outside, struggling to find their place in society – and all the while they wonder where exactly their father has got to…
A few weeks ago, I looked at Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Matane, a book that detailed the youth of a bookish boy, and The Body Where I Was Born is a very similar work in its structure, even if the two writers’ experiences are rather different. Where Dupont skims over some of the more distressing periods of his childhood, for the most part taking a humorous approach, Nettel explores hers in more detail, slowly recalling the pivotal events of her youth. The story is ostensibly for her therapist, but in truth it’s a way for the writer to reexamine her past and the effect it’s had on her present.
The major figures in this past are, of course, her parents. Their hippy ways, open discussions on sexuality and even a trial visit to a commune are bound to leave an impression on a sensitive child, and the more we learn, the more a certain Philip Larkin poem comes to mind. Of course, all of this is nothing compared to what happens when her parents split. The separation and the father’s virtual disappearance (first overseas, then on a slightly less pleasant extended stay elsewhere…) cast a shadow over the protagonist’s life.
Life with her grandmother, then, comes as a shock to the system; after the confusing freedom of her family home, the young girl is confronted with the strictures of a rather more bourgeois upbringing.
“For the Love of God, stand up straight!” she’d command ten times a day at least, her voice shaking the walls of the apartment. She even gave me a back brace, which disappeared into the farthest corner of my closet. She called my curly hair (very similar to hers at my age, by the way) unkempt whenever I didn’t wear it straightened and tied back. Even the way I spoke was something she criticized. She accused me for no reason of pronouncing my s’s like a Colombian and demanded that I practice keeping my tongue away from my teeth to avoid whistling. I didn’t do it, obviously. (p.48)
The sense of confusion and isolation settling over her is only increased by being shut up at home in (stifling) security, and she begins to rebel, discovering forbidden literature and using football to escape her sadness.
Once the mother returns to take the children to France, there’s the possibility of a new start. Yet even in a new country, the writer continues to gravitate towards outsiders, her tendency to overanalyse her actions preventing her from fitting in:
From what I have been able to observe, it seems that when an event hurts us there are two general tendencies in confronting it: the first being to go over it an infinite number of times, like a video we project again and again on a screen in our minds. The second is to tear apart the filmstrip and forget indefinitely the painful event. Some of us employ both techniques in the editing of our memories. (p.127)
What comes together from all these anecdotes is a picture of a girl becoming a young woman who struggles to find her place in the world, not really sure who she is or where she belongs.
The Body Where I Was Born is an interesting novel, a rolling monologue and a flowing text providing insight into the pains of a girl’s youth. The protagonist begins to discover her sexuality and works on establishing an identity for herself from amongst the chaos of her home life. It’s obviously a very personal work, a female Bildungsroman, and many readers will identify with the writer/narrator, yet I’d have to say this is not a book I loved. Quite apart from a collection of clumsy typos and errors – Santa Clause, dolled out (doled out), cuttlery, German Sheperd -, there are several weak aspects to the book. For one thing, the therapist angle is a contrived attempt to justify the confessional nature of the work, but it feels forced and unnecessary, adding very little to the book. Also, the ending feels rather rushed, as if the writer wasn’t quite sure how to pace the final years of her youth. There is an appropriate rounding off as we return to the theme of the girl’s eye, yet it doesn’t really make for a convincing ending.
I mentioned Dupont earlier, and for me Life in the Court of Matane works much better than The Body Where I Was Born. Nettel is obviously a good writer (and I’m still interested in taking a look at her short stories, which might well be a better format for her style), but I’m not sure this really works as well as it should. It will have its supporters, and there are many positive reviews out there, but (sadly) it just wasn’t for me. Of course, if you have a different view, let me know 😉