Variations on the Body, written by María Ospina and translated by Heather Cleary, is a collection of short stories which primarily take place in Colombia and center on the female body. On July 6, 2021, Variations on the Body releases in the U.S. via Coffee House Press. This past month, I was sent an advanced review copy of this in exchange for an honest review.
First published in Spanish as Azares de cuerpo in 2017, Variations on the Body begins with Heather Cleary’s translator’s note, in which she introduces the six stories. Commenting on the various similar themes among them, Cleary notes some of Ospina’s poetic and literary allusions which may go unnoticed by English-speaking readers, and explains the peculiar challenge of a translator’s work in conveying the author’s message not only through literal meaning but also linguistic nuance, especially when the direct translation of a word may carry a different connotation in another language. While I cannot compare Cleary’s work to Ospina’s original, I must say I was impressed by the English version– Cleary did an amazing job with this translation. The writing is quite strong, and it’s incredible that this is not its original form.
One particular story I enjoyed from this collection was “Fauna from the Ages,” which is a diary-style story logging a woman’s battle with the fleas who’ve infested her apartment. I found the narrator’s obsession with documenting the flea chronicles hilariously relatable and whimsical, while still very astute and meaningful. In my own life, I have waged wars with ants, fleas, flies, and other invasive insects, and when these creatures afflict the body in small yet numerous perturbing bites, it can feel like acute torture.
Obsession is also a prevalent quality in “Saving Young Ladies,” in which a woman procrastinates on drafting her novel in favor for studying the home for young women, led by nuns, across the street. One girl in particular catches her attention, and she yearns to “save” her from imagined troubles.
Throughout these stories, women take care of other women, women resist or succumb to the violence and demands of society, and women contemplate the beautiful. Each vignette offers something different, culminating in the final story, “Variations on the Body” from which the book receives its title and cover image.
Additionally, I appreciated that while these narratives depict very genuine female experiences, the tone is not overwhelmingly somber. Even when a character such as the protagonist in the first story “Policarpa” is attempting to begin her life anew after leaving a FARC guerilla group, amidst her uncertainty of the future, she muses on her desire for female friendship in a co-worker. Other characters find solace in the companionship of stray dogs, collecting scissors, and corresponding over porcelain doll logistics. It is not a catalog of all the ways a female body is blatantly battered by society, but rather a gentle and nuanced exploration of female physical existence in Bogotá. It will not leave you forlorn and exhausted as some women’s fiction does, but rather endeared by the peculiar characters, each with their own preoccupation.
If you choose to pick up Variations on the Body via my recommendation, I hope you enjoy!
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