The Body Where I Was Born, by Guadalupe Nettel intrigued me for a number of reasons. I came across it when it was longlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, and liked the blurb; and then I discovered that UWAP (University of Western Australia Press) had the rights to publish it in Australia. I was a bit puzzled by that. UWAP (as far as I can tell from their website) doesn’t publish much in the way of translated fiction – why this book, I wondered?
I suspect now that I know the answer. It may be on a literature reading list for some lucky students…
When I was at university, I was introduced to Kafka with his novella The Metamorphosis, in which the central character Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find that he has been transformed into a large insect, never named but (especially if read in the original German, apparently) clearly verminous. Most illustrators depict it as a monstrous cockroach. There is no explanation for the cause of the metamorphosis; the novella is about how Gregor and his family adapts to it.
The Body Where I Was Born is a feminist rewriting of Kafka’s novella. It is said to be autobiographical in the sense that it covers events in Nettel’s life, both public (such as the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City) and private (such as their sojourn in France). It shows how she responded to the traumas of her young life by developing a tough carapace to shield herself from betrayal and attack. The novella also explores her sense of being an outsider; of having a disability – a congenital cataract in one eye, (which alerts the reader to the suggestion that this is a one-eyed account); and of her discovery of writing as a form of vengeance.
…my mother called. She always manages to call at the worst times.
“I was up all night, thinking about your famous novel. You know I can sue you for slander?”
Later, at around eleven-thirty, my brother Lucas, who almost always ignores my calls because he’s so busy, rang my cell phone while I keeping busy watering the moribund plants in my study.
“Mom’s already told me about your autobiography.” After that he let out a kind of chuckle, adding, “Even though she hasn’t read it, she says she’ll take you to court for defamation.”
“Of course she hasn’t read it! I haven’t even started writing it.”
“Don’t worry. I calmed her down by telling her to be patient and wait for the movie version. I told her, you never know, it could make a fortune.”
I set the watering can on the ground and hung up the phone. For the first time in over a year and a half, I sat down at the computer to write with gusto, determined to make this ‘famous novel’ a reality. I would finish it even if I was sued or whatever else. It would be a short and simple account. I wouldn’t tell anything I didn’t believe to be true. (p. 166)
The novella takes the form of a narrative from a psychiatrist’s couch. It traces the emergence of the narrator’s metamorphosis into indestructibility, yet the subject being in therapy suggests that she is perhaps not as indestructible as she says she is. She wants to identify as a cockroach, tough and resilient:
I identified fully with the main character in The Metamorphosis, since what happened to him was something similar to what had happened to me. One morning, I too woke up with a different life, a different body, not knowing what it was I had turned into. 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. (p.81)
But she also identifies with the trilobite, an ancient arthropod that flourished at the bottom of the sea for millions of years – until its extinction 250 million years ago. Now it is known to us only through the fossil record.
I knew better than anyone that to survive in environments like my school, you needed a strong dose of courage and dignity, and the slightest affront to that dignity was worth defending with your life. In their own way, they [the other students] were trilobites too. (p.146)
Her identification with other creatures begins when she is a child and her mother, determined to correct her posture, nicknames her ‘Cucaracha’ (cockroach) because of her habit of curling into a shell. When she is abandoned by her parents and offloaded to her grandmother, her life changes dramatically from an ultra-liberal childhood to strict disciplinarianism, and a squashed caterpillar inside her shoe represents the way her freedom to discover her sexuality is being squashed.
The Body Where I Was Born has an unusual tone: in times (especially in the latter part of the book) it reads like an adolescent slanging off at everybody in the usual ‘nobody understands me’ way; and at other times it is a lament for the childhood she never had. These parents experimented on their children:
Among the strange policies my parents imposed was one about never lying to us. This was an absurd decision, from my point of view, which they were able to commit to for years, but only on a handful of not-so-essential fronts, including the way babies were made, the uselessness of religion, and Santa Clause, in whom we were never allowed to believe. (p.16)
Another of my family’s self-determining policies was to give us a sexual education free of taboos. This was mostly carried out through an open and occasionally excessively candid dialogue on the subject, but also through allegorical tales. (p.18)
The retelling of this mother’s version of Sleeping Beauty is droll, but there is a sense that the child is more mature than the parent.
Just as I found my discovery of Kafka exciting, I think students today would enjoy unpacking this intriguing novella. There are issues of class, ethnicity, language, exile, female agency and more to explore.
The Body Where I Was Born was longlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Do check out Charlotte Whittle’s thoughts in Three Percent’s Why This Book Should Win series.
Author: Gaudalope Nettel
Title:The Body Where I Was Born
Translated by J. T. Lichtenstein
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press) 2015
Review copy courtesy of UWAP