Saturday, 5 March 2016

Platero and I

Platero and I, is a prose poem, a book like none other that I have read. Platero is a donkey, owned by poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. Juan and his donkey wander about the countryside near their village of Moguer, in Andalusia in Spain. 
Platero is a small donkey, a soft, hairy donkey: so soft to the touch that he might be said to be made of cotton, with no bones. Only the jet mirrors of his eyes are hard like two black crystal scarabs. 
I didn't really get a feel for the donkey, even though I know he has a fondness for oranges, grapes, and "purple figs topped with crystalline drops of honey" (well who doesn't?), he is the passive recipient of the poets musings and observations, and his companion on his meanderings. Yes, the author has a fondness for Platero, but it wasn't passed on for me. Although I still cried when Platero died (I don't think that's a big spoiler, turns out donkey stories are like dog stories).

If I was to be unkind about Platero and I, and I am somewhat inclined to be, I would say that it was an old man wandering about Spain talking to his donkey, and that would about cover it.

Night falls, hazy and purple. Vague green and mauve luminosities persist behind the tower of the church. The road ascends full of shadows, of bells, of the fragrance of grass, of songs, of weariness, of desire. 

I was completely frustrated by the lack of narrative force. On one level it is a collection of 138 short stories, or prose poems if you want. Most a mere one or two pages long, some three pages. Elements of most are descriptive and lyrical, and really quite beautiful. But 138 disjointed fragments don't add up to anything, certainly not a cohesive, satisfying whole. Published in 1914 it is all marvellously non -PC. 

It can all be summed up for me in CVIII. The White Mare. 

I am sad, Platero ..... Look, when I was crossing Flores Street in Portada, in the same spot where lightning killed the twin children, Sordo's white mare was lying dead. Some almost naked little girls were walking around her silently. 

Dead children. Dead animals. Random nakedness. Sadness. Even the canary dies. A few moments after that passage we read how Sordo tried to dispose of his old, blind white mare but she came back to his house. He drove her away again, cutting her, only to have the town children stone her to death where she falls. It's cheery stuff alright. But poetic. 

One of her eyes was wide open, and, blind in life, now that she was dead, seemed as if it could see. 

I was surprised to learn the origin of Rio Tinto within this book (a river near Moguer, "The copper from Riotinto has poisoned everything.", now more famous as a multinational mining company), and at a reference to Oscar Wilde. One chapter, The Pomegranate, was a sensuous ode to the beauty of a pomegranate written with a deep love and respect for these jewelled fruits. 

I certainly wonder at the inclusion of this book in 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. I can't imagine any child reading it. It took all my adult will power to read it through to the end. I can't even see children enjoying it as a read aloud story. It's too disjointed, too bizarre. Platero and I was also included in one of the editions of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, so I guess I am one book closer to death. 

Juan Ramón Jiménez won the Nobel Prize, so clearly it is me who is lacking. But my struggle was real. It is the first book that I can remember reading that is translated from Spanish. I was looking forward to it for that reason, now I'm somewhat fearful of the others. Perhaps I don't understand the Spanish world view, it is certainly an unknown world for me. 



Brona said...

Oh this doesn't bode well for my desire to read Don Quixote one day. Like you I've read few Spanish books - although allegorical journeys with animals do seem to figure strongly!

At least a tick on the to-read list is an achievement :-)

I'm Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

My copy (in English) should arrive today. Donkeys? Fruit? Death? I must prepare to slog through.

Paulita said...

I hate when a book doesn't provide what you're hoping for. But good for you that you read it and found out he doesn't provide what you need in a children's book.

Javi said...

1. This is not a children's book. The book was first published unfinished without the author's will and the editor decides to publish it as a children's book because Juan Ramón dedicated it to children.

2. The original and full title of the book is "Platero and I: an Andalusian elegy", so what did you expect? It is depicting an economical and social crisis in Moguer due to a plague that ruined their vineyards (property of the author's father), which was their main economic resource as a small village. Juan Ramón came from Madrid, a city that caused him anxiety and depression, to Moguer yo find done tranquility and peace but finds this scenario instead. The book is written in this context.

3. This is not a fable, the donkey is a real donkey, giving him humanlike behaviours would be a treason to its own nature. He doesn't talk, but Juan Ramón talks to him knowing he won't answer, so of course he's just an extension of the poet, a resource to create dualism on a monologue, but also somehow the main character of the story, an allegory for all the other marginal characters that have no voice in society but are extremely important from the author's perspective in this book.