Still Born, originally written in Spanish, is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the opening chapter here
Alina and Laura are independent and career-driven women in their mid-thirties, neither of whom have built their future around the prospect of a family. Laura has taken the drastic decision to be sterilised, but as time goes by Alina becomes drawn to the idea of becoming a mother.
When complications arise in Alina’s pregnancy and Laura becomes attached to her neighbour’s son, both women are forced to reckon with the complexity of their emotions, in Nettel’s sensitive and surgically precise exploration of maternal ambivalence.
A couple of weeks ago some new neighbours moved into the apartment next door. It’s a woman with a little boy who seems dissatisfied with life, to say the least. I’ve not seen him yet, but I can tell this just by listening to him. He comes back from school at around two in the afternoon, when the smell of cooking that emerges from his house wafts along the hallways and down the stairs of our building. Everyone knows when he’s arrived from the impatient way that he presses the buzzer. As soon he has closed his own front door, the decibel level increases as he starts shouting to complain about what’s for lunch. Judging by the smell, the food in his house cannot be either healthy or tasty, but the boy’s reaction is undoubtedly over the top. He hurls insults and profanities around, which is somewhat disconcerting in a child of his age. He also slams doors and throws all sorts of things at the walls. These outbursts tend to last a long time. Since they moved in, I’ve heard three of them, and on not one of those occasions was I able to listen all the way through, so I wouldn’t be able to say how they end. He shouts so loudly and so desperately that it forces me to leave the house in a hurry. I have to admit, I have never really got along well with children. If they approach me, I dodge out of the way, and if interacting with them is unavoidable, I don’t have the slightest idea of how to do so. I count myself amongst those people who, when they hear a baby crying on a plane or in a doctor’s waiting room, tense up completely, and are driven mad if the sound goes on for longer than ten minutes. However, it’s not that kids annoy me altogether. I might even find it entertaining watching them play in the park or tearing each other apart over some toy in the sandpit. They are living examples of how we would be as humans if the rules of etiquette and civility did not exist. For years I tried to convince my girlfriends that procreating was a hopeless mistake. I told them that children, no matter how sweet and loving they were in their best moments, would always represent a limit on their freedom, an economic burden, not to mention the physical and emotional cost they bring about: nine months of pregnancy, another six or more of breastfeeding, frequent sleepless nights during infancy, and then constant anxiety throughout their teenage years. ‘What’s more, society is designed so that it’s us, and not men, who take on the responsibility of caring for children, and this so often means forfeiting your career, your solo pursuits, your erotic side and sometimes your relationship with your partner, too,’ I would tell them, vehemently. ‘Is it really worth it?’
I count myself amongst those people who, when they hear a baby crying on a plane or in a doctor’s waiting room, tense up completely, and are driven mad if the sound goes on for longer than ten minutes.
At that time in my life, travelling was very important to me. Touching down in far-off countries I knew very little about, crossing them by land, on foot or in ramshackle buses, and discovering their culture and cuisine were amongst the pleasures of this world which it never even occurred to me to consider giving up. I did part of my studies outside Mexico. Despite my precarious existence back then, I now see this time as the most light-hearted phase of my life. A little bit of booze and a couple of friends were all that were needed to transform any evening into a party. We were young and, unlike now, staying up late did not take a toll on our bodies. Living in France, even with very little money, gave me the chance to explore other continents. When I stayed in Paris, I spent many hours reading in libraries, going to the theatre, and hanging out in bars and nightclubs. None of this is compatible with motherhood. Women with children cannot live that way. At least not during the first few years of the child’s upbringing. In order to allow themselves a simple afternoon at the cinema or dinner at someone else’s house, they need to plan far in advance, get hold of a babysitter, or convince their husbands to take care of the children for them. This is why, whenever things started to get serious with a man, I would explain to him that with me he could never reproduce. If he argued or some sign of sadness or dissent began to surface on his face, I would immediately cite the earth’s overpopulation, a compelling reason and one that was sufficiently humanitarian to prevent him from branding me as bitter or, worse still, selfish, as those of us who have decided to escape the role historically accorded to our sex tend to be called.
