MY FRIEND NATALIA
By Laura Lindstedt
Translated by David Hackston
As Chekhov did not quite say, if an analyst describes an analysand as a gun on Page 4, you better bet your bottom dollar that gun’s going off by Page, oh, 200 and something. The nameless narrator of Laura Lindstedt’s sly, intriguing novel “My Friend Natalia,” translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, is a psychologist flouting professional protocol by divulging the story of “Natalia” — “from whose name I will now remove the quotation marks as I might remove the safety catch from a gun.”
We’re primed then, to see this patient as explosive; we await a dangerous denouement. Natalia’s problem is an exciting one but, stated as it is with unequivocal bluntness — “I think about sex all the time” — it also has the flavor of Freudian burlesque. It’s just too on the nose (or too on the somewhere else). Elaborating on her predicament, Natalia speaks in what a dutiful therapist might note as phallic terms: “The act forces its way into my mind like a tumor, and I am lost.” Our narrator is indeed dutiful but simultaneously unconventional and puffed with defensive pride over an unorthodox technique: “layer therapy.” (That the therapist’s gender remains undisclosed occurred to me only after I’d finished the novel and read its jacket copy; I’d assumed — analyze this — that the psychologist was female.)
Bragging that his or her or their Ph.D. “received a grade of cum laude approbator, no less,” the therapist carps that “the Finnish Association of Psychoanalysis did not accept me as a member, a matter that my mentor thought scandalous.” In other words, this narrator’s unreliability may well reside in insecurity and the need to prove something. Under the therapist’s novel methodology, patients’ memories are mere raw material: Via writing assignments, Natalia will, through a kind of Lacanian logic, “uncover different strata of memories and layer them up again,” forging new mental paths that constitute her recovery. The patient will rewrite herself while being semi-authored by the psychologist.
Perhaps novelist chauvinism made me read the assignments more as creative writing prompts than credible therapeutic exercises, but then again hasn’t that distinction always been somewhat moot? A glib observation, but also a truism playfully inhabited within these pages as the psychologist laments and celebrates “this hall of mirrors that we call life.”
The instructions for “Recovery Program Week 2” — “Thoughts on pornography” — come with the directive to “use the supporting words I wrote down.” The story that Natalia duly tells involves remembering an explicit comic strip in which the male genitalia “jutted upward as a plea!” I experienced something of the psychologist’s discomfiture when, a few pages on, I discovered a life-size, photorealistic rendering of a well-veined erect penis. (Natalia gives her psychologist this pencil drawing at the end of the session.) Ostensibly recounted with nothing but clinical curiosity, the transgressive patient’s evasions, provocations and sleights of hand are in this way craftily enacted by the novel itself.
At one point, Natalia recalls rummaging through paper recycling bins as a child, hoping to find “something forbidden, something that we had no business holding in our hands. And which, for that very reason, belonged to us.” This sounds like the naïve dream of analysis itself — dig deep and you’ll retrieve that interdicted memory, the missing piece that will bring the whole puzzle of selfhood into shining, legible meaning. This is the book’s tease, that Natalia — eccentric, unruly, compelling — will be definitively “solved.” But she’s not a dramatic principal, not a thing able to fire real bullets. This was her psychologist’s figure of speech and as such probably tells us more about the psychologist than the patient. The deeper, indeed more layered, mystery is, it emerges, the novel’s chimerical narrator.