- A LifetimeThe fetus speaks out
The nostalgic tone of Martha Cerda’s Señora Rodríguez and Other Worlds stems from memories recalled by her mother; however, Cerda’s latest novel, Toda una vida, uses an altogether different point of view. The narrator is the opposite of a mother: a child inside the womb. One day it creates a hole in Mamá’s navel, opens a button on her dress, and peers out at the world. From this moment forward the unborn child is the perceptive and omniscient narrator of their shared world. The fetus, waiting for the ideal set of circumstances to befall its mother before being born, stalls quietly, year after year, inside the womb—though Mamá is given a kick every now and then. The tales the infant narrator relates are magnetic in detail and eerily insightful. This work, unlike Carlos Fuentes’s excessive Christopher Unborn, is, as Cerda says, “a measured novel, written out of love, with a woman’s sensibility.”
Cerda began the novel in 1994 from a very different premise. Her original protagonist was a teenager who was God but had been born unaware of his divinity. Clearly, the theme ofToda una vida changed significantly as Cerda wrote it, but she rescued a crucial characteristic from her earlier drafts: the novel’s central character is born under exceptional circumstances.
Cerda views this novel as a watershed, “but I can’t prove it, because one always believes that the last work she has written is a watershed compared to all that has come before.” Yet she is not alone in her assessment of Toda una vida, named best fiction book of 1998 by the Association of Italian Booksellers. “In Spain and Italy,” Cerda says, “people understand perfectly the metaphor of this novel, that is, the overdue birth of Mexico as a modern country and the vicissitudes through which we have passed to be born.” Literary critics in Mexico itself, however, are often hesitant to recognize works produced in the country’s interior. “We are a centralist country,” explains Cerda, “and a writer of the interior may penetrate the outskirts, but within Mexico City she continues to be [thought of as] provincial.” [End Page 114]
Cerda does not let this worry her: “I was born a writer in a city where all the writers had to emigrate to the capital to be taken seriously. I tried to demonstrate that I could achieve my goals without leaving Guadalajara.” That she has done, founding her own writers’ school—the Sociedad General de Escritores Mexicanos—and becoming president of PEN International in Guadalajara. She continues to combat the idea of “The Capital versus the Provinces”: “In the end, I consider myself a professional femme de lettres.”
Despite her successes, Cerda prefers to emphasize her normality: “I am married; I have three children and no extraordinary physical features. I am proud of being a typical Mexican woman.”
In the following passage from Toda una vida, each brief chapter has been given the title of a popular Mexican song; the majority of these songs are romantic boleros. The titles highlight an aspect of the section’s plot.
If I had been carried to term as most babies are, I would have been born right in the middle of World War II in Mexico City, where Mamá lived completely unaffected by the conflict, except that she would draw a line up the back of her calves to make it appear that she was wearing seamed stockings. Given the wartime shortages, they were the best present that my father could possibly have given her: a pair of silk stockings. Mamá fastened them above the knee with garters that cut off her circulation: she would put on the stocking, then put her leg through the garter and pull it up to the edge of the stocking, which she would then roll up. She would lower the stocking again so she could pull it up again, stretching it out so it would not wrinkle and the seam would be straight in back, taking care not to snag it. But Mam...