“Startling and astringently poetic.” —The New York Times
A literary discovery: an extraordinary account, in the tradition of The House on Mango Street and Angela’s Ashes, of a Colombian woman’s harrowing childhood
This astonishing memoir was hailed as an instant classic when first published in Colombia in 2012, nearly a decade after the death of its author, who was encouraged in her writing by Gabriel García Márquez. Comprised of letters written over the course of thirty years, and translated and introduced by acclaimed writer Daniel Alarcón, it describes in vivid, painterly detail the remarkable courage and limitless imagination of a young girl growing up with nothing.
Emma Reyes was an illegitimate child, raised in a windowless room in Bogotá with no water or toilet and only ingenuity to keep her and her sister alive. Abandoned by their mother, she and her sister moved to a Catholic convent housing 150 orphan girls, where they washed pots, ironed and mended laundry, scrubbed floors, cleaned bathrooms, sewed garments and decorative cloths for the nuns—and lived in fear of the Devil. Illiterate and knowing nothing of the outside world, Emma escaped at age nineteen, eventually establishing a career as an artist and befriending the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as European artists and intellectuals. The portrait of her childhood that emerges from this clear-eyed account inspires awe at the stunning early life of a gifted writer whose talent remained hidden for far too long.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,800 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Daniel Alarcón (translator/introducer) is one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” best fiction writers. His books include the novels Lost City Radio and At Night We Walk in Circles, which was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award; the story collections War by Candlelight and The King Is Always Above the People, which was longlisted for the National Book Award; and the graphic novel City of Clowns. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, n+1, and Harper’s Magazine. Alarcón teaches at the Columbia University Journalism School and is the executive producer of Radio Ambulante, an award-winning Spanish-language podcast distributed by NPR.
Read an Excerpt
Letter Number 1
My dear Germán:
Today at noon General de Gaulle left Élysée, his only luggage the eleven million nine hundred forty-three thousand two hundred thirty-three NO votes cast by the Frenchmen who have repudiated him.
I had mixed feelings about this news, but curiously, it brought to mind my oldest childhood memory.
The house we lived in consisted of just one very small room with no windows, and a door that faced the street. This room was located on Carrera Séptima in a working-class neighborhood in Bogotá called San Cristóbal. The tram passed directly in front of our house and stopped a few meters ahead at a beer factory called Leona Pura and Leona Oscura. In that room lived my sister, Helena, another child whose name I didn't know whom we called Piojo, and a woman I remember only as an enormous tangle of black hair; it covered her completely, and when it was down I'd scream with fright and hide under the bed.
Our life took place in the streets. Every morning I would go to the garbage heap behind the beer factory to empty the bedpan we'd all used during the night. The bedpan was enormous and glazed with white enamel, little of which remained. Every day it was full to the very top, the odors that emerged from it so nauseating that I often threw up. There was no electric light or toilet in our room. Our toilet was that bedpan, where we did all our business. The trip to the garbage heap with that overflowing bedpan was the worst part of my day. I had to walk, scarcely breathing, eyes fixed on the shit, following its rhythm, possessed by terror that I might spill it, which would mean dreadful punishment. I gripped the bedpan firmly with both hands, as if I were carrying a precious object. The weight was also tremendous, a test of my strength. Because my sister was older, she had to go to the spigot to bring the water we needed for the day. As for Piojo, he had to go for coal and take out the ashes, so neither of them could ever help me carry the bedpan, since they went in the other direction. The best part of my day came once I'd emptied the bedpan on the garbage heap. That's where all the neighborhood kids hung out; playing, screaming, sliding down a mountain of clay, squabbling with each other, fighting. They rolled around the mud puddles and dug through the garbage looking for what we called treasures: cans of beer to make music, old shoes, pieces of wire or rubber, sticks, old dresses. Everything interested us; it was our game room. I couldn't play much because I was the smallest and the bigger kids didn't like me. My only friend was a boy we teased for his limp—we nicknamed him Cojo, even though he was also the biggest of the children. He'd lost one foot completely, sliced off by the tram one day when he was arranging Leona bottle tops on the rails so the tram might flatten them like coins. Like the rest of us, Cojo didn't wear shoes, and he helped himself along with a stick, his only foot executing extraordinary leaps. When he started to run, no one could catch him.
