Where is the heaven of lost stories?
I had my reservations about including this book as part of Nonfiction Monday (which, by the way is being hosted this week by Tammy Flanders from Apples with Many Seeds) – since it may not strictly conform to the definition of ‘nonfiction’.
Ever since our review of Monica Brown and Julie Paschkis’ Poet of the People and the recommendation provided by fellow book lover Carol Hampton Rasco, I knew I had to search for this book and feature it here. Despite its being a fictionalized retelling of Neruda’s life, I feel that it does deserve its place as part of the great poet’s biography. The summary found in the jacketflap says it all:
Combining elements of magical realism with biography, poetry, literary fiction, and sensorial, transporting illustrations, Pam Munoz Ryan and Peter Sis take readers on a rare journey of the heart and imagination.
There you go, biography is found as one of the elements here. I truly believe that Pam Munoz Ryan was able to perfectly capture Neftali Reyes’ voice with her poetic rendering of his life story – matched by the surreal artwork of the inimitable Peter Sis. I find that there is no other way to bring justice to the man who has written odes to ordinary things (ode to bicycles, ode to the lizard) – transforming these daily banalities to something deeply profound and extraordinary. Why settle with a boring biographical retelling – when Neruda’s voice would be given greater justice with random questions (requiring no answers), a leisurely-paced narrative (the taste growing richer in your tongue as you read it), and illustrations that bring you to a netherworld that only the artist Peter Sis can create.
A Walk along the Beach. Similar to my review of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, I would be veering away from sharing the plot, the characters, the storyline, a synopsis of the book – which truth be told somewhat reminds me of an obligatory book report than anything else.
I would regard this piece then as something like a walk along the shoreline of The Dreamer’s mind. That is how I felt as I was reading the book. There is that leisurely vibe to the entire narrative, the words rolling off from one’s tongue as you read some of the passages aloud for greater delectation, a smoothness of the lines in the page as one regards the clouds, the pinecones, the gnarled branches of the tree in the same way that the young Neftali Reyes did.
No, this book is not for everybody. Other readers (who may be looking for fast-paced full-blown action, a fully-configured plot with clear conflicts and easily-knotted resolutions – voila!) may be impatient with the leisurely, casual feel of the entire story that very gradually builds up in one’s creative vision that honors verse and the unhurried distillation of thought and emotion. It takes a certain level of aesthetic appreciation and a quiet honoring of the book’s voice (and allowing it to slowly emerge in its own time and pace) for one to relish the transient scribblings in Neftali’s thoughts erased dutifully by the crashing waves of the sea.
The sea is also a powerful element in the narrative – especially somewhere in the middle and in the end. The first sight of the ocean made Neftali feel this way:
Neftali’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of the infinite colors and the gentle curve of the faraway horizon. He had never imagined the height of the white spray breaking against the rocks, the dark sand, or the air that whispered of fish and salt. He stood, captivated, feeling small and insignificant, and at the same time as if he belonged to something much grander.
Yet his experience with the water and his father’s fury that summer has interwoven both loving and loathing of the sea’s grandeur:
How could he love a place so much and hate it at the same time? How could the water feel as if it were part of something deep inside of him and at the same time seem so foreign?
The Meandering Soul and its Whimsical Questions. One of the things I enjoyed deeply in the book would be Ryan’s poetic vision and her burning yet whimsical queries as inspired by Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions:
What does the wind give? What does the wind take away? Where is the storehouse of lost and found? (p. 39)
Which is sharper? The hatchet that cuts down dreams? Or the scythe that clears a path for another? (pp. 92-93)
As noted by Ryan in her comprehensive Author’s Note found at the end of the story:
Ultimately, his poetry led me. And I discovered The Book of Questions. Neruda’s spirit of inquiry was contagious and inspired me to create the voice of poetry and the questions in my text. I hope readers will retreat into their own wandering thoughts and imagine answers. (p. 355)
A snapshot of young Neftali’s Spirit – the makings of Pablo Neruda, the man. More than anything else, the book (quite thick actually at 353 pages, excluding the Author’s Note and a few of Neruda’s poetry at the very end) was able to pin down the fluid spirit of the young Neftali Reyes, the daydreamer – and Neruda, the poet. The reader gets to celebrate Neftali’s joy at finding stray leaves and pinecones lying in the path – gets to weep with him as he tends the ill-fated goose whose heart was broken irreparably – feels his spirit grow stronger and more tenacious at every beating he gets from his father’s cruelty – and eventually watch poetry grow and pulsate in his veins – regardless of his Father’s burning of his verse – words crumbling in ashes.
Ryan and Sis luxuriated in Neruda’s ruminations – filling that space with their own shades of magical realism and artful rendering of truths. There isn’t room for anyone or anything else: not Mamadre or the elder brother whose pain could both be felt at a distance – or Neftali’s Father and his wrathful and stringent ways. It really is Neruda’s book and his traveler’s soul and his words. Anyone who has an ongoing romance with wordswordswords would fall in love with this gem of a book.
I am poetry, surrounding the dreamer. Ever present, I capture the spirit, enslave the reluctant pen, and become the breath on the writer’s only road.
The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan and Illustrated by Peter Sis. Scholastic Press, New York, 2010. Book borrowed from the library. Book photos were taken by me.