The Sky Over Lima: Juan Gómez Bárcena

★★★★

It’s 1904 and José and Carlos, two wealthy young men, are playing at being poets. They loiter in a tumbledown garret, savouring the romance of pretended poverty, and share their love for their favourite writer: the visionary Spanish wordsmith Juan Ramón Jiménez. His newest book hasn’t yet made its way across the seas to Peru, but the boys are desperate to read it. Maybe they could write to him and ask for a copy? And yet… and yet… They know that the great man won’t be moved by the plight of two impressionable students, so they formulate a cunning plan. Might he feel obliged to answer if they adopt another persona – if, for example, they pretend to be a beautiful young woman?

And so Georgina is born. Together, the two boys create her from a mixture of desires and memories: Georgina is delicate and innocent, a creature of shaded gardens and echoing salons, of white gloves, parasols and old-fashioned upbringing. Her virginal heart trembles like a caged bird, trapped in the lines of her first hesitant letter – written by the two boys in concert, and copied out in Carlos’s elegant handwriting. Their heartfelt missive sails halfway around the world… and, to their amazement, Juan Ramón responds. Not only that, but his new book is sent for ‘Georgina’. Inspired by their success, the boys write back and, before long, they are caught up in the thrill of creating poetry of their own – a real-life story that is taking shape before their very eyes.

But discord seeps in. What do they mean to accomplish? Their first aim is to get hold of the book; that done, they hope to turn Georgina into Juan Ramón’s muse. Just imagine if he were to dedicate a poem to her! But as time passes, and the letters continue to wing their way back and forth across the Atlantic, the stakes grow higher. The boys’ ambitions begin to diverge. José is increasingly interested to see what he can get out of it. Carlos is less nonchalant: he finds that Georgina is growing increasingly real to him and he begins to worry about the consequences of this great game they’ve put in motion. For it becomes clear that Juan Ramón is falling in love – with a woman who doesn’t exist. He’s intoxicated with ‘Georgina’s’ words, rather than herself – because love is something that only takes shape through words, as the scribe Cristobal explains:

But love – where is it? It’s not there yet because nobody has given it words. 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.

This is the first novel by Bárcena, who is already established as a short-story writer in his native Spain. His skill is evident: he manages to give his two poetical students such a sense of presence that they feel very real, especially the conflicted Carlos, with whom we spend more time. I was rather fond of Carlos, and the only point that didn’t ring true for me was his sudden glee in causing pain towards the end. It felt an unrealistic development for a character who had been so poised, so quiet, so sensitive about everything. But that was a rare false note. Bárcena is very good at conveying the breathless earnestness of youth, when intensity makes everything seem possible. Even better is the way he shows the casual callousness of boys who haven’t yet learned how to love – and, perhaps, never will – yet who find themselves masterminding a love story for a much older, more experienced, more susceptible man.

The book riffs playfully on the idea of writing: for example, the ongoing game, first between the boys, and then between author and reader, about which of the figures we encounter ‘should be’ protagonists or secondary characters. There are knowing nods towards the fourth wall, heightening the artificiality of the novel – a fictional story about the creation of another fictional story: a mirror within a mirror. Yet it isn’t smug. At its heart, it’s a genuinely moving story about friendship and how that can change – about how these two young men, who seem to be so close, are actually divided by their feelings about class, wealth, sex, work, marriage and so forth. And how, by working together, they pull off a deception of an incredible stature. The translator, Andrea Rosenberg, renders it into beautifully clear English, which means that nothing gets in the way of the story, with its steadily-ramping tension.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything set in Peru before, but I have to say that Lima felt as familiar in some ways as Paris or Madrid, for Bárcena’s young dreamers move in elite society, which takes its cues (for both deportment and debauchery) from Europe. While thinking about the theme – the lost romance of the mail-ship and the impatient waiting for love-letters – it struck me that actually this isn’t so far away from modern experience. Indeed, it’s a ‘catfish‘ story before the fact, and that makes it knowing in a different way, because for all its vintage charm, this is a story that still has the potential to happen (in a different form) today. Well worth seeking out for its wit, its sensitivity, and the close characterisation of its two daring poets.

Can anyone recommend any other books set in Peru that might complement this, perhaps by presenting a more traditional, indigenous kind of lifestyle?

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2 thoughts on “The Sky Over Lima: Juan Gómez Bárcena

  1. jeff_lyn says:

    Llosa’s Death In the Andes, Roncagliolo’s Red April, and novels of Daniel Alaracon are great but all different views of Peru. Great review I liked Sky over Lima a lot.

  2. RT says:

    Have you read Vargas Llosa? His early novels are UTTERLY brilliant. Time of the Hero (his first) and Conversation in the Cathedral are among my all-time favourite novels. Loved The War at the End of the World too. His later stuff, very much not.

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