AFTER THE WINTER
by Guadalupe Nettel
translated by Rosalind Harvey
Coffee House Press, 242 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
At the beginning of Guadalupe Nettel’s newly translated novel After the Winter, twenty-five-year-old Cecilia moves from her native Oaxaca to Paris. She arrives there without the usual image of Paris as a “city where dozens of couples of all ages kissed each other in parks and on the platforms of the métro, but of a rainy place where people read Cioran and La Rochefoucauld while, their lips pursed and preoccupied, they sipped coffee with no milk and no sugar.” However, there is something usual in her expectation for Paris. “Like many of the foreigners who end up staying for ever […] with the intention, or rather, the pretext of studying a postgraduate degree,” she takes up residence across the street from Père Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Edith Piaf. “At different periods in my life, graves have protected me,” Cecilia shares, and the small apartment overlooking the cemetery suits her macabre nature perfectly.
Cecilia is one of the two first-person narrators in After the Winter, the other being Claudio, who grew up in Havana and now lives in New York City where he works in publishing. Like Cecilia, Claudio also has his quirks. His apartment is “a stone corridor very like a prison cell,” and he avoids interacting with people, not so much because he doesn’t like them—he maintains a few long-term friendships—but more it seems because he is afraid of the control he’d lose if he had to factor another person into his plans. In the novel’s first few pages he reveals, “I find living things frightening; you have to take care of them or they die. In short, they take up time and attention, and I am not prepared to give those away to anyone.” He makes this comment about plants, but it easily applies to humans as well.
In the beginning, the novel alternates between Cecilia’s and Claudio’s chapters, as Cecilia settles into her life as a student in Paris and Claudio continues his life in New York and his on again off again relationship with an older, well-to-do woman named Ruth. Ruth dotes upon Claudio, buying him expensive meals and treating him to nice bottles of wine and snacks from an expensive bakery. Beyond these niceties, Ruth seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with Claudio, who is sent nearly into fits of panic after their dates or sexual encounters. “You might say that we are good lovers if it were not for the fact that when we have finished,” he reflects, “I am flooded with an inexplicable sensation of disgust.” Claudio’s treatment of Ruth is just one of many signs that he is deeply unwell. Another is the morbid way he considers his apartment: “Here—and I give thanks to God for this—I have neither relatives nor friends I am overly close to. […] Protecting it from any intruders is my way of honoring my sanctuary and of turning it (I like the image immensely) into the mausoleum where I would like to be buried for all eternity.”
It is hard to know what to do with images like this, and other images earlier in the work, that, with a heavy hand, suggest Claudio is suffering from undiagnosed OCD. The way Nettel portrays Claudio and Cecilia often hovers between eccentricity and genuine mental illness. Yet, these actions and thoughts do not emerge as issues that the characters must grapple with, but rather as the author’s central way to develop their personalities.
In this sense, Nettel mainly defines Cecilia and Claudio by their preferences and neuroses. The way they decorate their apartments, or don’t, how often they call their friends, what they like to eat for breakfast. Nettel seeks to draw out her characters through these small particularities. She shows us Claudio enraged in his kitchen after his espresso machine breaks. “It is unconscionable the degree of security household appliances can give to us,” he says. Here is Cecilia cooped up in her Paris apartment, the opposite of Claudio’s fastidiousness: “I tried to wash myself only as much as necessary so as to avoid suffocating in my own odours.” It’s as if these moments on their own speak volumes about her characters’ personalities. These early sections of After the Winter show the dangers of trying to create a character out of personal habits and quirks. The way Claudio gets out of bed, the way he organizes his apartment, Cecilia’s love of cemeteries. I got the feeling that these details could be insightful or telling, if they hinted towards other aspects of personality, but they seem to be presented as self explanatory, without acknowledging the gulf that often sits between thought and action.
Because of this, in the first half or so of the book, Claudio and Cecilia have the impression of cartoon characters, their opinions and the way they maintain their apartments seems exaggerated to take the place of personality. It’s also clear that neither Cecilia nor Claudio know what they want out of most situations, and while that is not abnormal, it causes a slight problem for a novel that is focused so closely on them and told in first person narration. Further, while Cecilia and Claudio do sometimes act, they seem to often fall into the trap of passive narrators/ main characters: things always seem to be happening to them, but they never seem to be doing anything themselves. This effect is exacerbated as we move into the first winter of the novel and both retreat further into themselves, rarely interacting with others. “By December,” Cecilia admits, “my life had been reduced to a ghostly state.”
