An Artist’s Childhood, Etched in Trauma and Abandonment

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A review by John Williams for the New York Times.

THE BOOK OF EMMA REYES
A
 Memoir
By Emma Reyes
Translated with an introduction by Daniel Alarcón
177 pages. Penguin Books. $24.

At one point in this startling and astringently poetic epistolary memoir by the Colombian painter Emma Reyes, the author vividly describes an incident from when she was small, and says of herself and her sister: “A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”

The explanation for Reyes’s precise recall is the very lack of normalcy she refers to in her childhood.

In her oldest memory, Reyes was living in a small, windowless room in a working-class neighborhood in Bogotá, with her sister, a boy whose name they didn’t know and a woman whom, Reyes writes, she remembers “only as an enormous tangle of black hair.” This tangle, later identified as “Mrs. María,” was apparently Emma’s mother, though the author never says exactly that. María later abandoned the children, and the two sisters were placed in a convent.

Reyes wrote about her harrowing early life in this series of letters to the Colombian historian and critic Germán Arciniegas, who urged her to put on paper the riveting tales she would speak aloud. (Reyes died in 2003, at 84. This book was originally published by a tiny press in Colombia in 2012.)

Reyes wrote her first letter to Arciniegas in 1969. In the early 1970s, the story goes, Arciniegas shared some of her writing with Gabriel García Márquez, who called Reyes to express his enthusiasm for it.

Some of us might take an encouraging call from Márquez as a serious gust of wind beneath our wings, but it grounded Reyes. More angered by Arciniegas’s violation of her privacy than stoked by Gabo’s endorsement, she subsequently stopped writing the letters for more than two decades.

It’s not hard to see what Márquez admired in the writing. “It always amuses me,” he told The Paris Review in 1981, “that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that Reyes’s images are reminiscent of his, but she has a similar gift for relating extraordinary moments with a straight face, making them seem even more otherworldly.

In the first letter, she remembers building, with other children who were roaming freely in the streets, a rough human figure out of mud, naming him General Rebollo and imagining superpowers for him. Later, she picks up a dead dog that had “fallen from the sky” (it had been tossed over a wall) and throws it at the knees of an adult she instinctively dislikes.

The most striking of these moments involves a young girl named María who confided in Emma, pulling a tiny porcelain doll from a pouch and claiming that it was her brother. She placed the doll “very softly to her ear, and from behind her lovely hair she began to smile.” When Emma excitedly told the other girls about the doll, this reader was certain they would mercilessly tease María, or worse. Instead, they reveled in the imaginative release, bringing food for the brother to “eat” so that he could continue giving them news from outside the convent’s walls.

But the most banal details, often of a scatological nature, are the most disturbing. As a tiny child, Reyes walked each morning to empty her home’s shared bedpan — its only toilet — in a garbage heap behind the local beer factory. Later, in the convent, she was charged with cleaning the five small bathrooms, which were without running water and used by 200 girls. (“I assure you it was the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in my life.”) A delirious vagrant once kissed her and then urinated on her while she ran an errand one night. The nuns psychologically tortured her for days because she was wetting the bed each night.

In addition to recording the experience of poverty and emotional abandonment, the book captures how a certain kind of religious education combined with neglect can deform young people. The convent was “not an orphanage,” Reyes writes, but a workhouse where the girls toiled for 10 hours a day doing embroidery, tailoring and laundry. (“Our age, our abilities — neither mattered; there was always work for all of us.”) Most of the girls, including Emma, were kept illiterate during their time there.

“It never occurred to us to protest, or to demand justice,” she writes. “Our lives had no future, our only ambition being to go from the convent directly to heaven, untouched by the world.”

The most sophisticated aspect of this book, conceived as an amateur’s project — “she wanted the book to be published with errors,” the editor Felipe González once said; “she cultivated her mistakes” — is just how meticulously Reyes maintains the perspective of a child throughout. When she remembers how one nun taught her that Jesus “wasn’t on the earth anymore,” and had “gone to live with his rich dad who was in the clouds,” it’s as if we are the child learning this lesson.

Only in the framing of the letters, in their occasional direct address to Arciniegas, do we directly glimpse the knowing, charming adult Reyes, a worldly, creative woman who went on to befriend Frida Kahlo, Jean-Paul Sartre and others.

She writes at the end of one letter, from Paris in 1969, about remembering the first automobile arriving in the small Colombian town of Guateque, describing it as a “horrific, black monster advancing toward the center of the plaza,” its yellow headlights “enormous, wide-open eyes.” Then she signs off with: “Tonight the first human landed on the moon. Kisses.”

As moving as this book can be, there is something inherently incomplete and unpolished about it. It is not a conventional memoir and doesn’t offer all the satisfactions of one. But the fragments here are potent and, against all odds, even lovely.

The story ends with Reyes’s ingeniously managing to leave the convent. Later, she would suffer more horrors. In his introduction, the acclaimed Peruvian-American novelist Daniel Alarcón, who also did the powerful translation, mentions that Reyes’s newborn child was killed in front of her during unrest in Paraguay. She went on to lead a long, eventful life that took her around the world. It’s ungrateful to want more than this artifact, which transforms suffering into art, but it’s hard not to wish that Reyes had written about her time in full.

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