Emma Reyes’ Book: A Memoir in Correspondence review – portrait of a painter’s heartbreaking adolescence | Autobiography and memory


AAccording to translator Daniel Alarcón in his introduction, even the existence of Emma Reyes’ book is “miraculous”. She died in 2003, aged 84, in Bordeaux – an emigrant from her native Colombia, little known as a painter (singular style of densely decorative primitivism), not at all as a writer. She “rubbed shoulders with Alberto Moravia, Jean-Paul Sartre” and was “a kind of godmother of Latin American artists and writers” in France – but only two people knew that she had written this book: Reyes’ friend, Germán Arciniegas , a Colombian historian and journalist, and Gabriel García Márquez.

The book includes 23 letters to Arciniegas that recall the heartbreaking start of his life as a child and puberty. It is portrayed with such original grace and raw honesty, such a childish eye for detail and a disarming explanation of the inexplicable, that it is as poetic as it is horrible. A fatal fire caused by fireworks upon the arrival of the governor of the Choco region in the town of Chaqueta is “the most beautiful and the most extraordinary spectacle of my childhood”. And the day her baby half-brother is abandoned by their mother: “I did not cry, because the tears would not have been enough”.

The first 18 letters from Paris date from 1969 to 1972, after which Arciniegas showed them to Marquez. The master responded with praise, but Reyes was furious at what she considered a breach of confidentiality and stopped writing for 20 years – the last letter, from Bordeaux, is dated 1997. The book does not appear. that now thanks to the tenacity of a small publisher from Bogotá called Laguna Libros.

Subliminally, since it is childhood memories, political themes – as well as human ones – animate the book. Little Emma’s recollections tell, without saying it, that her mother, María, is the mistress of others with whom she has children, including a politician who becomes the aforementioned governor of the Choco. For this, a half-brother called Eduardo must be taken away from them for better concealment, and a second little boy, loved only by Emma, ​​abandoned. A sort of Latin descendant of the last days of the Nana de Zola, the life of Mother María exposes the arrogant abuse of fathers towards their concubines, but she is rubbish to them – and the children that flow from it are rubbish to her.

They grow up in squalid places, seeking the drama and stolen pleasures that flow from their need to love and be loved. Emma and her older half-sister, Hélène, are soon abandoned, and so begins the “second act”, locked in a convent so tyrannical that Reyes tries to conform to it in his own way: loving the statues of the Virgin ; fancy a first communion dress.

But she was “born in sin”, according to the mother superior and the priest, and comes to realize her value. She “is bored to death sitting down during catechism lessons” and prefers “to chat with God and Mary”.

One of the paintings Emma Reyes exhibited during her first French exhibition at Galerie Kléber, Paris in 1949. Photograph: © Emma Reyes

Young Emma injects magic into realism and vice versa – it’s not for nothing that Reyes is a compatriot of Marquez. A “new girl” arrives with a doll that becomes an occult fetish, with more compelling “world” stories “than sacred history stories”. Children sleep, and are often kept for days, locked in a windowless room. The geography and regime of the convent – also an embroidery workshop – is explained as a series of padlocks and barriers, reflecting its own isolation.

At 19, Emma connects with “the world” beyond the locks by meeting the eye of a milkman through a hole he made in the wall of the convent, where, characteristically, she sees laughing. Now she must return to this world she came from, and does so by stealing the key while her guardian prays – an act of freedom that is both intimate and epic, like the book itself.

Emma Reyes’ book: a corresponding memoir by Emma Reyes is published by W&N (£ 16.99). To order a copy for £ 12.74, go to bookstore.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK delivery from £ 10, online orders only. Min p & p phone orders £ 1.99

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