But you know what? I still like literature best. And here’s a reason why.
I have just finished Antonio Skarmeta‘s book El Cartero de Neruda (originally called Ardientia Paciencia) on which the wonderful 1994 Italian film, Il Postino was based (though Skarmeta’s work is based on his own screenplay, which uses that original title mentioned above) – yes, a tad confusing, I know. In English we know Skarmeta’s work as The Postman (not to be confused with David Brin’s post-apocalypse sci-fi novel turned into the problematic Kevin Costner film – and yes, I know that’s more confusion).
Skarmeta’s novel tells the story of a shy young man who accidentally becomes friends with the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, wins the girl of his dreams, tries to support and protect both Neruda and his friends in their loyalty to Salvador Allende, and in the end is swept away, one of the desaparecidos of the government of Augusto Pinochet and Operation Condor.
The novel (really a novella given that the work is only 112 pages in English) has some of the same poetic qualities as Neruda’s poetry: a spareness that belies a cosmic vision of love in its physical, emotional, political, and spiritual characters. The shy teen Mario Jiménez, who takes the job of postman in the tiny fishing village of Isla Negra just off the Chilean coast and whose only real delivery customer is Neruda, is transformed by the poet – through the power of poetry, especially through the power of poetry’s most important device, the metaphor – into a lover (Mario’s Beatriz is named as a nod to another great poet), a husband, a father (whose son is an accident prone money pit), a provider (despite the complaints of his mother-in-law, Mario somehow finds money – or money finds him), a thinking, acting citizen. As possibly was the case with even Neruda himself, sadly, that last transformation leads to his victimization by the brutal forces of the Pinochet regime.
Skarmeta follows, with his own twists, the Hemingway dictum: an author can leave any part of a story out as long as the author knows that he/she has done so. Part of the magic of El Cartero de Neruda is that, like Neruda’s poetry, what is unsaid can leave, in the words of another great poet, “thoughts that lie too deep for tears.” We don’t completely understand the why of all that Mario thinks or does or the why of all that Neruda thinks or does. What we do understand is that both are inspired – whether by love, art, or politics – to think and do.
Mario’s ultimate act of thinking and doing is to write and submit a poem to a contest run by a Chilean magazine – a poem that, in the epilogue to his story, we learn was forgotten by the contest’s judge. Mario never knows this, for Pinochet’s secret police take him away before he learns his work’s fate. Like so much of life, it seems, Mario’s greatest moment is simply the thinking and doing itself – outcome is not the only, or even the chief, measure of human worth.
In a recent conversation with a writer friend of mine, he asked me why literary fiction (he was referring to a piece of my writing, but the same question could be asked of many literary fiction types) sometimes doesn’t seem to be anything but thinking and doing. I’ll now point him to El Cartero de Neruda – which explains that to think and to do is what makes us human – and that that is enough.