Cojo was always waiting for me at the entrance to the dump. I emptied the bedpan, cleaned it quickly with weeds or old papers, and hid it in a hole, always the same one, behind a eucalyptus tree. One day Cojo didn't want to play because he had a stomachache, and we sat beneath the slide to watch the others play. The clay was wet, and I began to make a tiny figurine from it. Cojo always wore the same pair of pants, his only pair, three times his size, tied with a piece of rope around his waist. He hid everything in the pockets of those pants: rocks, spinning tops, pieces of glass, and a knife blade with its handle missing. When I finished the clay figurine, he took his half-knife and used the tip to make two holes for the eyes and another slightly bigger one for the mouth. But when he finished he said, "This doll is very small. Let's make it bigger."
And we made it bigger, adding mud to it.
The next day we returned, and it was lying where we'd left it. Cojo said, "We're going to make it bigger."
And the others came and said: "We're going to make it bigger."
One of them found an old, very large board, and we decided we'd make the figurine grow until he was that size, and then, atop that board, we could carry him around, marching. For many days we added more and more mud to the figurine until he was as big as the board. Then we decided to give him a name: General Rebollo. I don't know why we chose that name, but it doesn't matter: General Rebollo became our God. We dressed him in whatever we found in the garbage heap; the races came to an end, the fighting, the leaping. Now everything revolved around General Rebollo, the central character in all our games. For days and days we lived around his board. Sometimes we made him seem good, sometimes evil; most of the time he was magical, possessed of superpowers. That's how many days passed, and many Sundays, which, for me, were the worst days of the week. From noon until the evening on Sundays, I was left alone, locked in our only room. There was no light other than what came through the cracks and the large keyhole, and I spent hours with my eye pressed to the hole to see what was happening in the street and to forget that I was afraid. Often, when the woman with long tangled hair and Helena and Piojo returned, they'd find me asleep against the door, exhausted from so much looking out, and so much dreaming of General Rebollo.
But after inspiring a thousand and one games, General Rebollo's heroism began to wane. Our tiny imaginations could find no more joy in his presence, and each day fewer and fewer of us wanted to play with him. General Rebollo began to spend long hours alone, no one taking care of the decorations that adorned him. Until one day, Cojo, who was still the most loyal, climbed atop an old bureau and pounded his improvised cane three times. His sharp voice cracking with emotion, he shouted: "General Rebollo is dead!"
In circumstances like the ones in which we lived, one is born knowing what hunger, cold, and death mean. With our heads bowed and our eyes filled with tears, we slowly gathered around General Rebollo.
Once again, Cojo shouted, "On your knees!"
We all bent a knee, drowning in tears, no one daring to say a word. The son of the coalman was older than we were, and he always sat on a rock reading pages from the newspaper he found in the trash. He came toward us, still holding the newspaper, and said, "Idiot kids, if your General has died, then bury him."
Then he left.
We all stood. Together we lifted the board with the General, and decided to bury him in the garbage heap, but all our efforts were useless: we couldn't even move the board. So we decided to bury him in pieces. We broke each leg in three parts, did the same with the arms. Cojo said the head had to be buried whole. An old can was found, and we placed the head inside; four of the kids, the oldest ones, carried it first. We all followed behind, crying like orphans. The same ceremony was repeated with each of the pieces of the legs and the arms, until all that was left was his torso, which we broke into many pieces. We made many tiny mud balls from it, and when there was nothing left of General Rebollo's torso, we played war with them.
Paris, April 28, 1969