The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel (tr. J.T. Lichtenstein). Seven Stories Press. $22.95, 176 pp.
Most of us don’t know much, even into our thirties and forties. In our teens, though, the ratio of what we don’t know vs. what we think we know hovers somewhere around 100 to 1. Adulthood is largely about closing that gap, doing so by learning how to think beyond our immediate experiences, and to empathize with unfamiliar people.
Part of what makes Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born work so well is that, though it’s so autobiographical in nature that its protagonist has the same lazy eye that’s apparent in Nettel’s author photo, the Mexican writer treats herself as a stranger. Nettel’s life seems alien to herself as she tries to recall it accurately, and to convey it diligently to otherss. To a large degree, it’s a novel precisely about this alienness, and the emotional wooziness that can cause. The Body Where I Was Born is then a novel rooted in, but wary of, the memoir form.
That’s true to life. We’ve all looked back at our childhoods and wondered, “Who the hell was that guy?” Those of us who have gone through therapy realize how much we bury our past selves, and how those parts can claw back to the surface in discomforting, confusing ways. In order to see our past selves in our present lives, counseling helps us to see our thoughts and actions from the outside.
So, it makes sense that Nettel’s protagonist—whose basic biographical details match those of the author—tells her story to her therapist, a la Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Nettel informs us, toward the end, how writing—fiction or not—can be a therapeutic act:
I don’t know if I’m fulfilling my goal of sticking to the facts but it doesn’t matter anymore. Interpretations are entirely inevitable and, to be honest, I refuse to give up the immense pleasure I get from making them. Perhaps, when I finally finish it, for my parents and brother this book will be nothing but a string of lies. I take comfort in thinking that objectivity is always subjective.
The heroine gets joy and satisfaction from structuring her life into a narrative that makes sense. That’s what we do in therapy, after all, so that we can heal. But who’s to say what’s true, or if there even is an objective truth? And how objectively does the narrator’s Dr. Sazlavski treat the material that’s been entrusted to him or her? It’s telling that Sazlavski never responds to the protagonist in any way, though our heroine occasionally asks the therapist questions (mostly rhetorical, but still . . .).
There’s a delicious irony here that Nettel understands about psychoanalysis. The lead character reveals so much of herself—physically, emotionally, intellectually, politically—throughout The Body Where I Was Born, so richly and so hilariously, but we never learn her name. And if she doesn’t let us know this basic fact about her, who knows what else she’s hiding or eliding or just plain lying about? She bares herself, warts and all, but keeps something intimate and necessary inside. She has her reasons. After all, she’s doing all this unveiling to a person about whom we as readers never learn anything other than the name. I almost wrote “his” name but that’s a Freudian or sexist slip, for we never even learn Dr. Sazlavski’s gender.
In fact, Sazlavski could be anybody, even us. How different is the reader’s task from that of the analyst? We’re forced to make connections between the disparate parts told to us by the writer. We confront the abstractions of words and the fragments of narrative design. In the same manner, an analyst “reads” his or her patient’s story—in 50-minute increments, payable by check—by noting contradicting elements and emotional flaws, piecing together a narrative whole from necessarily incomplete information.
So Nettel slyly tells us her story as a sort of therapy, while simultaneously critiquing the idea of therapy. It’s a memoir that doesn’t trust the form, that pokes at it—and at the delusions of thinking of literature as self-help for writers and readers alike.
In short, it’s a novel, one with a piercing, funny story to tell. The first sentences put us on alert, to be, ahem, cockeyed about how Nettel employs the conventions of the confessional:
I was born with a white beauty mark, or what others call a birthmark, covering the cornea of my right eye. That spot would have been nothing had it not stretched across my iris and over the pupil through which light must pass to reach the back of the brain.
At an early age, to correct her defective eye, our heroine must wear an eye-patch for half a day . . . over the good eye. It’s the equivalent of strength exercises for ocular movement, which sounds good in theory but means this in practice:
With the patch, I had to go to school, identify my teachers and the shapes of my school supplies, come home, eat, and play for part of the afternoon. At around five o’clock, someone would come to say it was time to take it off, and with these words I would return to the world of clarity and precise shapes. The people and things around me suddenly changed. I could see far into the distance and would become mesmerized by the treetops and infinite leaves that composed them, the contours of the clouds in the sky, the tint of the flowers, the intricate pattern of my fingertips. 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.
Here, and throughout the novel, Nettel’s writing matches her sentiments. The first half of the paragraph lacks detail and is blunt—“come home, eat, and play”—while the second half, once vision is restored, is intense in its sensory focus. The Body Where I Was Born vacillates between opacity and precision, emulating the ways in which adolescence seems at once crisp and vague, shot through with our own sharp sight but blurred by received notions from our parents, peers, families, friends, and enemies.
The narrator of The Body Where I Was Born spends most of the novel untangling the perceived from the received. She’s received a lot, most of it conflicting. Her parents are post–Baby Boomers, trying to reinvent the rules of marriage and parenthood—our unnamed narrator calls it “the highly experimental way our parents confronted adulthood.” Sexually, morally, and politically, everything’s up in the air in the Mexico City of the 1970s and ’80s in which our heroine is raised. Then, her father disappears (or, really, is disappeared) for a time, and Mom moves the family to rural France just as our heroine hits puberty.
Thinking about how Nettel narrates adolescence, and why it works better than most YA fiction I’ve read recently, I flashed on something a piano teacher friend told me recently. She said that the kids she instructs love post-apocalyptic books, from The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner series through The Walking Dead, because “to them, everything is the end of the world.” Nettel captures exactly how that intensity feels at age sixteen, how every small event can resonate with apocalyptic tension, but she narrates it through the gimlet eye of adulthood.
This means that genuinely big events don’t get lost within teenage melodrama. The Body Where I Was Born is concerned deeply with the aesthetics, morals, and politics of the age, not just of a singular individual. Nettel’s ’70s and ’80s were the height of the culture wars—the ideological fistfights over how the revolutions of 1968, the OPEC crisis, and the Vietnam War would be remembered. All of this roils within Nettel’s novel, and her heroine can’t help but comment on it.
And what a voice this novel’s narrator has—bone-dry in her wit and wisdom, unsparing about her failures, sexy and smart in her asides. (For this, we should also credit J.T. Lichtenstein, who translated both this novel and Nettel’s short story collection, Natural Histories, with deftness and blunt clarity.) Our heroine understands the nuances of social relationships between kids, between kids and adults, between adults and their parents. It’s a broad view that allows for class politics and gender studies. She makes allusions to things that were created before she was born, to the history and acres of life beyond what she could possibly know intimately. She’s equally adept in describing her father’s prison term and the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that killed 5,000 people, and connects those two things adroitly and heartbreakingly. For all the laughs and sharp critique, Nettel never forgets to fold the macro into the micro and, in doing so, breaks our hearts wide open.
Walter Biggins is a writer and book editor based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in Glide Magazine, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, PopMatters, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals.
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