When my childhood days were spent in long, boring visits to relatives and parents’ friends, one of my pastimes was to comb the titles in their obscure libraries. After long hours only bearable by my bookshelf curiosity, I finally came to the conclusion that the most common book in Spanish-speaking households was not Cervantes’ Don Quijote, but Pablo Neruda’s Confieso que he vivido (Memoirs). Every home I visited had this book! It made me wonder… The ubiquitous sight of its broad white spine and bold black letters slowly led me to believe that I could never consider myself a truly cultured person of Spanish-language heritage if I had not read this book…
And the thickness and prestige scared me to death.
I had come to believe that reading Memoirs (Memorias) would be a kind of rite of passage: I imagined myself reading it on a long train journey, maybe the Orient-Express, where the mystic combination of journey and book would change my life.
Confieso que he Vivido is almost 500 pages long in fine print divided into 12 parts or notebooks, and guides you through the Chilean poet’s life from his childhood in the town of Temuco to his last days in Santiago. I had read Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair in my twenties, and this exceedingly passionate book had opened new sensibilities and further fueled the mystery and myth. Maybe that is why I postponed reading Memoirs for decades.
A few months before – finally! – having scheduled reading the book (I was going to spend one month in Paris… little else could measure up to the Orient-Express!) I find myself transiting the Bogotá airport with nothing to read. I wander into the airport’s bookshop with the firm purpose of buying a Spanish book that is not by Garcia Márquez — just for the sake of going against the flow. I force myself to bypass favorites like Borges or Cela and browse through authors I have not read before. Then I pick up one book that says on the back cover:
There are books that are part of a plan and books that, just like the car that goes through a red light, enter violently into your existence. This is the kind that goes through with the red.
Five minutes later that book is in my bag on its way to Europe.
El Mundo (The World) is the news article about himself that Juan José Millás “[W]as not able to write […] as I had just been run over by a novel.” It is a 200-page book that starts with his childhood in Valencia, and ends with a car trip to Valencia. Millás is still very much alive.
Both authors describe childhoods spent in places that in a way are at the far edge of the world. Both vividly describe the wet cold of winter. They both master the use of words. Being autobiographies, these books as can be expected to differ greatly from the usual works of both authors: one is a poet, the other a novelist and journalist, and their autobiographies are used by both authors to radically transform the way they relate to writing.
The poet versus the journalist?
Memoirs is not so much an autobiography of Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto’s (Neruda’s real name) as a chronicle of his life. More precisely, the chronicle of his life in the world. And given the intensity of Neruda’s amazing life, plus the fact that he travelled and lived in most continents, Memoirs becomes a history of the world from 1904 to 1973. Neruda the consul, the exile, the militant communist, met a great many of the intellectuals, artists and politicians of his time. The woods around Temuco, his encounters with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the endowment of the Nobel Prize in 1971, the flowers of Isla Negra, his candidacy to the presidency, his friendship with Garcia Lorca and Allende’s death (which would precede his by less than two weeks) — all are events of equal importance in Memoirs. Five hundred pages are hardly enough to fit everything, and the description of some of these events leave us hungry for more detail. Neruda writes quickly and concisely, knowing he has a lot to tell, and grants us a slight poetic decoration here and there, lest we forget that he’s a poet… Thus the correspondent/poet unflinchingly records the history of the world, Latin America, and Chile.
In El Mundo, (Premio Planeta in 2007, Premio Nacional de Narrativa in 2008) Millás gives us a mere handful of his life’s episodes. Simple episodes. Episodes that could have very well happened to any of us. Episodes that become uncannily surreal under the exquisite hand of Millás. They are so candidly told that one cannot help but feel every raw bone of his as if it were ours, and one cannot help but earnestly cry and laugh. A person’s mundo embraces what is seen with a child’s eyes, includes the cruelty of conservative schooling, holds the attachment to and separation from mother, suffers unrequited love, contains the childhood friends and games. In El Mundo, we are all born in Valencia and we all feel the quizzical, comical and painful beauty of life, because El Mundo is a world that can be anybody’s world.
It is ironic that Neruda wrote regarding his early career:
I didn’t have, back then, great curiosity towards the human race. I cannot get to meet every person in this world, I used to tell myself. And yet in certain circles there would arise a pale curiosity towards this new poet who was barely sixteen, a reluctant and solitary youth who was seen coming and going without saying hello or goodbye.
On reading Memoirs, we find out what an extraordinary life that pale curiosity was able to give to the young poet.
I quote Millás again from El Mundo’s back cover:
My father had a workshop where he built electro-medical devices. He was trying out an electric scalpel over a piece of steak. Unexpectedly, he said: “Look, Juanjo, it cauterizes the wound in the same instant it inflicts it”. I understood that writing, like my father’s scalpel, would heal wounds at the same moment it opened them, and sensed the motive why I had become a writer.
On reading Millás book, we experience what the scalpel of a book can do to a reader’s own wounds, exactly like he promises on that back cover.
Both the book that was part of the decades-long plan and the book that went through a red light amazed me. Poet and journalist both earn their places in Spanish-heritage household libraries. Millás the Poet and Neruda the Journalist. Millás’ prose conveys and relieves mal de vivre better than any poet was ever able to do, and Neruda gave us the best reportage ever written on the subject of our twentieth century.