Dog Bite Degustation: Skarmeta's "The Postman"

on Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Legend has it that an unknown young troubadour named Robert Zimmerman once hitched cross country to sit at Woodie Guthrie's hospital bed and rattle off some of his shaky ditties much to the protest folk hero's delight. Guthrie died soon after, but not before passing the torch to the future Bob Dylan. The rest is history. A similar story of artist and protege exists in the literary world, with Alberto Manguel - possibly the world's greatest living bibliophile - reading to the blind Jorge Louis Borges. I picture the young student sitting by candlelight, gently syphoning words into Borges's thirsty ears. In his gorgeous novella The Postman, Antonio Skarmeta explores the unique connection of two like-minded artists, albeit of greatly differing ability, in the midst of Chile's tumultuous 1973 coup.

I can safely say that The Postman is the only romance that I truly love. Shakespeare interests me linguistically, and I can't help but be intrigued by the way in which generations swoon over Rilke, but even those two greats cause my overactive retch reflex to kick into high gear. I'm also somewhat allergic to poetry. I don't get hives like I do with romance, but my eyes get itchy and nose drips until I am well out of the poet's grasp. God knows I've tried to like it as a form, and there has been the odd exception, but for the most part it just has me reaching for the antihystemines. My point being, I really shouldn't have liked The Postman.

The story is deceptively simple. Owing more to circumstance than direction, Mario Jiminez finds himself working as a postman in a small fishing village on Isla Negra. There aren't many people on the island, and for the most part the mail can be handled by the surly postmaster. However, on the outskirts of the village, set away from the other houses, lives the island's resident celebrity - the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. His mail alone requires a second delivery boy and so each day Mario fills his backpack with letters, hops on his bicycle and rides to the poet's house. Mario is a simpleton, a dreamer, who fails to see the beauty in poetry until he falls for the beautiful Beatriz and calls upon Neruda to be his Cyrano. Neruda, however, seeks to find the words in Mario's heart and have him become a poet in his own right. As the two spar good-heartedly, a political storm rolls in over the horizon. Neruda is touted as the next president of Chile, a chalice he suspects might well be poisoned. The only accolade that he awaits with any true desire is the Nobel Prize. When Allende gets the party nomination he is relieved, even more so when he is chosen to be Chilean ambassador to France. It is while Neruda is overseas that Pinochet takes control and the crushing power of his dictatorship comes to bear on Chile, including our little fishing village. History had it that Pablo Neruda died in September 1973, back home on Isla Negra. Mario's fate is less certain. He sends his entry, a poem that he has been working on for months, to a competition being run by the national paper La Quinta Rueda. And then he disappears. It seems his political convictions, thrown around with naive bluster, might well have guided the hand on his death warrant.

Skarmeta evokes the simplicity of village life, and the rollercoaster ride of Mario's heart without condescension. His Neruda is convincing, and the relationships between the poet, his protege and Beatriz charming. He even writes believable sex scenes. The political tension rolls in so subtly, that when it hits at the end it is like a sucker punch in the guts. I was left a little dazed by the final message, which seems to suggest that, in the wash-up of history, one's life is of little consequence. Or perhaps that was the final tragedy of it all.


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