The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir By Emma Reyes, translated and with an introduction by Daniel Alarcón
New York: Penguin Books, 2017, 177 pp., $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Marjorie Agosin

Although I teach Latin American literature, when I was asked to review The Book of Emma Reyes, I had no idea who Emma Reyes was. I wondered about the title, and decided that The Book of Emma Reyes must be a historical novel about a Latin American heroine. I wanted to get to know her. The book itself is beautiful. It is slim and elegant, with colorful, abstract design on the cover, elegant type, and sepia-colored pages. In the age of digital books, it is a joy to hold a real, physical book.

Once I started The Book of Emma Reyes I could not put it down. It is not a historical novel but rather an autobiography in letters, like no other I have read in Latin American literature. Reyes’s story of a horrific and abusive childhood is infused with lyricism, humor, and beauty.

As translator Daniel Alarcón explains in his introduction, the publication of this book is a miracle. He has done a superb job of introducing an international audience to Emma Reyes—and perhaps interest in her life and work will awaken interest in other women artists of her time, such as Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who settled in Mexico during the late 1930s and lived in relative obscurity until the 1980s, when art historians began to take interest in their work. Like Reyes, Varo and Carrington were painters as well as writers who wrote unconventional autobiographies—Varo in the form of a cookbook of dreams, and Carrington in the fantasy, The Hearing Trumpet (1976). Like theirs, The Book of Emma Reyes will become a classic.

The Book of Emma Reyes was originally published in Spanish as Memoria por encargo (1967) and became an instant bestseller. It consists of 23 letters written over eighteen years to Reyes’s friend Germán Arciniegas, a historian and journalist. Although Reyes meant the letters to be confidential, Arciniegas showed them to the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. Reyes stopped all communication with Arciniegas, but later resumed the friendship and the correspondence. According to Alarcón, Arciniegas encouraged Reyes to write her autobiography, but she decided to let the letters become her autobiography.

The letters are not dated, but there is an internal order to them. In the first half of the book, we enter into the sordid conditions and physical and emotional decay of Reyes’s harrowing childhood. She and her sister were imprisoned in rooms without toilets; Reyes describes a door with “three locks, two large padlocks, one chair and two thick wooden bars … that separated us from the world.” There, they would wait until dark, when an abusive adult would come to feed them. Their story may remind readers of Oliver Twist, but it is told without sentimentality or self-pity. Instead, Reyes’s vivid descriptions of the traumatic events of her life are full of lyricism and even humor—an inspiration to readers to live with hope under the cruelest of life’s adversities.

In the second half of the book, Reyes and her half-sisters end up in a convent for abandoned youth, where they remain for fifteen years, until their escape. Even in this religious institution, they endure abuse. Reyes writes, “We came from a world so distant from that of the convent that our adjustment was very slow and difficult.” The children are forced to labor constantly and are often beaten by the nuns. “The work was hard, we had to wash the floors of the chapel, the sacristy, and the tiny room near the front where the priest entered to lead masses,” she writes. Then, Reyes is chosen:

The Mother Superior and Sor Carmelita decided I would be the one to make a robe for the Pope. The only quality the nuns recognized in me that I was the best embroiderer, perhaps because they trained me so young and I knew the secrets of each kind of cloth, each kind of stitching for each thread.

Her later vocation as a painter may have begun in the convent, where she learned to draw in cloth. (Unfortunately, the book does not cover Reyes’s career as a Latin American painter living in Europe.)

After I completed reading this intense and brief collection of letters, which have such a sense of immediacy, I realized they were written by a woman who was illiterate as a child and only learned to write at age fifteen. Because Reyes is so tenacious and determined to learn, she is able to turn her somber experiences around and begin a new life as a painter.

Because of the ups and downs of Reyes’s life, I often thought that this book could fall into the category of the picaresque novel. Her last letter is particularly moving, as she tells of an encounter between two worlds. From her captivity at the convent, she sees the milk man on the other side of the fence. The person who has the keys to the convent falls asleep while praying and thus Reyes is able to escape—although her visionary tenacity has always made her free.

After reading Reyes’s letters I was filled with questions: what happened after her escape? When did she decide to paint? We learn from Alarcón’s introduction that she became a world traveler and befriended the writer Alberto Moravia, the filmmaker Federico Fellini, and other artists, and that she became a kind of godmother to Latin American artists and intellectuals living in Europe, but I wanted to know more. I hope that soon, someone will write a comprehensive biography of Reyes.

This is an important book by a relatively unknown artist who deserves to be better known. It will hold a special place in my heart, as it reveals the persistence of the hope for a better life. Reyes succeeded in her quest, and in turn I have become richer by reading and knowing her. Each of her letters is an act of courage as well as of transformation.

Marjorie Agosín is a poet and human rights activist. She teaches at Wellesley college. Her most recent book is Las Islas Blancas (2016). 

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