Spain’s Bárcena has based his first novel on a true if bizarre literary hoax concocted in 1904: a romantic correspondence between rising young Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jiménez (eventual recipient of the 1956 Nobel Prize) and two Peruvian men pretending to be a young female fan.
Law students Carlos Rodriquez and José Gálvez decide to write Jiménez, the author of Violet Souls, to ask him to send them a copy of his latest book, which they cannot find in Lima’s bookstores. Both young men are wealthy aspiring poets. But Carlos, raised in a family of new money and no lineage, is self-conscious and self-effacing around casually self-important José, whose family can boast both money and a prestigious ancestry. As a kind of joke, which they share with their friends, the men decide to pretend to be a well-born young poetry lover named Georgina Hübner. Carlos, who has been teased for his feminine handwriting, does the actual writing of Georgina’s letters. Eventually Carlos comes up with the idea of turning the correspondence into a novel, and soon the novel takes over his life. The more he feels driven to write, the less ambition he has to be a great writer. José writes less, but his ambition for literary success grows. Thanks to advice from a professional love-letter writer, Georgina’s letters become more personal. After she shares a “tragedy” similar to one Jiménez has experienced, the poet is clearly smitten. In a different way, so is Carlos, who has modeled Georgina after his only experience approaching love, with a child prostitute he encountered when he was only 13. The correspondence stalls when Lima’s dockworkers go on strike, stopping trans-Atlantic mail delivery. The strike also causes a rift between Carlos, who has a new sociopolitical awareness, and José, who doesn’t. Nevertheless, the novel/correspondence continues until it reaches an unexpected crisis point.
Charming if a bit precious, Bárcena’s novel is both a love letter to the creative process and a contemplation on the sometimes-blurred line between life and art.