Winner of the Fintro Prize for Literature
Poetic prose full of magical realism, biographical details and psychological insight. – Opzij (Dutch feminist magazine)
Malva, a precocious eight-year-old ghost, is running amok in the afterlife with a cadre of other lost children. She searches for her father, the famous poet Pablo Neruda, and wants him to know the details of her small, but not insignificant life. Why did he abandon her, and her mother Maria? And what became of him? Who was he before he had a child? And what did she, his only child, mean to him?
From her omniscient perspective, the once disabled and mute Malva now travels through the world and through time, seeing her father as a young boy, later as he courted her mother in Dutch-Indonesia, and how his political passions drove his life. She scrutinizes every moment, seeking to understand and resolve her loss. With the wisdom of a child, she picks up her father’s pen and conducts literary mischief, courting the great poets of our time and bringing her chosen ghostwriter, Hagar Peeters, news of her own father, who was a journalist in Chile during the coup and Neruda’s mysterious death.… Startling, profound, and graceful, Peeters brings to readers the world Malva could not describe in life, an extraordinary story of love that spans earth and heaven.
Hagar Peeters (b. 1972), nominee for Dutch Poet Laureate, has won numerous prizes and published several volumes of poetry: Enough Poems Written About Love Today (1999), Suitcases of Sea Air (2003), Runner of Light (2008) and Maturity (2011). She spent ten years researching the life of Malva in The Netherlands and Chile. She lives in Amsterdam with her son.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
GODSAKE THAT FATHER OF MINE was always cock
of the walk when it came to social injustice.
He was a fellow traveler, mover
on the waves of history, describing them
with a steady hand, bullet-free and steadfastly
venturing far into distant misty cities,
further than the shirt and then the skirt
my mother hitched up
to give birth to me.
Dammit my father whom I was so proud of
I wanted to follow him,
a little kiddie companion;
even on his knee I travelled upsy-daisy
on a camel through the desert with the caravan
far away from her who for years to come
lay moaning in her bedroom
letting in neither sleep nor daylight,
no outside air, no foreign land
and no fatherly face to make her wilt further
than my birth
but my father, ay ay compañero, was in Chile,
Nicaragua, on a steam liner crossing the ocean,
in a Bolivian clink with beard, knife and hat
thinking the world too small for him
while she raised a whole new life on her own.
My footprints melt in snow.
They take the shape of an accidental animal
then suddenly vanish halfway.
MY NAME IS MALVA Marina Trinidad del Carmen Reyes, Malvie to my friends here; Malva to all the others. In my defense, I can assure you that I did not, of course, come up with this name myself.
My father did that. Oh, you know him, the great poet. Just as he gave titles to his poems and poetry collections, he gave me a name;
one that he himself never uttered in public. My eternal life started after my death in Gouda in 1943, where my funeral was attended by a small handful of people. Very different from my father’s funeral,
thirty years later in Santiago de Chile.
In a manner that would have been the envy of Socrates, my father passed away in the Santa Maria Hospital in Santiago after the staff managed to smother the hysteria that had overcome him on hearing of so much barbarous injustice that he, who had always been amiable and calm and able to keep a cool head even under the most horrendous circumstances, had flown into fits of rage and desperate screaming, in short: had ranted like one possessed, until finally the white-coated doctor arrived to calm him down with a sedative jab and the sweet slumber he sank into made a giant slip-up,
sloping down into infinity like an endless chute and my father felt the delicious descent tingle in his underbelly while actually rising up to the realms of the afterlife, where I will not meet him for a long time to come but where he has to be somewhere none the less, as the afterlife is large and besides, he was as dead as a doornail, or so the doctors concluded unanimously the next day from his stopped pulse and the indisputable fact that his eyes, too, stayed shut and nothing, absolutely nothing about him moved; not the faintest breeze stirred in those limbs, which were as stiff and motionless as if a solar eclipse and the dead of winter had set in suddenly and simultaneously.
I deliberately spun out the last sentence to give my father time, while it rambled on, to leave this life and enter death at his own pace.
