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Review: Variations on the Body by María Ospina
Translated by Heather Cleary
Coffee House Press, 2021
Paperback, 136 pages
María Ospina’s debut short story collection, Variations on the Body, follows the interconnected and complex lives of women in Bogota, Colombia in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The stories focus on women’s bodies and the ways in which they are marked—both physically and psychologically—by the widespread violence in Colombia that took place during the 1980s and 1990s between the State, parliamentary groups, and guerilla fighters. The scale of tragedy and horror can be difficult to conceive of in the abstract, so Ospina brings it into the bodily world. In her unflinching prose, she demonstrates the power that even wounded bodies have in resisting oppression and caring for one another.
In the collection’s first story, “Policarpa,” an ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia member named Marcela starts a new job as a cashier at a superstore through a government reconciliation program designed to reintegrate former guerilla members into “civilian roles.” Yet, in her new life, Marcela cannot escape the physical reminders of her time as a fighter. She buys an exfoliating liquid from the Health and Beauty department at the superstore and attempts to remove a raised scar on her shoulder. At the same time, she experiences PTSD from warfare as an all-encompassing nausea that closes in on her while she rings up customers. Ospina draws disturbing parallels between the exfoliation product Marcela uses to cover up her past and the external pressures she faces from the superstore management and the government program to conform to society. They all work toward “sloughing away” Marcela’s true skin and intricate history.
Several of the stories also illustrate the various ways anxieties, desires, and bereavements are manifested in the body. In “Saving Young Ladies,” a woman becomes fascinated by the changing adolescent bodies of the girls from the Catholic boarding school opposite her apartment: an erotic pastime that quickly turns obsessive. In “Fauna of the Ages,” the protagonist keeps a detailed log of the hundreds of flea bites she receives during the night. Over time the insects start to consume not only her flesh but also her sanity. The final story of the collection, “Variations on the Body,” follows an elderly woman named Mirla who begins to experience heart attack–like symptoms after her husband’s death. To manage her grief, Mirla maintains her appearance through weekly aesthetic treatments of manicures, pedicures, and full-body waxes.
The women in Variations on the Body occupy different positions in society, but throughout the collection, Ospina demonstrates how each one navigates the nexus of ambition and coercion—how their bodies can be both an asset and an obstacle. Whether that means hiding a growing pregnancy or sharpening their features with plastic surgery, her characters are hyper-aware of the repercussions for unruly bodies. In “Saving Young Ladies,” Ospina describes the protagonist observing teenage girls walking down the street: “Aurora imagined there was more to their gestures than just the remnants of childhood, that they were resisting the passage into solitude and isolation of adulthood, the demands to which every lady is subjected: of being a discrete body.”
However, Ospina’s writing and the way she portrays her characters is anything but discrete. The collection fixates on the parts of our bodies deemed disgusting, embarrassing, or excessive—unafraid to expose what her characters desperately wish to conceal. Though even as the writing plunges into visceral descriptions of a scabbed-over flea bite or a young girl obsessed with eating dirt, it is not unrestrained. Ospina is in full control of the shifting voices of the women in each story. Heather Cleary’s brilliant translation expertly captures their distinct tones and personalities. She humanizes the characters who often, harboring shameful secrets, are outsiders in their communities. In the wake of political violence, Variations on the Body offers readers a vision of the power and perseverance of women’s bodies to forge connections with each other and find their tenuous place in society.