The Sky Over Lima – A Poetic & Lyrical Meditation on Writing, Love, and Identity

skyoverlima.jpgThe Sky Over Lima by Juan Gómez Bárcena
First English Translation
by Andrea Rosenberg on May 17, 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley

“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

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Review:

“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.

 

18 comments

  1. This reminds me of a crazy story that surrounded the University of Notre Dame all-star football player Manti Te’o. I live 5 miles from Notre Dame, so this story was on the news constantly: Te’o apparently had this girlfriend, who in 2013 died in a car accident while battling cancer…right before a big game! People claimed her death garnered sympathy from the fans and helped Notre Dame win. It later came out that this girl, whom he’d supposedly been dating for years, was made up. Te’o had claimed she had visited his family, but after investigations discovered she was fake, he said it was exclusively an online relationship. The whole thing was stranger than fiction.

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    1. This is now definitely a streak for me of reading books that ‘retell’ some stranger-than-fiction real life event. Unrelatedly, I also wonder if there is just something about Spanish that induces poetic writing, because everything I’ve read about/from the region, translated from the Spanish, has swept me away with its lyricism 🙂

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  2. What a fascinating concept.
    Though I do prefer a concrete plot with a purpose, this does sound like it would be a pleasure to read. The excerpt is quite elegant. I’d love to see a sample of the original Spanish. I don’t read nearly enough literature in my native tongue. I feel guilty about that quite often, so I should probably do something about it. :/

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    1. Hi Naz! The weirdest thing about the concept is that it actually happened… I bet it’s simply gorgeous in Spanish. I do have a bias for Latin/Romance languages and think they are some of the most poetic (Romanian is in this category – and I also do not read enough in it, sadly I’m losing reading fluency over time… I read *so slow*). I definitely don’t want to lose it – here’s to reading more in our native tongues 🙂

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    1. Haha, IF is the big clause there. I’m lucky that Romanian is SO close to Spanish. When my grandma visits the US for ex. (she doesn’t speak English), she watches Telemundo soaps all day, and understands most of what is going on (and she only speaks one language, Romanian).

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      1. Huh! I never knew they were similar! I wish I could be one of those people who picks up languages easily. I took Spanish for a few years but could barely speak/understand it verbally, however grammar was my forte. We even went to Spain for our high school class and I was useless… However if anyone wanted me to conjugate a verb or write a sentence, I was the lady for the job 😂

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      2. Wow, that is the hardest part for me (the grammar). So interesting how differently minds work 🙂
        So Romanian is a Romance language, most similar to Italian (I can understand about 50% of Italian, I mean SO MUCH of the vocab is identical), but it’s also not too far from Spanish. I think French may be the most dissimilar to all of its Latin cousins (and the grammar… aaaa. I’m always fudging conjugations ;))

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      3. Right?! I think I am just more of a visual learner. I can hear something but unless I write it down, I won’t remember it… I obviously did well in my Spanish classes, but a lot of good it does me when I can’t speak the language lol I’ve always wanted to pick it back up. It’s been years!! How about you learn Spanish then I can teach you grammar and you can teach me to speak/understand it 😜

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  3. “Love is a discourse” – ahaha flashback to half my uni classes 😀
    The book sounds lovely and intriguing and it’s always good to see translations being promoted. I also wish I knew Spanish better! I’m afraid after French I tried.Spanish.and Italian but.kept confusing all these romance languages 😦 So similiar but too different! Oh well a project for when I have a job and am “settled.” 🙂

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    1. Hehe you are so right about the Romance languages – I do find it supremely difficult to learn Spanish with my Romanian, French and bit of Italian. Actually the Italian is messing me up the most because I don’t know quite enough of it and it’s most similar to Romanian and Spanish so when I’m saying a word I never quite know if it’s Italian or Spanish.

      Funny story – I went to Peru a few years ago with a friend whose first language is Mandarin and who speaks no Romance languages. Still, she’s so sure of herself (in a very unassuming way, she’s just confident, I love this woman) – anyways she had no problem just randomly asking people stuff, even though few people we met spoke English – between her gesticulations and my made-up Romance-language words, we managed to have some amazingly long conversations with people… This one cab driver talked non-stop to us for a one hour drive, but we spoke not one word of a language we understood the whole time (I just mashed up Romanian and Italian with what I thought may sound Spanish and it worked) 🙂

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  4. Haha whoa that is amazing, I so admire you for this impromptu language skill!! It muste be really confusing for you with knowing Romanian and then all these similar languages!
    Heh I taught.myself I.don’t speak xy in different languages for.vacations but.then.on.Teneriffe, these nice old ladies just randomly talked.at.me so I told.them.I.don’t speak Spanish in.Spanish and they looked confused and started up again, as if I was just kidding. The problem with looking ambiguously brown 😀

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