His loss was felt most keenly by his widow, Matilde Urrutia. She bent over the dead man, kissed his hands, groped around on the floor next to his bed for the fountain pen that had slipped from his fingers, eventually spotted it out of reach when already kneeling with one arm stretched under the bed, gruffly asked the nurse for a broom to sweep the object towards herself and – mischievous, incorrigible Patoja – stuck it behind her ear under a casually tumbling lock of hair, resolving to use it later to copy out his memoirs before writing her own account of their life together.
Halfway on his lengthy journey to the realm of the dead, I decided to accompany my stiff-stolid father. I took the hand which he had used for writing during just about all his life, and for a little while, we floated over Santiago’s smouldering rooftops together. The presidential palace, the park, the stadium, the slums full of labourers and the Mapocho River all lay far below us. My father saw not only his friends being tortured to death, but also the funeral procession accompanying him to his stone tomb, streaming through the streets down below like a living, human branch of the Mapocho, while countless corpses drifted down the river itself.
We heard the faraway battle cries coming from that direction,
the Internationale, the cheering of the Communist Youth and, half carried away by the wind but still audible: "¡Camarada Pablo Neruda!
¡Presente! ¡Ahora y siempre!"
And all around, we saw spirits rise from the buildings, the stadium, the fields and the harbour, taking to the empty sky like us.
I doubt my father noticed me at his side, by the way, even though
I was holding his hand all the time. He kept staring straight down as if trying to imprint every act of the human tragedy unfolding below us on his memory. Now and forever. The wind, a measure of his fever dream, seemed to have more grasp on him than on me; he started rising faster. So I let him go, staring after him for a while until he had disappeared from my view.
Federico was nowhere to be seen; neither were Salvador,
Miguel or Víctor. No one from his exuberant, ever-expanding,
never-thinning entourage, whose members came from all over the continent, indeed eventually the whole world, surrounding him wherever he went; not even a single one of his most devoted readers had turned up posthumously to attend my father’s transition into the afterlife. And I kept asking myself why I, of all the dead who had known him, was the one allowed to see him off.
Now I understand it was so I would be able to tell you about it.
I was still marveling at the unstoppable flow of people appearing out of every corner of Santiago de Chile on September 25, 1973, to join my father’s funeral procession, when, in the depth below, I
suddenly spotted your father. You probably won’t believe me, but honestly, Hagar: there he was, the tall Dutchman, in the middle of the swelling crowd of the living that had consisted of a couple of hundred people at first but had eventually grown into thousands.
Why else do you think I chose you to tell my story to? He was on the alert. Notebook flipped open, he wrote down all he saw while at the same time taking great care not to be singled out by the sharp eye of one of the many carabinieros.
The notes he made that day have been preserved, written in the endearing homespun code language he used so he’d be able to save himself if he was arrested despite all caution, as had happened before in Bolivia. Several years earlier, under Ovando’s dictatorship, he had languished in the prisons of La Paz and Oruro for three weeks under suspicion of having contact with guerrilleros. From my heavenly heights, I pored over the hieroglyphs your father was committing to paper at that moment in Chile, their meaning as clear as day to me the moment I saw them. I let his words sink in and then I let your father go, too, and glided on alone, following the funeral procession below me like a condor a colony of rabbits. There was Matilde again, la Patoja, walking along on her short legs: brave, determined and on the brink of being plunged into a deep grief that was starting to seep into her soul drop by drop, like the never-ending southern rain leaking through the hole in the zinc roof of her ramshackle parental home in Chillán.
Now this Patoja – the nickname my father had lovingly given the last of his three wives meant “little short-legs” in Chilean Spanish, though he used “curly” and “fuzzyhead” just as often – was anything but a fool! Her “fuzzyheadedness” only applied to her hairstyle, not, as in my case, her mind. The state of her hair being variable and entirely independent of the rest of her head, my father did not think of its fuzziness as a shortcoming; on the contrary, he found it endearing. When they woke up in the morning (while I lurked in a corner like a shadow, spying on their happiness) and he would ask her: “Lazy Patoja, how much longer are you going to sleep?,”
her copper tresses lay on the bed like straw and twigs lining their little love nest. The sight of him engrossed in fondling and caressing that creature’s locks, twisting them around his finger, arranging them into outlandish shapes, would have been enough to move a medieval monk to utter the famous first words written in the Dutch language: “All the birds have started building nests, except for you and me. What are we waiting for?” Though waiting would have been pointless, anyway – my father and Matilde did not have any children together. I am the only offspring my father ever begot.
