Foetal Narrators

By David Haysom, published

Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s new novel, is narrated by a sentient foetus who listens in on the Hamlet inspired machinations of his mother’s plot to murder his father. In a Guardian interview, McEwan says he is not aware of any story yet written from the perspective of an unborn child:

“And yet it seemed obvious once I started it.” The idea came to him one day from nowhere, while he was daydreaming. “Suddenly there appeared before me the opening sentence of the novel, which I don’t think I’ve changed, apart from adding ‘So’ in front of it: ‘So, here I am upside down in a woman.’ I thought, who on Earth would say such a thing? Then I immediately thought it would be a lovely rhetorical challenge to write a novel from the point of view of a foetus. The idea struck me as so silly that I just couldn’t resist it.”

Well, 李洱 Li Er, for one, has beaten him to it, with his story 《你在哪》 (translated by Joshua Dyer as “Where Are You?” in the Summer 2015 issue of Pathlight). Here’s how it begins:

Where are you, she asks.

I’ve been here all along. She must be completely blind now. I reach out to touch her. I feel her chest and notice her heartbeat is irregular, sometimes stopping altogether. She lets me touch her ears. I find a thick, sticky pus leaking out.

I feel a sudden wave of compassion – I should say something to comfort her.

“Don’t be sad, sister. Dying in the womb might not be a bad thing.”

When she doesn’t react, I begin to think she might be deaf as well as blind – but no, out of the blue she pulls up both legs and stomps down on my knee. She keeps at it until I cry out in pain and choke on a mouthful of fluid. Then she returns her feet to their position near my mouth.

Y and I have been here for a while already, and I don’t know how much longer we can stay. Many people have a fondness for the place where they grew up, but no one ever thinks about this place we’re at now, save for the obstetricians and gynecologists who make their living here. Instead everyone misses wherever they went afterwards, the first place they spent any time. They call it “home,” but they’re wrong. This is their real home.


# 1.   

Two more takes on the concept:

  • The "Future" issue of Pathlight ran a translation (by me) of "A Story of Titan" 泰坦故事 by Ling Chen 凌晨; the narrator is a four-month-old newborn, but everything but the introduction takes place while he's still in the womb.

  • "Darkroom" 暗室 by Han Song 韩松 may not strictly speaking have a fetus narrator (it's a journalistic investigation into a mass die-off of unborn children, as told by a survivor), but a few sections set in the womb consist of dialogue among fetuses.

jdmartinsen, August 29, 2016, 11:21a.m.

# 2.   

That makes almost enough for us to declare it a sub-genre...

Dave Haysom, August 30, 2016, 11:08a.m.

# 3.   

More in the sub-genre: Liu Cixin's dialogue-driven 人生, newly translated by Ken Liu as The Weight of Memories. A mother explains to her fetus the curious circumstances of its conception.

jdmartinsen, September 1, 2016, 1:45a.m.

# 4.   

Don't forget the mother and the unborn fetus in Mo Yan's The Garlic Ballads!

Anna Gustafsson Chen, September 4, 2016, 9:15a.m.


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