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Fiction review Grave obsessions of stranger in a strange land

After The Winter
by Guadalupe Nettel
(Maclehose Press, £14.99)

IN AFTER the Winter, Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel attempts to answer some big questions. What does it mean to live as a Latin American in exile? What binds these experiences together, if at all? How is this diaspora understood and recounted in a modern age of globalisation and mass migration?

In a powerful story, exquisitely translated by Rosalind Harvey, Nettel engagingly charts the tribulations of Cecilia, a shy young Mexican woman from Oaxaca who decides to move to Paris to finish a thesis on Latin American literature and Claudio, a Cuban exiled from Old Havana, who works in publishing.

Cecilia discovers she has a morbid fascination with funerals, especially the ones taking place in the Pere Lachaise cemetery just outside her shared flat and, after moving to a new place on her own, she strikes up a friendship with a sickly neighbour. Tom is a mysterious Italian with whom she shares dinners and walks in the neighbourhood.

They also share a common interest in death and cemeteries and her new friend believes he can communicate with the dead. During one of those walks in Pere Lachaise they stumble across the grave of Chopin.

“His name was inscribed on the white surface with an eloquent simplicity, alongside the beautiful sculpture of a woman,” Cecilia reflects. “There was something in the fact of dying that could not be expressed in words or in any book in the world. Music was probably the most appropriate medium.”

When Tom leaves Paris for Sicily because of his health, Cecilia’s life is left in a state of emotional limbo before she embarks on a tempestuous relationship with Claudio, a misogynist obsessed with order and cleanliness.

The narrative may lose its intensity half-way through but it still manages to capture moments of real beauty and humour, particularly in the evocative trips to cemeteries in search of the graves of writers, poets and philosophers, among them Cesar Vallejo, Julio Cortazar and Carlos Fuentes.

Nettel, who lived for a time in Paris as a student, successfully captures the lives of Latin Americans in exile — their trials, denials, obsessions and passions, as well as their underlying search for love.

Hers is a dark tale of restless souls away from their homelands for whom death and cemeteries become places of ultimate rest and belonging.

 

 

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