SEPTEMBER 24, 2018
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Guadalupe Nettel’s work while hopelessly lost in a rainstorm in Mexico City when I blundered into a quiet, cozy bookstore and took up El cuerpo en que nací (2011). I bought it for the romance of the title but, my Spanish being rusty, I tracked down J. T. Lichtenstein’s 2015 English translation, The Body Where I Was Born, upon returning to the States so I could fully comprehend what Nettel was about. Those authors one begins reading by coincidence often end up having the most profound influence — the seemingly random interaction of literature and fate produces a magic too powerful to ignore, especially for a reader who is also a writer. With each discovery of another work of Nettel’s in English — most recently After the Winter, first published as Después del invierno by Anagrama in 2014 and now with a translation by Rosalind Harvey put out by Coffee House Press — I’ve fallen ever further under the spell of this unusual writer, who has a powerful range.
It seems at first that After the Winter, which follows two lovers from long before they meet through the years after, departs considerably from Nettel’s earlier obsessions with animals, insects, and the horror of the body. Yet it’s still recognizably Nettelian in its crisp, straightforward sentences that build and build until profundity, or profound sentiment, sneaks up on the reader:
The body disappears, and with it its routine, its needs, and yet a myriad of traces do remain. The emotions that have evolved for years continue to float in the air: rage, frustration, and helplessness and tenderness, too. All of these things are like hard, mineral claws discernible beyond the gravestones. It is no accident that the graves are so different from one another. Not even the niches are the same. They are tarnished unevenly. One will have grease stains by the epitaph; on another moss will be growing; on a third the marble will look more polished, intact. Death has its ironies, too: the things one would rather banish are what remain, while what one would like to preserve is fast forgotten.
This reverie is from Cecilia, whom the novel tracks through a brief affair with Claudio told in chapters that alternate between the two characters’ voices. Death emerges as an obsession for both parties in After the Winter: Cecilia moves from Mexico to Paris to pursue her studies while living in an apartment that overlooks the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, and Claudio, who lives in Manhattan, suffers flashbacks to his childhood in Cuba, when he discovered his sweetheart’s body after her suicide. Death is a crucial part of life for these characters, who meet while walking the cemeteries of Paris when Claudio is on vacation, and a heightened sense of mortality sticks with them for most of the story.
Claudio, in particular, actively disdains the vivacity and animality of humans — he worships his ascetic New York apartment, cannot abide houseplants, and goes to extreme lengths to avoid the messiness of emotions and relationships, including with Ruth, his casual lover. Her children disgust him, but he enjoys her laconic personality (brought on by the tranquilizers she takes) even though she reminds him of an “ageing mermaid preparing to die on the seashore.” For her part, Cecilia has trouble keeping the body of her other lover, Tom, out of her mind as he moves around in the apartment adjacent to her own. Nettel’s diction in these sections is strangely exacting, each clause bending Tom like a doll to be positioned by Claudia’s imagination on the other side of her bedroom wall: “The fact is that it was impossible not to imagine him standing up, in front of the toilet, as the liquid poured forth in great quantities.”
Mentally and physically ill bodies are everywhere in After the Winter. They are unavoidable, and they extend the preoccupations of Nettel’s previous works available in English. In her story collection Natural Histories, each offering revolves around a different creature through which the protagonist navigates the relationship with his or her body. “Fungus” follows a woman who cultivates a vaginal fungus given to her by a lover, who writes in an email, “My fungus wants one thing only: to see you again.” In “Marriage of the Red Fish,” a pregnant woman transposes her disintegrating relationship with her husband onto a pair of warring betta fish. This story serves as the title to the collection’s Spanish edition, El matrimonio de los peces rojos, and showcases a perfect example of the kind of breakdown Nettel’s characters suffer most often: visceral horror at the changes happening to her body while maintaining a detached attitude toward her torment.
This strategy has been labeled “disembodiment” by some reviewers, who see it as a scrim Nettel places between herself and her readers, most notably in The Body Where I Was Born. In that novel, an autobiographical narrator looks back on a childhood ravaged by her bohemian parents’ impending separation, and as she remembers her struggles with terrible posture and a lazy eye she reveals how such hardships shaped her:
The bodies where we are born are not the same bodies that we leave the world in. I’m not only referring to the infinite number of times our cells divide, but to more distinctive features — these tattoos and scars we add with our personality and convictions, in the dark, by touch, as best we can, without direction or guidance.
For a reader like myself who’s experienced dysphoria and often feels ill at ease inside my body, Nettel’s mission is deeply personal and recognizably urgent. It’s what places her not only within a pantheon of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo who make death and life collide in exceedingly quotidian plots but also within a broader frame of queer literature, even though she has never claimed such a mantle. In everything from Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) to Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955), writers remind us that everyone must deal with the fact of a body and the things that happen to it over a lifetime.
Nettel’s tone may be clinical, but that doesn’t mean it’s detached; sometimes the only way to be intimate with one’s body is to study it, to observe it from a distance and treat it gently, as if it’s a patient. Sometimes, as in Claudio’s case, this is carried to extremes, as he claims on the first page, “All living things inspire in me an inexplicable horror, just as some people feel when they come across a nest of spiders.”
Having had several traumatic experiences in the Cuba of his childhood, Claudio exerts a fastidious control over his body and his environment that ultimately leaves him miserable and isolated. It can be easy to fall into the trap of treating one’s body as a vessel for suffering only. But if the body contains suffering, Nettel seems to be saying through the evolution of Claudio and Cecilia, it can also give birth to contentment, joy, and arousal, all of which would mean little without the threat of death on the horizon. This is what lasts after reading one of her books — and what will likely make her an author whose works last well beyond the body that produces them.