Thursday, 25 June 2009

Book Review: El cartero de Neruda (Neruda's Postman)

El cartero de Neruda (Neruda's Postman), by Antonio Skármeta

My keen readers may remember I had breakfast with a genius a while back. Well, he and I weren't alone, it was a class, and it was 11am, but you get the picture. The next day I went out and bought a cppy of his own recommended favourite novel. I finished it within two weeks (yes, late Sanya strikes again). The words "Bloody", "Good" and "Read" come to mind.

Let's push the fact that I'd happily chat with the author until Armageddon to one side. Let's also try and pretend my criticism isn't highly biased based on such admiration. The book is still very good.

It's all about poetry, you see. Specifically, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and how it affects a group of provincial islanders in a remote corner of Chile who make up the poet's neighbours. Through the eyes of the fictional youth Mario Jiménez, we meet an older Neruda: fat, tired, lazy but not disillusioned. Ready to allow himself to be pestered by the young postman who has never heard of him, Neruda teaches Jiménez the ways of the world: how to enjoy life, how to seduce the object of his affection, Beatriz, and run rings around her mother, doña Rosa; and of course how to read and write poetry. Set against the political backdrop of the election of Salvador Allende's socialist government and the resulting coup d'etat headed by General Augusto Pinochet, the novel deals with life, love, growing up and political upheaval.

The pervading tone of the book is that of admiration and wonder. Jiménez is intelligent but naïve, and is drawn to "don Pablo" because of the latter's unwavering belief in the power of youth. Upon learning in the prologue that Skármeta himself met Neruda when a young journalist, the paralells between the reactions of Jiménez to the man and the author's own are no surprise. Apart from the authority that such knowledge lends to the portrayal of the poet, Skármeta is perfectly capable of avoiding any hero-worship (unlike your poor reviewer). Neruda may be a great poet, and a friendly man, but this reader had the sensation that, perhaps because he was nearing the end of his life, the character of Neruda was that of someone who saw life as a game. He indulges Jiménez because he is bored, and the postman is one of the few people around who hasn't heard of him; when he tires of the game, he is visibly irritated, but by this time, he is still capable of evolution, and comes to embrace Jiménez' presence as if he were his own son. Indeed, the similarity between the mentor/prótege and father/son relationships does not go unnoticed, even within the narrative.

As far as the language is concerned, it is unsurprisingly poetic. The setting of Neruda's home in La Isla Negra, a fishing port, allows for the use of the sea and the isolation of the location for several metaphors: the sea as a means of achieving liberty; the movement of the waves juxtaposed with the frantic fumbling sex Mario has with his lover; the geographical, cultural and political distance of the setting from Santiago, the capital. Certainly, knowledgable readers are constantly aware of the political goings-on which surround the novel's events, but Skármeta manages refer to it without focussing on it or the effects it has upon the characters until the very end, soon after Neruda's own death. Of course, the tragic ending is a direct consequence of the coup d'etat, but one is not left with a political tract upon closing the book.

Engaging, charming, and at points very funny (doña Rosa is the most grotesque stereotype of a hispanic woman of a certain age, and a mother-in-law to boot), El cartero de Neruda is an excellent novel. Short, too, at only 130-odd pages, if you can find this in English, it is well worth getting yourself a copy. Otherwise, learn Spanish: it will be worth it.

Five Stars.

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