Guadalupe Nettel’s body of work has accumulated the prestige it deserves—most recently, for After the Winter, Nettel won Anagrama’s prestigious Herralde Prize, awarded to an original Spanish novel. She is an author who resists easy classification, and the constant quality and variety of her work has won her the only thing a writer truly needs: the freedom to go on writing whatever she wants. Free of complexes, free of systematic philosophies, of trends and repressive ideologies, free of the need to please, Nettel, who was born in Mexico City and has lived between Mexico and France, has become a compelling example of contemporary Latin American literature.
It’s difficult for me to read Nettel, the author of nine books of fiction and essay, with the distance of a professional critic. I read her with the curiosity of an old friend. I read her with the admiration of a colleague. I try to learn from her sense of freedom and self-assuredness. I like the neat seriousness of her diction, always in such stark contrast to the audacity of the spirit of her prose. I envy how naturally she makes use of language; her resistance to ornamentation and artifice; and the almost stoic fortitude with which she dispenses her profound and penetrating knowledge of human nature. What’s more, in this novel, she has impeccable syntactic control, and her ear is sharper than ever before.
After the Winter is written in two voices: the first belongs to a Mexican student living in Paris, and the second belongs to a Cuban editor based in New York. As tends to be the case with good novels, this one isn’t about anything in particular. Like other books by Nettel, the milieu through which the plot of After the Winter unfolds is a diffuse territory where Latin American, European, and now North American cities overlap. But more than a geographic backdrop, the cities in the novel—Oaxaca and Havana, but most of all Paris and New York—are internalized spaces that the characters struggle against. Rather than functioning as spaces where life unfolds, the cities act as a sort of condition imposed upon life. In this sense, and perhaps only in this sense, After the Winter joins the long tradition of novels about the extraterritoriality of Latin America. This tradition began in the time of Altamirano, in the 19th century, living its golden age in the modernista chronicles of Rubén Darío and its chic decadence during the Latin American Boom. Strange flowers blossomed, too, with writers like Clarice Lispector or Sergio Pitol, before the tradition died in the literature of Roberto Bolaño, only to experience a kind of after-life life through the generation of Bogotá 39.
The true epicenter of After the Winter, both on a metaphoric and concrete level, is a cemetery. The narrator lives opposite the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and, as the novel advances, the cemetery begins to take her over, until she ends up spending entire days amongst the tombstones. “The entire city is an enormous graveyard,” she says at one point. This statement pertains to Paris, but it also serves as a metaphor to consider the territories where so many Latin American novels are written: always on top of our dead.
As a literary culture, we have a relationship with tradition that is almost too difficult. We have a way of always thinking of ourselves from within these problematic constellations, always under the thrall of dead, oppressive stars. Nettel’s masculine narrator encapsulates the more pretentious aspect of this relationship with tradition. Just like the female narrator, he has an inclination for cemeteries and graves. His predilection, however, has more to do with dark tourism: “Claudio was not interested in the dead, but in the cult of writers,” the female narrator says of him rather offhandedly. Through this delicate narrative distance, Nettel takes a step forward with regards to the world laid out by the novel. She knows that she is irrevocably inside the pantheon she has written around herself, but it makes her uncomfortable. She tries to consider it from a distance, and perhaps she disdains it, but in a friendly way.
Her two narrators are “in exile”—voluntary transplants—at a time when Latin American diasporas have more of evasion than subversion about them. In this sense, her narrators are ghosts from another era, drinking from dry streams, reliving an already dead and buried history. Nettel tends not to treat her characters with gratuitous cruelty—she’s not the type of author who considers herself smarter than them—but at the crossroads of her two narrators’ perspectives one can perceive a sincere irritation with the temptation to imagine ourselves as perpetual foreigners: in a country, in a family, in a house, in the body in which we are born.
In formal terms, the novel’s greatest achievement is the slow and patient approaching of two lives—those of her two narrators—that begin to fall apart as soon as they come into contact. In the first half of the novel, Nettel sets out the two personalities that narrate the story with extreme delicacy. They are so solid, peculiar and full of idiosyncrasies that at times they appear to be simply lives taken from a novel, or lives that have been turned into a novel. Later she deconstructs them, and by doing so, humanizes them. What might seem in the first half of the novel a variation on the Nettelian theme of “weird” or “eccentric” or “outsider” figures, in the second half reveals itself as a universe much closer to our everyday normality. What Nettel achieves so thoroughly and with such stealth is the manipulation of the emotional distance between reader and book. As the reader wanders distractedly and witnesses the gradual approach of the two narrators, at last they imprint themselves on each other. The last fifty or sixty pages of the novel, brilliantly written, are a rapid and vertiginous descent towards the only possible ending: what comes after the winter.
This review originally ran as a slightly different version (and in Spanish) in Letras Libres.