All the busy little creatures
Winner of the 2013 Ribera del Duero Short Fiction Award, Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel’s short story collection Natural Histories—her first body of work to appear in English translation—subtly explores the often overlooked spaces where human nature and animal instinct overlap, reminding us that we have more in common with our domesticated friends and their wild brethren then perhaps we’d like to admit.
The volume opens with The Marriage of the Red Fish, a slowly building stunner that finds a well-educated pregnant woman navigating the troubled waters of co-habitation with a less than thoughtful male partner. “Fish are the only domesticated animals that don’t make noise. But they taught me that screams can be silent” the nameless narrator writes as she becomes obsessed with studying the violent mating rituals of her pet betta fish. The female appears boxed in, with no means of escape, destined to eventually give away that which she seeks to protect in the name of reproduction. How did she end up in this predicament? How can she possibly defend herself from her aggressor? Better question: How did the woman that’s become fixated on her aquatic struggle wind up in a similar situation? Housebound, pregnant, trapped in a marriage that clearly isn’t working, but one that was created by her own power to do that which her female fish counterpart cannot: make decisions that directly impact her fate. Slowly, their two conflicts seem to meld into one, as the females of each species begin sharing traits that are meant to ensure their mutual survival. But getting out their respective relationships unscathed—both physically and emotionally—won’t be the cards for either of them.
In the collection’s most darkly unsettling piece, War in the Trash Cans, Nettel takes our fears, superstitions, and anxieties around creepy crawly insects and turns them on their head. Here she introduces us to a young boy that’s been forced to live with his aunt and cousins while his mother is away getting help for herself. Poor and thrust into this strange new uncertain environment—one of affluence and of servants—he struggles to integrate himself-that is until the cockroaches arrive and attempt to overrun the household. Nothing brings a family together like a challenge, and the bugs help everyone, the boy, the aunt, his cousins, their live-in help, to break down class divides, throw aside racists stereotypes, and work together as a team to eradicate the pesky critters. How sweet is the taste of victory? You’ll have to read it to believe it.
It’s Fungus, the fourth story of the five collected here, that is the standout prize of the collection. With meticulous attention to detail Nettel documents the rise and fall of a love affair and the residual effects it has on those who participated in it. Long after the relationship has run it’s course, this forbidden love is still alive and well…and growing on both the man and the woman who still harbor strong feelings for one another. What’s the cure for an itch you can’t scratch? Perhaps an itch of a different kind can fill the void of a love that’s lost, but not easily forgotten.
Beautifully translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein Natural Histories delivers everything you want from a short story collection. Guadalupe Nettel’s storytelling power is majestic. With an unflinching eye, time and time again, she drives readers on an exploratory safari into the heart of human nature. Funny, touching, terrifying, horrific and/or sad-you never know what you’ll find when you tentatively set out in search of potential dangers, but one thing is abundantly clear: safe in her skilled hands, each journey holds the promise of being a life changing event.
By Guadalupe Nettel
Translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein
Seven Stories Press