Saturday, 2 January 2016

Guadalupe Nettel (almost) writing herself

Full title: The Body Where I Was Born
Author: Guadalupe Nettel, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 208 pages, paperback
Publisher: Seven Stories Press (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The Body Where I Was Born (with a title borrowed from Allen Ginsberg) proposes a simple, fairly linear story, but with a complex narrative agenda. (Hence my focus on only a handful of features. Plenty more remain to be discovered, interpreted, or simply invented, as the needs of the reader may be.)
The book is a bildungsroman, and that’s enough said. All there is to it: a young girl, and her life in Mexico, interrupted by a period spent in France, where she and her younger brother have to accompany their mother, enrolled as a doctoral candidate in Aix-en-Provence. Simple, straightforward.
The text is constructed in line with the rules of autobiography, and that tinge of self-writing is quite appealing to a reader whose interests lie in the factual aspects of fiction. The narrator herself is a woman who recounts her younger age growing up in ever-shifting circumstances. She experiences seismic transformations, from uprooting to up-growing, and from being left without a father to being left without a country (an “untouchable,” as she calls herself at some point). That’s why references to the infamous earthquake of 1985, which transformed Mexico City itself, come as no surprise (a real seism from a world overwhelmed by its reality).
Often in the novel events make room for reflections and generalizations. The idea of continuous transformation (an essential feature of any bildungsroman and, therefore, of this one) features prominently among these reflections.
“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.”
The editing of memories is an important issue in this novel. It being a largely autobiographical text, setting the record straight about expurgations is a necessary task.

Guadalupe Nettel. Source: Minima et Moralia
The task is also made necessary by the fact that the novel tells the story of a book about to be written. The narrator, a writer with a bad case of writer’s block, recounts the events of her life to an invisible psychoanalyst addressed sporadically under the name of Doctor Sazlavski. This is important! The sessions with the doctor gather up as only a series of oral confessions. What we are reading (the text of The Body Where I Was Born) is material that hasn’t been written down. What the narrator struggles with is the task of starting work on the novel that will contain all the events she has been reporting to Doctor Sazlavski. You see what a Tristram-Shandyesque enterprise this is: a book telling the story of a book that hasn’t been written and of events that haven’t left the privacy of confession. Reading The Body Where I Was Born is, for this reason, like gaining access to inexistent knowledge.
To tantalize the reader even further, due to the same autobiographical element, the protagonist is conceived among real events and real people. As a writer with certain connections among the writers’ guild, she encounters recognizable figures. She meets Alejandro Zambra in Santiago de Chile, Octavio Paz in Paris, and a host of other Mexican writers and artists. Given this aspect, the question “Who is Doctor Sazlavski?” becomes a red herring that plays on the reader’s nerves. I wonder if there’s any connection between this almost-real doctor and the famous Marcelo Chiriboga, the made-up novelist of the Latin-American Boom, who features in the works of José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, or Eloy Urroz. In those books, the technique is similar: a fictional character evolves among real persons and so he too takes up the features of a real person. The hint injects a necessary element of doubt in the very midst of autobiography, and thus the novel becomes a territory of exploration where no firm footing can be said to exist.
To give the narrative even more weight, Nettel inserts numerous references to literary texts. To mention just a few:
About the last in the list: the situation described in Eréndira (a girl forced into prostitution by her grandmother tries by various means to kill the evil grannie) matches perfectly the situation of the narrator in The Body. The parallel is pointed out in one of the psychoanalytic sessions:
“Doctor, this discovery, as exaggerated as it sounds, was like meeting a guardian angel, or at least a friend I could trust, which was, in those days, equally unlikely. The book understood me better than anyone in the world and, if that was not enough, made it possible for me to speak about things that were hard to admit to myself, like the undeniable urge to kill someone in my family.”
It’s from the same relationship with this invisible psychoanalyst that other symbolic aspects are revealed throughout the novel. For instance, the narrator suffers from an eye disease which forces her to wear a patch throughout her childhood. Like a Cyclops, or even better – like a spy –, she develops a taste for voyeuristic pleasures.
“Our apartment was in a building complex, and our neighbors’ windows offered an almost limitless menu. The magnification of my binoculars wasn’t very powerful, but it was enough to see close-up what went on in our vicinity. I don’t know if it’s what my parents had in mind, but for me the binoculars were a kind of compensation for all the time they had limited my sight with the patch. Thanks to this marvelous instrument, for years I was able to enter the homes of others and to observe things to which nobody else had access.”
This “entering the homes of others” is the job of a novelist, is it not? It’s either the narrator or Guadalupe Nettel herself who takes advantage of this ability to peer into the lives of others while, at the same time, giving readers a glimpse of what their own lives might be.
All in all, this juggling game, in which certainties and uncertainties take their turns in dominating the front stage, makes the novel more than interesting, the story more than believable.