“A retelling of a fantastical true story: two young men seduce Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez with the words of an imaginary woman and inspire one of his greatest love poems.” Source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“Love is a door left ajar. A secret that survives only as long as it is half kept.”
The Sky Over Lima is an evocatively poetic, lyrical retelling of the stranger-than-fiction true story of the two-year correspondence between Spanish Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jímenez and two young poets (José Gálvez and Carlos Rodríguez) writing as an imaginary woman, Georgina Hübner.
Eager to read Jímenez’s work, which was unavailable in Lima in the early twentieth century, José and Carlos appeal to Jímenez directly; imagining they will receive a more favorable response by signing their letters as a woman, they write Georgina into being.
This is a gentle, beautifully crafted, humorous and incisively profound essay on love, identity and writing. There is not much of a plot—chapters meander leisurely through the young poets’ lives, and we learn a bit about their background here, a bit about their struggle to make Georgina come to life there, while being immersed in lovely elucidations about the craft or writing. In fact, The Sky Over Lima is literally a fictionalized account of the common trope, “letters to a young poet”—I would categorize it as a book proffering writing advice, in a “novel” format.
I’m no good at summarizing poetry—and this novel is pure poetry, in the tradition of other Latin greats (Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, so many others). Gómez Bárcena, like these others, truly inspires me to pick up Spanish already so I can read his work in the original—although, in this case, the translation is wonderfully done. Anyways, here’s a quote that beautifully captures the spirit of Gómez Bárcena’s writing better than any description I could offer; on their efforts to create Georgina:
“To improve their efforts, they consult a book entitled Advice for a Young Novelist, a seven-hundred-page tome that is rather short on advice and long on commandments and whose target audience seems to be not a young writer but an elderly scholar. The author, one Johannes Schneider, repeatedly employs the words dissection, exhumation, analysis, and autopsy. One could not ask for greater honesty, as indeed the book undertakes with Prussian rigor the task of dismembering World Literature, until everything extraordinary and beautiful in that genre is writhing under its scalpel.”
In addition to the theme of writing, The Sky Over Lima explores questions of love and identity; for, in writing and baring their soul to an anonymous ‘other’ through heartfelt letters, all three poet protagonists in this novel are essentially finding themselves, falling in love with their own realizations and words. In fact, “in real life”, Ramón Jímenez acknowledged the deception that had been perpetrated on him, but still declared himself grateful for what it taught him about himself. For, after all,
“Love is a discourse, my friend, it’s a serial novel, a narrative, and if it’s not written in your head or on paper or wherever, it doesn’t exist, it remains only half done; it does not become a sensation that saw itself as an emotion.”
Overall, I highly recommend this debut novel by award-winning Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena (who has also published an as-of-yet-untranslated-into-English collection of short stories), especially if you are a patient reader who enjoys beautiful writing and a resonant atmosphere. For me, this work felt a bit too leisurely, too lacking of a concrete drive to sustain my undivided attention. Still, I would absolutely read Juan Gómez Bárcena again and look forward to more of his works.