The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

The Body Where I was Born BY Guadalupe Nettel. Seven Stories Press. Hardcover, 208 pages. $22.
The cover of The Body Where I was Born

“I was born with a white beauty mark, or what others call a birthmark, covering the cornea of my right eye,” an unnamed female narrator states at the outset of Guadalupe Nettel’s autobiographical novel, The Body Where I Was Born. The spot, she describes, “stretched across my iris and over the pupil through which light must pass to reach the back of the brain.” And so, “in the same way an unventilated tunnel slowly fills with mold, the pupillary blockage led to the growth of a cataract.”

Thus begins a remarkable exploration into sight and the perceptions of childhood. Nettel, a talented Mexican writer who has been named one of the Bogota 39—one of the most promising young Latin-American writers under the age of thirty-nine—has called the novel’s narrator “I, myself.”

From the vantage of adulthood, on a psychoanalyst’s couch, she peers into her past, relitigating the bounds of normativity, the expectations of family, and the limits of medical science. She recounts how doctors, unable to repair the cataract, prescribed a torturous treatment that her parents took up with a passion, which involved subjecting her “to a series of annoying exercises to develop, as much as possible, the defective eye.” To strengthen it, a patch—a piece of flesh-colored cloth with sticky, adhesive edges—was placed over her other eye, making the world a mess of sounds and smells. Wearing the patch, she had to insert her head daily into a small black box with moving images of animals, a process she describes as agonizing.

The narrator’s younger self exhibits an appealing certitude regarding the injustice of the patch, though she admits, “For some reason I still can’t understand, I never tried to remove it.” The mix of childish compliance (my parents told me to) and preternatural maturity (what’s the point of resistance?) forms the crux of the story’s tension, as the adult narrator uneasily assesses who most deserves her anger—her parents, for trying to fix her, or her younger self, for not being sufficiently rebellious. As a child, her primary strategy for surviving a bad stretch of life is simply to get through it, a mindset that requires her, at least temporarily, to acquit her parents: The day the detested patch finally comes off, she recalls her family celebrating with a stroll through a park “like the normal family we would be … from that point on.”

It’s a somewhat placid point of view that may bemuse readers expecting more untrammeled emotion. But, of course, this strategy of acquittal doesn’t work forever. Dolefully, the grown-up narrator asks, “I want you to tell me plain and simple, Dr. Sazlavski, if a human being can make it out of such a regimen unharmed? And if so, why didn’t I?” Or, as Lucy Grealy describes in Autobiography of a Face, a memoir about the disfiguration of her jaw by cancer, a wound initially can have a “singularity of meaning—I was my face, I was ugliness.” Indeed, how do you elude being defined by physical irregularity—abnormality? And further, how does a corrective, applied so enthusiastically and so early on, change the way you move through the world?

For one, it can give rise to new and unexpected allegiances. The narrator describes feeling an early kinship with cockroaches after reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. “I began to research this species at school and discovered its exclusive pedigree,” she recalls. “Just as Spanish kings descended from the Bourbons, cockroaches descended from the trilobites, the oldest inhabitants of the planet.” Testing human responses to animality isn’t new for Nettel. Her previous book, Natural Histories, includes elegantly crafted stories about a family’s collective response to a cockroach infestation, a woman seeing her disintegrating marriage reflected in a pair of Siamese fighting fish, and a father’s preoccupation with his pet snake—indicating an urge to show the ways in which humans belong to (and might feel less separated from) the animal kingdom.

In Nettel’s new novel, the narrator’s early fixation on the adaptive capacities of undesirable insects extends to the human specimens in her environs. As a child in Mexico City, she quickly intuits a kinship with those of her classmates who are sick, handicapped, or misfit:

I remember a dwarf, a red-headed girl with a cleft lip, a boy with leukemia who left us before elementary school was over, and a very sweet girl who was a paralytic. Together we shared the certainty that we were not the same as the others and that, in fact, we knew this life better than the horde of innocents who in their brief existence had yet to face any kind of misfortune.

Unaffected yet confident, it’s a statement that shifts the balance of power from those people who live oblivious to pain, to those whose existence is predicated on pain. To see or sense what others cannot (“we knew this life better”) creates an almost magical sense of freedom and responsibility. “I trained to see with the same discipline others use to prepare for futures as professional athletes,” the narrator says. In this way, pain acts as a sharpener for perception, the radar that helps her identify herself and others who are experiencing something similar.

One day, unable to sleep, she takes up a pair of binoculars and finds that “in a marvelous symmetry, there was another girl observing the world from her window with a face as unhappy as mine must have been.” An example of the sort of mirroring short-story writer Julio Cortazar, whom Nettel admires, often employed to weave the fantastic into daily life, the two girls thereafter come nightly to their windows and look at each other until one or the other goes to bed. Their silent bond is one of shared pain: The girl’s father was slain by Pinochet and she had fled Chile with her family and come to Mexico. It’s a relationship “so profound that it surpassed spatial and temporal limits.”

Tellingly, it’s in the narrator’s feelings for her younger self that we see a more troubled form of empathy: the frustration and defiance that she didn’t express as a child. Leslie Jamison, in her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” writes that the danger of a wound is that it “can sculpt selfhood in a way that limits identity rather than expanding it—​that obstructs one’s vision of others’ suffering rather than sharpening empathic acuity.” Similarly, Nettel’s narrator, while once uncannily able to mind-meld with other underdogs (cockroaches, misfit classmates, neighborhood girls), at one point puts her younger self on trial, questioning whether there is in the “defeatism” and “complacency” of her early years “a foreboding of all my present pathologies.”

It’s in such moments that the reader’s fealty may be tested. Because would the child agree with the charge of complacency, if she were given the narrator’s microphone? Nettel has said that as a child, her mother nicknamed her cucaracha, or cockroach, for having a hunched over posture, an anecdote of maternal harshness that appears in the new novel. “If someone calls you something in a certain way, especially your own mother, you end up identifying with that name,” she said once in an interview. Of course, the upshot is that even the most unflattering of nicknames can grow into a studied interest. Or, as Nettel put it, “I simply assumed that I was a cockroach and so those creatures started to become interesting to me.”

That reads as a radical realignment abetting survival, rather than complacency. But don’t be too quick to judge such mislabeling: Nettel’s narrator does slowly evolve, aiming “to inhabit the body where I was born, in all its peculiarities.” Because as she ultimately realizes, to reject the rules for acceptance created by the world, or by your family, is—maddeningly, at long last—to refuse to reject yourself.

Jane Yong Kim is an editor at Al Jazeera America.