translated by Kit Maude
The Naked Woman
(Feminist Press, 2018)
Originally published in 1950, this slim novel packs a major wallop. Somers (1914 – 1994, pen name for Armonía Liropeya Etchepare Locino) was a Uruguayan writer, pedagogue, and a major force in Latin American feminism. And although she was a prolific writer, this publication of The Naked Woman is Somers only novel translated into English. Highly surreal and somewhat reminiscent of Djuna Barnes or Clarice Lispector, the novel tells a dreamlike tale that is also heavy with a feminist critique of society, its inherent misogyny and repression of female sexuality. This is an important work of twentieth century feminism whose central meaning clearly resonates today.
On her thirtieth birthday, the protagonist Rebeca Linke decides to take a journey from her comfortable life in the city to a cottage in the country. Before she leaves, she removes her clothing in a clear gesture toward what it is to come later in the novel. She travels by train wearing only a coat, the presence of her naked body becoming the central power and symbol in the novel. Eventually arriving in the country, she leaves her coat behind in a field and in a dreamlike sequence in the cottage, attempts to cut off her own head. While the violence of this act is shocking, it is a necessary part of her progression from Rebecca Linke to the woman she will become. Of course this is a world of symbol and metaphor—her symbolic self-decapitation is just the next step on her journey to shrugging off conventional consciousness.
Once Linke has re-affixed her detached head to her body, she travels through the night into a world full of sky and forest. She revels in her freedom—alive to sensation and to the reality of the power of her naked body. When she arrives at a hut in the woods, she moves into the bed of the heavily masculine woodsman and his frail wife. The woodsman believes her to be a dream as she whispers in his ear calling herself “Eve.” Unable to meet her desire with his own “Eve” leaves the hut. In his anger and frustration with his own impotence the woodsman brutally rapes his wife, a foreshadowing of sexual violence later in the novel.
As Eve travels through the nightmare world of forest and village, she inspires curiosity, lust, and ultimately violent rage in the men who see her naked body. Farmers glimpse her luminous body in the forest and spread word of her to the local village. In their mixture of desire and frustration, the men of the village come together into a destructive and violent mob. They cannot control or contain her and so decide to destroy her.
But it isn’t just the men who want to destroy Eve. The women of the village are horrified by their husband’s new-found lust, the “red-hot night of the woman” eclipsing “the effort of thousands of restrained evenings during which the women, instinctive economists, went about rationing chastity and lust so as to ensure that the community grew in a measured, orderly way.” The power of Eve’s sexuality as represented by the vision of her naked body is such that the villagers’ carefully controlled lives are violently disrupted and they respond to her with the “jarring inevitability of a natural disaster.” Eve's presence has inspired the villagers to forget “the fears society had drummed into them” and they become intensely sexually aware. Even the local priest has visions of Eve’s naked body and feels a desire rise in him that he has never known. His deacon claims that the woman is a “naked beast” and must be the mother of the Devil. But in his sermon, the priest claims that Eve is the first woman, the eternal Eve and that the villagers are not worthy of her presence. For the priest, the villagers “hated the unknown” and only knew how to express their fear through hatred. He concludes that the luminous body of the naked woman represents a beauty and freedom the villagers do not have access to, “A single incarnation of freedom cannot exist without starting a war.”
In an extended scene toward the end of the novel, Eve stops to speak with Juan, a married villager, and they become lovers (albeit briefly). When Juan asks her for her name, she renames herself “Phryne” (in a nod to the Ancient Greek courtesan tried for impiety). As she and Juan discuss the nature of love, the town descends on them. Refusing the priest's guidance, the deacon and the villagers rename Eve/Phryne, “the Naked Woman” and see her only as “primitive, brazen, obscene.” Juan attempts to protect her by covering her body with an old raincoat but it is too late, the villagers are on him. She is saved only when the village itself catches fire in a biblical blaze. In this build up to the end of the novel, The Naked Woman asks the central question, “Had she, a naked, destitute woman, really caused all this madness? Or was she being used as an excuse from something already lurking inside of them?” In the midst of the conflagration, the priest strips himself naked and walks into his burning church in a final rebellion against the small minds of the villagers and their limited understanding of the sacred. As the villagers turn to save their homes from fire, the naked woman walks to the forest and the river and here she becomes Rebecca Linke again in a beautiful, albeit disappointing final act.