And yet, as the novel goes on, somehow in spite of the early surface treatment, Cecilia and Claudio start to attain mass, to gain qualities and desires more telling than how they decorate their apartment or the fact that they both seem to have morbid fascinations. Cecilia meets her next-door neighbor Tom, an Italian who is an excellent cook and shares his food and music with her as the two slowly enter into a relationship. Tom, however, has a serious illness that frightens him deeply. He takes a long trip to Italy to see family and contemplate the rest of his life without telling Cecilia when he will return. It is during this trip that the event the novel has been leading the reader toward finally occurs. Cecilia and Claudio meet.
It happens, of course, at Père Lachaise cemetery, where Claudio is looking for the grave of poet César Vallejo. He’s accompanied by his friend Haydée, an acquaintance he’d made during his university days in Paris. After graduation, Claudio moved to New York, and Haydée stayed in Paris where, years later, she would meet Cecilia. When Claudio suggests a stroll around the cemetery, Haydée is reminded of her friend who lives in an apartment right at the cemetery’s edge. And so the three of them head into Père Lachaise in search of Vallejo’s grave.
The alternating structure of the novel, switching between Cecilia’s and Claudio’s perspective, makes the reader wonder from the very beginning when the two characters will meet. And yet, maybe because their meeting has been so built up in the reader’s mind through the juxtaposition, the initial interaction is a bit of a letdown. Claudio immediately falls for Cecilia for no apparent reason. He describes the moment as like a “meeting of souls,” and shares later, “I have not been able to get [Cecilia] out of my mind ever since.” He is drawn to Cecilia through her apartment, which is fitting given his fraught relationship with his own and the strange way that his personality and his apartment seem to collapse into each other. Cecilia’s is a small place “devoid of pictures or any decorations or distraction,” that leads Claudio to incorrectly assume that “as I am, Cecilia was a lover of order and cleanliness.” Yet, Claudio mistakes this spartan quality—the result of malaise and, Cecilia says later “completely unintentional”—for carefully studied austerity. This is the mistake that starts Claudio’s obsession with Cecilia: he mistakes an apparent trait for her real personality. After meeting in Paris, Claudio writes fervent emails to Cecilia, quickly deciding he is in love with her and that for the first time in his life he has found someone “suitable for me.”
By this point in the novel it becomes clear that neither Claudio or Cecilia are particularly reliable narrators, and that their own judgements—such as Claudio’s belief that he is in love with Cecilia after seeing her apartment—are often skewed, the motivations different than they appear. Claudio believes he sees a reflection of himself in Cecilia, and throws everything into wooing her instead of focusing on the life he has already built in New York City and Ruth who, despite the terrible treatment, still seems to love him. Cecilia, on the other hand, seems deeply unsure of what she wants, if she wants to live in Paris, or live at all. Claudio and Cecilia keep in touch over email, visiting each other a few times, before it becomes clear to Cecilia how little Claudio really cares for her. Soon after, her neighbor Tom returns from Italy, and his condition worsens. Cecilia often considers killing herself, yet, the time spent with him in the hospital gives her an incredible sense of meaning. She shares that it is, “the most important experience of my life. I, who had always considered myself useless, had, at last, the impression that I was good for something.”
The portrayal of mental health in After the Winter leaves much to be hoped for. Claudio’s (eventually diagnosed) OCD seems too obvious, pulling on vague cliches about cleanliness and organization, and Cecilia’s depression seems gratuitous and uncomplicated. But it’s hard to say whether this might be due to the fact that the reader is getting their experiences from a first-person narration. This viewpoint doesn’t relieve the author of responsibility, but it does complicate the issue. What are the ethics of portraying mental illness in such a way? It reminds me of the question around stories of addiction and eating disorders: is there any way to tell these stories without glamorizing the experience, and maybe even having an effect on readers that is the exact opposite of what the writer intended? For me, Cecilia and Claudio’s mental health were treated a bit too much like foibles or quirks, treated like their apartments and habits of dress: colorful details that added to the outline of their character instead of real issues that they struggled with and which caused them real pain.
The title After the Winter seems to imply progress, or hope. After winter comes spring and summer, the rebirth of plants and the return of the idyllic “Paris of films,” Cecilia despises when she arrives. And indeed, spoiler alert, the two characters do seem happier, or at least more settled, at the book’s end. Claudio finally realizes that he should be with Ruth, and Cecilia finally seems to find aspects of her life in Paris to enjoy: she pours herself into her work, and spends a lot of time with her friend Haydée and Haydée’s new baby.
And yet, at the story’s end, Claudio and Cecilia don’t seem to have addressed what, sadly, united them from the beginning: that their attempts at happiness always relied so heavily on other people. They became archetypes of a different kind of tragic love; not tragic because the two are kept apart by country, family, or religion, but because they believed too strongly in the myth that love by itself would fix all their problems.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.