SECOND OPINION: The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir in Correspondence by Emma Reyes

Review published on September 4, 2017.

If this beautiful and honest tale of childhood doesn’t touch you it may be time to seek some professional help. Reyes writes with an authenticity that makes you feel a connection to her through her tragic story. Her brilliance, compassion and charm exude from every page. This epistolary memoir is heartfelt and passionate yet unsentimental and insightful. Ultimately, these letters reveal the triumph of Reyes’ life. Emma Reyes is not only a woman who survived a cruel childhood but went on to have a full and rewarding life. How you could read this volume and not be in awe of this brave human being? From the experience of my own cozy childhood I can only wonder at how well I might have coped if I was brought up in these circumstances. So reading Reyes is an uplifting experience because her spirit in indomitable.

Reyes experienced the worst of poverty in pre-war Colombia, she grew up illiterate and unloved. This memoir takes a frank look at her early life with her siblings; her older sister, Helena, and her younger brother (sent to an orphanage when he was an infant). I wouldn’t normally read a memoir of early childhood and a convent upbringing. My trepidation, possibly unfairly, comes from all the ‘misery memoir’ in the bookshops (not to denigrate the personal experience of anyone but the books are mostly unoriginal, formulaic and badly written). I am so glad that I did step outside my comfort zone and had the sense to read this intelligent book.

If Emma Reyes is familiar at all it is as a painter but after this volume she will be seen as a writer of real talent. Sadly, this volume is all there is as Reyes died in 2003. I had a vague idea of the artist who worked in Mexico with Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo. There are examples of Reyes paintings on line and at the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America in England but she is considered a peripheral artist. The book does contains a few of her line drawings. Reyes paintings are ethnic, beautiful and full of life.

The origin of this autobiographical work is as charming as the story within it is dark. This memoir could so easily have passed into oblivion and would not have been published but for the perseverance and dedication of a few individuals who believed in Reyes. In Europe after the second world war Reyes met the Colombian critic and historian, Germán Arciniegas. When he heard her many stories he told her to write about her experience. Reyes dismissed the idea saying that she wouldn’t know how to go about it. So Arciniegas came up with the idea that she should write to him, one letter at a time. Between 1969 and 1997 (his death) Reyes wrote the 23 letters that comprise this volume. Thanks to the custodian of her papers and the Arciniegas family the letters were rescued for publication and finally appeared 9 years after her death to instant acclaim.

Reyes manages to tell her story through the eyes of a very small child with the kind of understanding of people and events that is naïve and innocent but that helps the reader to comprehend her view of her world. Reyes provides genuine insight into her younger self. The only learning she has is intuit. Reyes only knows her mother as the angry woman with dark tussled hair called Maria. Maria does not bother to explain or teach her children anything about the world outside the room they live in. Nothing about family, love, people or her even her own father. That for me is a category of deprivation I had never considered – being deprived of guidance and help with understanding life as well as love and physical needs not being met. Despite this Emma Reyes develops her own sense of love and compassion. Although this memoir can be heartbreaking there are many lighter moments. As a child she manages to find joy and tenderness along the way. Happiness comes from the strangest of sources. At one point, she describes working eighteen hours a day to complete a garment and yet is happy that the work is supervised by her favourite nun – for a while they are allowed to chatter and be boisterous, and they are well fed.

The style of writing is very straightforward, the most complex of emotions and desperate situations are conveyed in clear simple prose, not a hint of cliché or artifice. To her credit, Reyes did not try to manipulate her style for the sake of appearing more erudite. So there are random breaks in some stories and the occasional change of tack mid paragraph but the honesty of the writing shines out. Consider this description of being left alone in the convent for the first time having just been abandoned by her mother, “[the nuns left]….The door closed behind them, separating us from the world for almost fifteen years”. That matter of fact end to one of the letters is so poignant. Finally, Emma leaves the convent when she is nineteen.

Given such a tough start in life you might forgive Reyes wallowing in a little self pity but not a bit of it, by contrast this is life affirming. To come through so much and to achieve a full and productive life as painter, teacher and mentor is inspiring. As the excellent introduction by Daniel Alarcón tells us: in adult Reyes saw her child murdered by bandits, left South America for Paris on an art scholarship and married the ship’s doctor on route across the Atlantic. She lived her life in many places in the company of intellectuals and fellow exiles (among them; Sartre, Pasolini and Moravia).

Some may be upset by Reyes honesty but ultimately this is a rich and rewarding read. It is a great pity that Reyes did not write the autobiography of her adult life. Emma Reyes had no formal education to speak of but her ability to use words to cut to the heart is profound and, as I said before, life affirming.

Paul Burke 4/5

The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir in Correspondence by Emma Reyes
W&N 9781474606592 hbk Aug 2017

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