Book Review: Natural Histories
By Guadalupe Nettel
ANIMALS DO KNOW BETTER
Pliny The Elder was a Roman author interested in nature and philosophy. His last work was Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedia that includes the fields of astronomy, geology, mineralogy, botany and zoology. His is a history of the nature. “All animals know what they want except man”, Pliny The Elder stated and, in a way, these words provided the very essence of Guadalupe Nettel’s Natural Histories. The five stories in these pages subtly blend animal instinct and human behaviour, Nettel explores how men and women not only ignore what they want but, often, they also ignore who they really are.
This is a collection of Natural Histories of characters who have an intriguing parallelism with creatures such as a pair of fish, cockroaches, cats, a snake, and, believe it or not, a fungus. It is is a literary study of human nature. Think of what happens to the protagonist of “War in the Trash Cans”, a man who grows up to be a specialist in insects and even acts like one: “when I’m in the laboratory or lecture hall I almost always keep to the corners of the room. It’s like when I’m walking along a street; I feel safer if I’m near a wall.” As a teenager he is sent to live with his aunt. In this new home he has to sleep in a tiny room on the roof of the terrace. He learns to be far from everyone, he stops eating dinner with his adopted family and starts coming down at night to eat the leftovers. He becomes the home’s insect.
Guadalupe Nettel states, “Many of our obsessions and compulsions can also be seen in animals.” These are key words in the characters she has created. Obsessions and compulsions govern their lives: a woman’s pair of fish become a mirror of her married life, a graduate student accepts motherhood moved by her own cat’s pregnancy, a kid observes his father becoming as mysterious as the snake he bought, a musician keeps a fungus as a way to hold back her lover’s touch. All of them are either obsessed to keep their lives from changing or act compulsively making their lives break into pieces.
“The ties between animals and human beings can be as complex as those that bind us people”, says the protagonist of “Felina”. The reader will not but agree with her because Natural Histories seems to prove how animals do know better.
Nettel, Guadalupe. Natural Histories. Stories. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014.