The reason my father loved la Patoja so much was of course that her hair was the colour of copper, and copper is one of Chile’s national products, and my father was mad about Chile. He had a love-hate relationship with the metal because it was in the hands of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, who used every cent generated by the sale of this valuable metal to line its own, American,
pockets. The poor Chileans, as meagre as the northern desert soil itself, didn’t earn a copper-coloured cent from it. The nationalisation of such thoroughly Chilean products snapped up by large foreign corporations, which had been set in motion so dynamically under the new regime, led to the coup. The multinationals, supported by the United States out of fear of another Cuba, brought the degenerate general to power, and the junta forced the democratically chosen socialist president Salvador Allende to take his own life – which,
and I have to say this, directly or indirectly also resulted in the death of my father. In any case, this love-hate relationship did not affect his pure love for Matilde. While his first wife – my mother, a Dutchwoman from Batavia – was an eccentric foreigner, his second, dare-devil Delia, came from an Argentinian background already less exotic to my father, and when he finally hooked up with his last companion, she had the added benefit of being familiar with the poverty, the cold and the ceaseless rains of rural southern Chile.
Her coppery, homey smell and warmth must have been agreeable to him, as he let her bask in his famous embrace until death drove its own, black nail in its place. And now she feared that the death my father’s sleep had slipped into so seamlessly was not a natural one. No, not a drop of blood had been shed, not a spatter spilled! This death was so perfect, so clean, leaving no dirty smudges, making sure hands and fingers were immaculate afterwards so there was no proof of evil intent. Given that the calming jab my father had been administered so professionally by a white-coated doctor may well have been poison, the comparison of my father’s death with that of the philosopher Socrates, who was handed a cup of hemlock for allegedly inciting the young to rebel against the government with his impudent but all too credible talk, is not as far-fetched as you might think. My father, too, was very possibly murdered for turning adolescents – as well as adults, by the way – against the government.
Even if it wasn’t real poison, as those who excavated and examined my father’s corpse in a different era believe to have determined, it was the venom of the times and of the events that eventually and unexpectedly killed my father, the great poet suffering from prostate cancer. This happened during the junta of General Augusto Pinochet, whose reign of terror in the Chile of the nineteen-seventies and eighties split the population into murderers on the one hand and martyrs on the other, with the ease of a coppersmith or a god forging his idols into different shapes in the heat of battle.
Pitiful Patoja, all alone in the world, my father’s widow, tireless guardian of his dreams and status, would find herself the patron saint of my father’s estate after his death. She would pass on the fruits of his pen to posterity. Former intellectual friends were all the happier to leave this job to her because, under this new regime, they suddenly wanted to distance themselves from that Communist of a Neruda, while I – the true fruit of flesh and blood though long since turned spirit – can do nothing but watch in envy as she takes command of his pages, leaving her mark of red nail varnish and sickly sweet perfume; denying and bad-mouthing any earlier and subsequent subjects of my father’s passion, covering up any affairs he had behind her back that were just beginning to come to light,
and praising the love between my father and herself to celestial heights.
So high is her praise for the love she shared with my father, it is even out of reach of the dead. I know that now, being dead myself,
and writing as the daughter who was denied her father’s love. But all-knowing as I am, I can’t help admitting that Matilde Urrutia did a competent job of surreptitiously editing my father’s memoirs,
even though I don’t get a single mention in them. Forgive me my two-facedness; it’s very confusing to be dead and forgotten as well as alive and omniscient.
Incidentally, I’m writing all of this to you with my father’s pen. I’ll tell you how I came by it later.
What People are Saying About This
From the very first line of Malva, I couldn't stop reading. It's wonderful, sensitive, and cleverly done. It is clear Hagar Peeters is a poet. She interleaves and interconnects very complex stories in a way that is easy to follow though it's an experimental novel. All the key events and people in Neruda's life somehow appear, even if in a very subtle way, and the book gives us an entrance to histories that include the Spanish Civil War, the Chilean coup, and many important poets. I am thinking about including Malva in my future classes and I truly recommend it for students, colleagues, and the general reading public.
— Verónica Cortínez, Professor of Latin American Literature and Director of Cone Studies, UCLA