REVIEW: A Fine Novel, Based on a Real-Life Case of Literary "Catfishing"

The Sky Over Lima by Juan Gomez Barcena

Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt,  288 pages.

By Shalene Gupta

The year is 1904, the place Lima, and the passion poetry.  Best friends Carlos Rodriguez and José Gálvez are the heirs to wealthy families, but play at being impoverished poets who live in a garret. Their dedication to the idea of being poets, however, is greater than their talent.

The two write to a poet named Juan Ramón Jiménez asking him for a copy of his latest book, but he fails to reply. They write again; this time as the lovely and mysterious but imaginary Georgina Hübner. When Jiménez replies this time, the pair set out to seduce him in hopes of inspiring the poem of a century.

Juan Gómez Bárcena’s debutnovel, The Sky Over Lima, translated by Andrea Rosenburg, is a love letter to readers and writers. It is a meditation on writing and loving literature embroidered with meta-observations about the structure of novels.  One example: during the lull in the rising action, just as the reader begins to wonder if it’s time for a snack or for bedtime, Bárcena writes, “the plot must seem to falter for a moment—the beginning of the second act—passing through a low spot or a valley, a brief plateau of boredom, and then that something happens.”

For a truly delicious mind-bender, The Sky Over Lima -- which elaborately discusses the nature and process of creating fiction –- is based on a true story. Two poets really did catfish 1956 Nobel Laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez -- a fact that may not well known to English readers. For this morsel alone, this novel would be worth a read,  But lovers of literature will find far more to delight their souls, even if Bárcena’s playfulness occasionally wears thin.

Life in Lima in 1904 was full of strikes, poverty, and prostitution. Bárcena builds the groundwork to examine these issues, but he approaches them in a halting manner.  His characters tiptoe in and then retreat to the safety of poetry. Bárcena himself notes that this might be why his characters’ writing suffers.

For the majority of the novel, Andrea Rosenburg’s translation works well. She shifts smoothly from tongue-in-cheek to solemn and meditative and as the narrative demands, however, she is less reliable on the poetry. Rosenburg chooses to translate Jiménez’s poems into the ornate language of English poetry.  As a result, the poems, which are painfully raw in Spanish, whimper. They bogged down by phrases like “gentle zephyr” and “formless longings.” The poetry is not a large part of the novel, but it is important enough that what should be a breath-taking finale falls flatter than it should.

Yet even so, anyone who has ever wept over a poem or burned to write more and better and despaired because their talent let them down will read this novel and come away feeling understood. If that isn’t reason to read, what is? 

Shalene Gupta is a writer based in Boston. A former Fortune reporter, she is currently working on a novel.