Natural Histories – Guadalupe Nettel (translated by J.T. Lichenstein)

I have been involved in Women In Translation Month since its inception three years ago and each year I plan ahead my potential reading titles for the month, this year electing to stay with the Spanish language translations and primarily from Central or South American nations. After Diamela Eltit’s difficult experimental work from Chile and the feminist short stories of Inés Arredondo from Mexico I thought a further stay in Mexico would be beneficial and over the course of this week I will look at the short stories from Guadalupe Nettel and a recent novel by Laia Jufresa, both Mexican writers receiving a lot of current press, before finally ending the week by heading back to Chile and the approachable novel “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano. All of these works a lot more “commercial” than the books I generally read and review here.
“Natural Histories” is a collection of five short stories, described on the back cover as unfolding “in fragile worlds, where animal behaviours parallel the ways in which human beings interact”. Or in other words each of the stories feature a protagonist and an animal theme, fighting fish, cockroaches, cats, fungi and snakes are the five themes that exist and interact alongside the narrative.
The collection opens with “The Marriage of the Red Fish” where the actions of a couple, expecting the birth of their first child, mirror the activity of the fighting fish they have recently been given and have moved into a large tank, the action drifts along like the fish themselves;
We first placed the fish on a small corner table in the living room where the afternoon sun fell. We thought they cheered up the room, which faced the patio behind our building, with the quick movements of their fins and tails. I don’t know how many hours I must have spent watching them. A month earlier I had requested maternity leave from the law office where I worked to prepare for the birth of my daughter. It wouldn’t be forever, and it wasn’t uncommon, but still it troubled me. I didn’t know what to do at home. The too-many empty hours filled me with questions about my future.
Meanwhile the couple’s behaviour starts to become territorial, they start antagonising each other;
I always kept an eye on them whenever I was home, as if with that look, severe and exact, an imminent confrontation could be averted. I of course felt solidarity with her. I could feel her fear and her anxiety at being cornered, feel her need to hide. Fish are perhaps the only domestic animals that don’t make noise. But they taught me that screams can be silent. Vincent adopted an ostensibly more neutral position, betrayed nonetheless by the humorous comments he dropped now and again: “What’s wrong with the female? Is she against reproduction?” or “Keep calm, brother, even if you’re getting impatient. Remember that laws today are made by and for women.”
Although the longest story in the collection, this is a simple story of family antagonism and breakdown, an ordinary tale that you know is not going to end well, if it is to follow the lives of fighting fish put into the same tank!!! A story that is unsettling, because as a reader you understand the fate of the narrator before the inevitable happens.
“War in the Trash Cans” is a tale of an unwelcomed niece living a façade of the suburban “American” style dream, set to the backdrop of invading cockroaches.
“Felina”, follows the more traditional domestic animal and the cycle of a cat’s pregnancy;
The ties between animals and human beings can be as complex as those that bind us people. There are some who maintain bonds of reluctant cordiality with their pets. They feed them, they take them for walks if need be, but rarely do they speak to them other than to scold or “educate” them. In contrast, there are others who make of their turtles their closest confidants. Every night they lean in towards their tanks and tell them about what happened to them at work, the confrontation they put off with their boss, their doubts, and their hopes for love. Among domestic animals dogs get particularly good press. It is even said that they are man’s best friend because of their loyalty and nobility, words that often signify nothing more than a tolerance for abuse and abandonment.
“Fungus”, as the title implies, is a story of parasites, bodily growths and love, “my fungus wants one thing only: to see you again.” there is attraction but also rejection, “eradicating a fungus can be as complicated as ending an unwanted relationship.”
The collection ends with “The Snake from Beijing”, where a married man, a famous playwright, who although French was adopted when he was two years old. After returning to China for a theatre production of one of his works, he returns home a changed man.  He secludes himself in a pagoda and buys a pet venomous snake.
This collection is very straight forward in the metaphoric and allegorical telling of the stories and very approachable and is written in a readable candid style, unlike some works I have recently read, there is no complex layer upon layer of deciphering to be done – for example, if a snake is shedding its skin, the human character is also being reborn. It was refreshing to read a short collection of stories that didn’t require an in-depth knowledge of the political landscape, so a decent work for readers wanting to dip their toes into the world of translated literature without becoming overawed.

Does it make me want to leap on the “to be read pile” and grab her latest novel “The Body Where I Was Born”? Not really, although I will probably get to it before the end of the month, a longlist candidate for this year’s “Best Translated Book Award” means it was on the pile for a number of reasons (not just Women In Translation Month).
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