“All animals know what it is they need, except for man.” We may not care to admit it, but it is difficult to argue with such a resonant statement on human nature—or, at least, this is what we’re compelled to believe after reading Guadalupe Nettel’s Natural Histories.
The book’s title, as well as the quote above, which serves as an epigraph for the text, come from Pliny the Elder. The naturalist and author from Ancient Roman times posited in his “Naturalis Historia” that humans are essentially an oddity in the realm of zoology. Whereas for other creatures, both large and small, self-preservation is an inherent part of their makeup, we two-legged beasts find spectacular ways to sabotage our own well-being.
It is this dark fact of existence that Nettel explores in her own “Natural Histories.” In each of her five short stories, Nettel places humans under the microscope and examines them at their most fragile and desperate. Her findings work largely to unsettle the reader: As her protagonists undergo emotional stress, we observe them crack under pressure and give into their baser instincts—however surreal those instincts may appear be, such as cultivating fungal infections on purpose.
Natural Histories—for which Nettel won the 2013 Ribera del Duero Short Fiction Award—is her first book to be published in English. Prior works, including her collection of short stories Petalos and her novel El huésped, have established her as one of the foremost new Mexican writers.
What is so beguiling about Natural Histories is that, despite the often grotesque oddities of the characters, their actions remain relatable to readers. This sense of normalcy—or at least of suspended acceptance—comes from Nettel’s decision to prime her audience with animal versions of her characters. Their choices, no matter how bizarre, are informed and foreshadowed by their varying furry, scaly, or fungal counterparts.
In one story, the protagonist takes on the persona of a fungus as she grieves the loss of a love affair that has largely run its course. She keeps herself hidden from sight unless sought for in the dark corners of her apartment, infesting the life of her sometimes lover with her incessant need for more.
The character’s emotions are understandable. Her perverse attachment to her own fungal infection—a venereal disease, begot of her love affair, with which she feels solidarity—is less comprehensible.
Yet Nettel’s protagonists despite these striking, odd personality traits, can appear startlingly normal. That’s not to say that Natural Histories does not succeed in disturbing the reader. In fact, it is this acceptance of the strange—of the animal in each of us—that sets the book on its edge. For if we as third-party observers can understand the ease with which these characters revert to their baser instincts, even in the slightest degree, then what does that say about us?
The protagonist in “Fungus” explains our attention-seeking impulses succinctly:
“Parasites—I understand this now—we are unsatisfied beings by nature. Neither the nourishment nor the attention we receive will ever be enough. The secrecy that ensures our survival often frustrates us.”
Nettel’s other characters similarly have epiphanies with the help of their animal complements. In “The Marriage of a Red Fish,” a young woman witnesses the crumbling of her marriage through the lens of a pair of Siamese fighting fish, whose perilous cohabitation reflects in the actions of the husband and wife. “War in the Trash Cans” sees a young man relate to a cockroach in the face of his parents’ divorce, while the protagonist of “Felina” comes to terms with her miscarriage by observing her cat’s relationship with her kittens. “The Snake from Beijing” demonstrates that not all serpents are as poisonous as they may seem: As our lead character watches his father’s obsession with a pet snake take precedence over his family, it is revealed that the real danger does not slither, but walks on two feet—the father’s infatuation with a woman miles away is the real cause for worry.
Nettel’s prose is precise. Perhaps because of Pliny’s influence—his own “Naturalis Historia” is structured as an encyclopedia—her protagonists seem to be recounting the details of a science experiment. The clinical—sometimes stilted, but always tense—tone of the text suppresses the characters even further, making the stories more heartbreaking, and difficult, to read. This is a credit to Nettel as much as it is to J. T. Lichtenstein, her translator, who has captured the dark and forbidding quality of Nettel’s work without losing the characters’ sympathetic qualities. They yearn for understanding, pulling on a tender chord in readers, yet we are kept at arm’s length. It feels, in fact, like we are on the other side of a terrarium observing the lives of these creatures Nettel puts forth for our assessment.