Tag Archives: Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

Interview with Guadalupe Nettel, author of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

I recently reviewed Guadalupe Nettel’s new collection, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine, Seven Stories Press, 2020), and this week am delighted to bring you an interview with Guadalupe herself, offering insights into the themes and inspirations for Bezoar.

All of the stories in Bezoar deal with obsessions – from seemingly innocuous ones to those that can take over a life and set it on a different course. Did you deliberately write with this common theme, or is it a coincidence that there are echoes between the various stories?

Bezoar is a personal reflection on beauty, the beauty of anomaly. I’ve always felt drawn to uncommon people. For me, monsters are the absolute incarnation of beauty in its most authentic and most unpredictable form: brave and fragile beings who – whether voluntarily or involuntarily – oppose conventional models. But I didn’t choose characters that are completely out of the ordinary. Rather, I wanted to shine a light on compulsions and obsessions, the perverse tics and characteristics of ordinary people, the people we come across every day, ourselves even. We all have some aspect of our personality that we’d like to hide at any cost. As William Shakespeare said: “We renounce what we are to be what we hope to be.” However, I’m convinced that this thing that we try so hard to keep hidden is the source of our true beauty. I’d like it if in reading these stories, people – especially those who find themselves physically or psychologically repulsive and who are constantly comparing themselves to images of beauty and perfection in the media – started to see themselves differently; I’d like it if these stories made them want to embrace the characteristics that make them unique.

Photo credit: Mely Avila

Many of your narrators and protagonists are outsiders, whose life and experience is characterised by solitude – desired or enforced – and who exist in some way outside of conventional relationships, experience an estrangement from their own bodies, or inhabit their bodies in uncomfortable ways. What made you want to offer these perspectives in particular?

By the age of twenty I knew that I wanted to write about outsiders; about people who stand out from the crowd because of both their physical and psychological characteristics; about the blindness that is always looming over me, creeping up on me; about madness and things that others don’t tend to want to see. Without a doubt I’m an obsessive woman: I brood over my subjects ad nauseum.

Solitude is a theme that has marked my life. The solitude of the teenager, of the patient, the elderly person, the solitude of grief, of abandoned children, of people who, for one reason or another, live on the margins of society, but also the solitude of the many people who live isolated in big cities, without friends or family. I feel deep empathy for people who experience solitude, whether involuntarily or by choice. At the same time, reading is a powerful way to cope with solitude. Sometimes, when we read the right author for us at the right moment of our lives, even if it’s a Japanese writer from the 12th Century, we can feel identified and understood in a way that even our best friend can’t understand us. Fiction opens our minds, it makes us learn about other societies and cultures, imagine places where we haven’t been and like people that we never imagined we would understand. Not to mention past times or the different futures that humanity could face.

Some of the characters are also voyeurs, though not always in a conventional sense, and their voyeurism is very much connected to the cities they inhabit. Were there real people and/ or places that inspired these characters?

All these characters are inspired by friends, people I know, siblings or even myself. The second story, where a girl is spying on her handsome neighbour from the window while he is trying to get in bed with another girl, was inspired by a Cuban friend who taught me how to be a voyeur in NYC. At the beginning I didn’t understand anything I saw in the window, but he taught me how to decipher it: Do you see that vertical line?” He asked. “It’s a curtain. And that horizontal line on the left? The arm of a guitar. The red circles underneath are a woman’s toenails.” Writing is a kind of voyeurism. You start with snippets you overhear, images you see, and then you complete the story.

Of course the origin of these stories was influenced by the cities in which they were written. Some of them were written in the north-east of Paris. The story that opens the book is set near Place Gambetta. It’s about a photographer who specialises in taking pictures of people’s eyelids. A lot of people have asked me how I managed to come up with such an absurd premise, and my answer is always that this person exists or existed in real life.

“Bezoar”, the title story, was written in Barcelona, where I lived for some years, but I didn’t want the place to be too recognisable and so I mixed it up with memories from a recent trip to Portugal. It was inspired by a particularly obsessive period of my childhood when I used to compulsively pull out my hair.

My three stand-out stories from the collection were “Petals”, “Ptosis” and “Bezoar”, all of which feature men who become obsessed with fragile women they want to save, but who they ultimately fail. Was this a deliberate theme that you wanted to explore?

