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Guadalupe Nettel: Después del invierno (After the Winter)
This novel tells the story of two people, in alternate chapters. Claudio is Cuban. He lives in New York. Indeed, he has managed to buy a (very small) apartment in New York. He is fiercely independent and also very set in is ways. He follows a strict routine in pretty well everything he does. He has managed to persuade his neighbours (in New York!) that, as he comes home at 9 p.m., he does not want any noise after that time. So far, they have conformed. In turn, of course, he listens to music on headphones (Keith Jarrett, of course) and generally keeps very quiet. His role model is Theodor Adorno who was an independent intellectual, which is how Claudio sees himself.
Claudio does not, on the whole, mix with people and those friends he does mix with are very select and very intellectual. He avoids any contact with his neighbours. He works as a book editor but seems to prefer working more or less on a solitary basis and has relatively little contact even with his colleagues. He goes to New York arty parties and occasionally sees friends but that is all, though he generally considers artists as frivolous, egomaniacs or both. At one arty party, given by his friend Beatriz, a Swedish woman, he meets Ruth, fifteen years his senior. She is attractive and elegant. Gradually, they start a relationship, though he is very careful to keep her under control, seeing her only once a week and often not returning her calls. Their first date is to see Eric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale, which he describes as the ideal film because nothing happens in it.
Cecilia is Mexican. When she was young, her mother ran off with her lover and Cecilia has been brought up by her father and her grandparents. One day, when she went out (against the orders of her grandmother) she found a hillock in the garden and learns that it is a grave. Her grandmother refuses to tell her who is buried there but she starts to imagine it as the grave of her mother. She soon persuades her father to take her every week to visit the local cemetery, even though no-one she knew is buried there. She simply has a fascination for cemeteries.
At university she studies French literature at the local university (Oaxaca) and then goes off to Paris for further studies. Though her father has given her two names of people to contact, she is too shy to do so, so shares a room in a hostel with a Romanian woman who speaks only Romanian. She meets Haydée by chance and Haydée invites her to live with her in her flat, where she lives with her partner. Haydée is a wild French woman of Cuban origin, while her partner is an austere Indian. Haydée takes Cecilia out on wild bar crawl almost every night but, eventually, her liver gives out and she has to slow down. Cecilia decides that it is time to move and she contacts one of her father’s friends.
She gets a flat of her own, not very warm but overlooking the Père Lachaise Cemetery which she enjoys. The cemetery plays a key role in the book. Initially, she is both very cold (it is a very bad winter) and very lonely. She makes no friends and finds Parisians very strange, In particular, there seem to be a lot of people talking to themselves. To entertain herself, she keeps her radio on. One day there is a knock at her door and her neighbour has come to complain that the walls are very thin and she has had her radio on for five solid days. He – Tom, a man of Italian origin – and Cecilia soon become friendly (but not lovers). He is even more obsessed with cemeteries than she is. He also appears to be unwell. One day he tells her that he is going off to Sicily for a while and disappears, with only a postcard and message on her answering machine.
It is inevitable that Cecilia and Claudio will meet and when, after a rough patch, Ruth decides to take Claudio to Paris, we can be sure that they will meet. When we learn that Claudio had studied in Paris and that he is still in touch with his late girlfriend’s cousin Haydée, we can see how. They meet and, totally uncharacteristically, he falls for her at once. She also falls for him. But Nettel is too good a writer to make this one of those couple fall in love and live happily ever after novels. Things go wrong, various tragedies ensue, while Tom and Ruth still have a role to play.
This is certainly an interesting novel and helped by the fact that Nettel did not take it along the path it looked like following. However, the stories of both Claudio and Cecilia, while certainly enjoyable, are not terribly original: Cecilia, a part orphan living something of a solitary life, little romance in her life, escapes with the help of books, stuck alone in Paris (this must be one of the few Latin American novels to be highly critical of Paris), finds a non-romance with a sick man, Claudio brought up in socialist Cuba, in a large family group, who escapes with the help of books, becomes something of an ascetic, very rigid in his ways and very controlling in the few romantic relationships he has. Indeed, the way he falls in love at first sight with Cecilia is very unconvincing. He has said to his friend Mario Pero yo no quiero ser un hombre. ¿Me entiendes? ¡Quiero ser un robot! [But I don’t want to be a man. Do you understand? I want to be a robot.]. This is the attitude he more or less keeps throughout the book and while the point may be that the love of a good woman can save him, love at first sight does not seem very likely. Everything we know about Cecilia is that she is sweet, unassuming and not a sex kitten, the complete opposite of Ruth, for example, and, despite the effort to find similarities, it remains very much out of character. However, credit to Nettel for not giving us the obvious ending and for giving us a novel that deals with death as a major theme.
First published by Editorial Anagrama in 2014
First English translation by Maclehose in 2017
Translated by Rosalind Harvey