“The Body Where I Was Born” by Guadalupe Nettel [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Charlotte Whittle, translator, and editor at Cardboard House Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)
Guadalupe Nettel’s unsettling autobiographical novel, which follows on the success of her story collection Natural Histories, recounts the disorienting childhood of a girl coming to terms with living in her own skin. From the psychoanalyst’s couch, the narrator recalls a youth marked by trauma and displacement, and details the magnified perceptions and small-scale metamorphoses of her coming of age. The Body Where I Was Born is a story of a girl learning to inhabit a body, and of how the body inhabits its surroundings. In her exploration of this process of becoming, the author trains her gaze on the uncomfortable discoveries of youth many of us would prefer to forget. Nettel’s prose is elegant yet unadorned, and her translator, J.T. Lichtenstein, has preserved the book’s matter-of-fact and sometimes deadpan tone in her skillful rendering of the novel.
Born with a birthmark on her cornea, the young Guadalupe is subjected to a series of corrective treatments and forced to wear an eye patch the color of her skin. This gives her the uncanny appearance of having only one eye, making her classmates “curious and uncomfortable,” and initiating Guadalupe into her status as an outsider. The treatment regimen also involves exposure to black light: “for this, my parents built a wooden box that my small head fit into perfectly, then they lit it up. In the background, like a primitive cinemascope, drawings of animals went around and around: a deer, a turtle, a bird, a peacock.” The image anticipates Guadalupe’s withdrawal into her own world, where animals will become her protective totems.
In a defensive gesture, Guadalupe grows hunched and turns in on herself. Critical of her posture, her mother nicknames her “Cucaracha.” Partly as a result of this, Guadalupe comes to identify with the kingdom of insects, creatures that provoke the same mix of curiosity and revulsion she feels she causes in others. This process of identification reveals Nettel’s interest—also visible in Natural Histories—in the distasteful and beastly aspects of existence, those from which we might prefer to look away. Guadalupe’s cold, distant grandmother, with whom she is forced to live after her parents abandon her, banishes her from lunch “exactly how one might throw an undesirable insect outside so as to not have to squash it in front of guests.” Around the time of her first stirrings of sexual desire, Guadalupe sees in the mirror “something similar to the caterpillar found dead in my shoe.” Even as she discovers the latent potentialities of her young body, she creates an “alternative geography” for herself, recognizing that “I really did resemble the cockroaches that travel through the marginal spaces and buried pipes of buildings.” It is fitting then that Guadalupe reads Kafka, and recognizes her kinship with Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis: “Nowhere in the story does it say exactly what kind of insect Gregor Samsa was, but I quickly gathered it was a cockroach. He had turned into one; I was one by maternal decree, if not by birth.” Guadalupe’s identification with the indestructible cockroach and with the ancient trilobite places her within a tribe of tough-shelled survivors.
While Guadalupe’s narrative is profoundly intimate and personal, it is also punctuated by far-reaching events that marked the era of her childhood. She grows up surrounded by members of the diaspora prompted by a series of Latin American dictatorships. Recalling the Villa Olímpica where she lived, built in 1968 to accommodate athletes and journalists attending the Olympics, Guadalupe associates it with the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco on the eve of that same event. And in 1985, she and her mother watch in shock as a Mexico City in ruins, after the earthquake that killed thousands, appears on the television in their living room in Aix-en-Provence.
A child of the 1970s, Guadalupe is subjected to experimental practices typical of the decade. She attends a Montessori school, and witnesses her parents’ flirtations with open relationships, communal living, and the predictive capacities of the I Ching. But despite their apparently liberated mindset, her parents are still conditioned by the mores of their own childhoods, and subject to curious blind spots and inconsistencies in their parenting ethos. When, after years of insisting that no truth should be withheld from their children, Guadalupe’s father disappears, it takes years for Guadalupe to discover the truth of his whereabouts.
One of the book’s most memorable episodes concerns the silent communication between Guadalupe and Ximena, daughter of exiles from Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In a ritual of “marvelous symmetry” the two girls see each other from their windows and each recognizes the other in her isolation; they return to their respective windows night after night to quietly watch one another. It is as if each had found in the other a companion to share the quiet, intuited truths of their afflictions. But while Ximena sets fire to herself and escapes “once and for all from the cage of her life,” Guadalupe is already on her way to developing the cockroach-like carapace that will shield her.
The novel’s epigraph “I always wanted / to return / to the body / where I was born,” from Allen Ginsberg’s “Song” is borne out in the final sequence, in which the eye surgery Guadalupe’s mother has been planning is ultimately deemed unsafe: returning from the journey, Guadalupe accepts her body and the marks it bears, saying: “my eyes and my vision were the same but I saw differently: . . . I decided to inhabit the body where I was born, in all its peculiarities.”
The Body Where I Was Born captures the alienation of a childhood spent in solitude, and is a powerful testimony of a woman claiming her agency and her place in the world. In its measured, incisive prose, the small incidents of adolescence carry as much weight as the global, political events that frame them. We are thus invited to witness the evolution of a hardened, resilient self that wears its wounds like stamps of survival: “these tattoos and scars we add with our personality and convictions, in the dark, by touch, as best we can, without direction or guidance.” Nettel’s complex, probing testimony of survival and Lichtenstein’s deft translation make The Body Where I Was Born a strong contender for the BTBA.