I think that when I wrote these stories I was coming to terms with something which at that point was fundamental and painful for me: no-one can save another person if that person doesn’t want to be saved, and doesn’t give themselves over to being saved, no matter how much love we give them, no matter how much attention, interest or affection we bestow on them. Everyone has their own way of living, and no-one else can interfere with that. On the other hand, often what we consider to be the “right path” might not be the right path for others. In “Ptosis”, the photographer wants the girl to keep conforming to his ideal of beauty, but all she wants is to be like everyone else. Trying to impose a model of beauty or behaviour on someone is an extremely violent act.

The title story is taken from a myth about a healing gemstone that is also a ball of hair. Why did you choose this image/ legend around which to construct a story, or a collection of stories?

It’s a myth that human beings believed in for centuries, and now we find it completely absurd. There are bezoars in the Met Museum in New York, and I imagine in other museums across the world as well. The fact that a ball of hair can be seen as a precious jewel shows that it’s our own imagination that gives objects their value. But what interests me most about this object is what people want from it: an end to their suffering. What does it matter if it’s only a ball of hair, if this stone can bring peace and heal our illnesses or pains? That’s what we’re all ultimately searching for, and I find that very moving.

“Unsettling” is a superb word to describe these stories – I was expecting something possibly supernatural, but they are unsettling precisely because they are only a hair’s breadth away from common realities. Where do you draw inspiration for these stories, and why is it important for you as a writer to “unsettle” or disturb?

As I said earlier, literature opens our minds, but this doesn’t always happen in a gentle and painless way. When we move away from what’s familiar to us, it’s normal to feel some discomfort. I think that if this book is unsettling, it’s because when we talk about how other people are strange, it’s almost impossible not to think about how we are too. Even readers who thought they were completely “normal” realise that they too, or their loved ones, might be a little monstrous and have been trying to hide it their whole life.

How do you cope writing such unsettling stories in the first person? I’m thinking of what it would take to produce creepy phrases such as “I chose to discover women in the only place where they don’t feel observed: bathroom stalls” – is there a single approach that you take, or does it differ between stories?

It comes naturally. All my characters are outsiders in one way or another. When I was a child, I often felt judged and ashamed because my eyes were “abnormal” – I was born with a congenital cataract and other problems in my right eye – and as a result of seeing with just one eye, I moved and behaved differently to other people. So I identify with the figure of the outsider. I don’t think I could bring a character to life if he or she wasn’t in some way a freak.

Were you involved in the translation process? More generally, how does it feel for your work to travel between languages and cultures?

When I can speak and understand it, it always gives me a bit of a shock to read myself in another language, but I find it amazing. To be translated into other languages and to be read by readers from different countries is an immense privilege.

Translation is an extremely delicate process. If it’s bad or careless it can be very damaging. It’s not like a badly subtitled film where you have not only the words but also the mise-en-scène and the acting, and so you can immediately identify incongruities in the translation. In literature, language is everything! Literary translation has to be one of the most difficult and admirable professions going.  If the translation is into a language I understand, like English, I try at least to read the translation and collaborate as much as possible with the translator: answer their questions, deal with any doubts they have, make suggestions and correct potential errors. But I also try to respect their own style and interpretation.

Translation of those sections originally written in Spanish: Helen Vassallo, 2020

 

 

Review: Guadalupe Nettel, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Suzanne Jill Levine (Seven Stories Press, 2020)

This collection of short stories from acclaimed Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel is the second release from the new UK imprint of Seven Stories Press. In it, Nettel blends the familiar with the strange in a body of stories that offer a kaleidoscope of unexpected perspectives: a photographer’s fascination with an overlooked body part becomes a dangerous obsession, an awkward date is observed from the building across the street, a man’s regular visits to his local botanical gardens have devastating consequences for his marriage, an adolescent girl is foiled in her quest for True Solitude, an olfactorist follows the trail of a desperate woman, and a young woman develops a nervous habit that leads her to a mental asylum.

The locations for the stories are disparate – from Mexico to Japan by way of Paris, with some offering no obvious location – and characters are estranged not only from those around them, but also within and from their own bodies. In the opening story, “Ptosis”, a photographer’s fascination with eyelids leads to him becoming the official “before and after” photographer of a leading cosmetic surgeon. Eyes are viewed in close-up throughout this story, in poetic phrases that throb with the threat of permanent damage. People with imbalanced, misshapen or droopy eyelids pass through the photographer’s doors, each looking more “normal” in the second photo shoot until he comes to the disquieting realisation that “if you look closely, especially when you’ve seen thousands of faces amended by the same hand, you discover something atrocious: somehow, they all look the same. As if Dr. Ruellan had imprinted a distinctive mark on each patient, a faint but unmistakeable stamp.” The photographer becomes obsessed with one particular patient, whose imperfect eyelids come to represent the source of her individuality and attraction; his mission then becomes to save his muse from going under Dr Ruellan’s knife. At once an edgy exploration of insecurity and voyeurism and an indictment of homogenised notions of beauty, this is an excellent story to start the collection.