Unlike my mother’s generation, for whom it was abnormal not to have children, many women in my own age group chose to abstain. My friends, for instance, could be divided into two groups of equal size: those who considered relinquishing their freedom and sacrificing themselves for the sake of the species, and those who were prepared to accept the disgrace heaped on them by society and family as long as they could preserve their autonomy. Each one justified their position with arguments of substance. Naturally, I got along better with the second group, which included Alina.
We met in our twenties, during that period which is still considered the best age to procreate in many societies, although we both felt a similar aversion to what we used to call, looking knowingly at each other, ‘the human shackles’. I was studying for a PhD in literature, and neither my student grant nor my freelance status came close to providing me with any sort of financial security. Alina had a demanding but well-paid job at an arts centre and was doing all she could to train at the same time in arts and cultural management. Although her income was double mine, she sent a large part of it back home to her family: her father had been ill for several years, and lived alone in a village in Veracruz, while her mother was trying to get over a recent stroke. Alina had arrived very early at that stage of life when our parents depend upon us. How would she have been able to take care of a child on top of that?
In that period of my life, I was a big fan of the art of divination in all its forms, palmistry and tarot in particular. I remember that one day, after a long party whose aftermath included two broken glasses and a graveyard of empty bottles out on the balcony, Alina and I were alone in my apartment. We sat and listened to the footsteps of the last guest to leave echo down the Rue Vieille du Temple, utterly deserted at that early hour. I asked if she would let me read her cards. She agreed, purely to humour me, since she’s always been a pragmatic woman and found the idea of receiving messages from invisible forces completely ridiculous. The tarot must have seemed like a game to her, like any other. The spread I chose that night was an ambitious one and encompassed the rest of her life. Alina cut the pack a few times, then placed it on the table, in the positions I showed her. When all the cards were in place, I began turning them over slowly, partly because of how drunk I was, partly to give the moment a touch of theatre. Meanwhile, the story gradually appeared, the way a photograph is revealed when we plunge it into silver nitrate. In the middle of the layout were The Empress, the Six of Swords, Death and the Hanged Man. Death – the thirteenth arcana, which in many tarot decks does not even have a name – is a card that doesn’t always mean an actual passing, but brings with it a profound, radical change. Everything pointed towards a tragedy that would upset the course of her existence, perhaps even cut it short in one fell swoop. I was forced to hide my vexation. Alina must have noticed my disconcerted expression because she asked, her voice worried, what it was that I was reading.
It says here that you’ll be a mother and that your life will become totally cloistered,’ I blurted out, with a playful grin.
Alina shook her head vehemently and laughed, no doubt assuming I was pulling her leg. But her large black eyes stared questioningly at me and in their depths I made out a glimmer of unease. We carried on drinking and a couple of hours later, when we had finished the last bottle of wine, I said goodbye to my friend at the door to the apartment block. I climbed the stairs back up to my place and got into bed, feeling frightened by what I had seen.
A few months later, Alina decided to return to Mexico where she found a good job in an art gallery. I, meanwhile, stayed in France for one more year and then, when I’d finished my master’s, set off travelling around South Asia. I trekked across valleys and through mountain paths. I visited temples and sites of Buddhist pilgrimage. I was particularly drawn to the nuns with their brown habits and shaved heads, women who had decided to renounce family life in order to devote themselves to study and meditation. I would sit in silence a few feet away, listening to them chant in voices so different from the guttural chants of the lamas, or reciting sutras that spoke of liberation and an end to suffering. Distance is unerring proof of friendship. Occasionally it lays waste to it, as a frost can do to a good harvest. But this wasn’t what happened between Alina and me. We continued to write and to call each other often, informing one another of the most noteworthy episodes in our lives – the appearance of Aurelio in hers, her father’s ill health, my choice of thesis topic – and so the affection we already had for one another was steadily reinforced.