In “Bonsai”, an obsession with botanical gardens and the different plants in a greenhouse drives a wedge between an apparently happily married couple. Taking care of plants is a commitment, says the gardener at the greenhouse, but the narrator finds himself able to care for only one kind of plant – his cactus-like self, rather than his “climbing vine” wife. Once he identifies their plant characteristics, their fundamental incompatibility becomes clear to him: he is an outsider, defensive and prickly, while she has a “quiet way of infiltrating any space and taking possession of my life.” The story is narrated with the biological precision of a botanist, a kind of seemingly scientific observation that is echoed in a more disturbing way in “Petals”. In this story, an olfactorist who observes and analyses the traces women leave behind in bathroom stalls becomes obsessed with a woman he calls La Flor. He identifies La Flor as exceptionally delicate, a woman whose traces indicate an ephemerality and state of decay that bring him to a near-climax: “It was as if her whole life had slipped out from deep inside her. The image struck me as so intense that I had to raise my face for a few seconds to breathe.” It’s deeply and ingeniously uncomfortable how he follows this vulnerable woman, learns about her from the traces she leaves behind in toilet stalls, and arrives at a state of teeth-grinding ecstasy when he is finally present for “the moment of production”, listening to her urinate in a neighbouring stall. This tense and disturbing story was, for me, the stand-out one of the collection (particularly its ending, which I shall leave you to imagine or discover for yourself).

The title story, “Bezoar”, takes its name from a myth about a long-haired woman holding a gemstone. According to this legend, in a faraway place there existed a stone or ball of hair with healing powers – the bezoar. The bezoar was “the remedy for all poisons and also the stone of perfect calm”, and though here it is used to represent the relief felt by a compulsive woman when her compulsion is satisfied, it also stands as a motif throughout all of the stories, in which protagonists search for a sense of calm and fulfilment – which usually remains tantalisingly out of reach, or is realised in a way that is not entirely as they expected or hoped.

The narrator recounts – in a therapy diary that she writes from her room in an asylum – how, as an adolescent, she became obsessed with the hair follicles she observed when she pulled out strands of her hair, and thus began a traumatic lifelong habit of removing entire patches of hair from her scalp: “Like the survivor of a shipwreck, dragged by the whims of the waves, I let myself be swept along by habit. I constantly felt humiliated, victimized by an abuse I inflicted on myself without knowing why.” Rejected by those around her but eventually making a career as a model (which she sabotages by her persistent self-inflicted shedding of locks), she falls in love with the only person she can truly connect with – someone who has an obsession that rules his life in the same way her hair removal governs hers. But he swiftly comes to represent her worst fears, as their co-dependent relationship spirals out of control; as is the case elsewhere in these stories, the tension in the narrative mounts towards a seemingly inescapable climax.

Many of the stories in Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories are about love, or at least about relationships, but always from a perspective of subversion or alienation. “Unsettling” is the perfect word to use in the title of the collection, but the stories are not unsettling because of any dabbling in supernatural or horrific subjects. Rather, they are unsettling because they are only a whisper away from very recognisable situations, and reveal how uncomfortably close any one of us might be to enacting or being on the receiving end of the variously defensive, pitiful or harmful behaviour of Nettel’s protagonists. That the stories are narrated in the first person makes this even more unsettling: we are invited to view events from the perspective of disturbed and often disturbing individuals, outsiders who maintain a delicate balance between beauty and depravity. In terms of form, the stories are very well contained and developed. Nettel is judicious with her use of words (in both precision and quantity), and the translation by Suzanne Jill Levine is appropriately spartan and evocative (I think my favourite line of the translation was this: “my mother ran about from one end of the room to the other like a fly looking for an escape route and smashing against the windows instead”). There is a consistency in the translation, which I imagine mirrors a consistency in the original, for using reserved, almost detached language, avoiding anything theatrical or too emotional. This is an unsettling collection indeed, but one which finds beauty in extraordinary places.

Review copy of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories provided by Seven Stories Press UK