illustrator: Peter Sis
In 2004, I published in MultiCultural Review a biographical essay by Chilean-American poet and memoirist Marjorie Agosín to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pablo Neruda. For Agosín and countless other Chilean poets and dreamers, Neruda is their inspiration and hero, an essential part of their culture and themselves.
Knowing how much Neruda means to my Chilean friends, I approached The Dreamer with some trepidation. Would this fictionalized biography distort the poet’s life and words, or lose them in translation? Would the author and illustrator be able to capture essential truths while giving leeway to their own imaginations?
Right away, I noted the sense of continuity from Neruda’s words to those of Agosín and now Ryan, like Sís’s drawings of birds that grow larger and stronger, carrying Neruda’s poetry to ever more distant lands. Readers meet young Neftalí Reyes at age eight, a physically delicate child who lives in fear of his overbearing father. José Reyes, the railway foreman, wants his son to be a doctor or a dentist, but in addition to his nonstop daydreaming and playing with words, Neftalí struggles with math.
The portrait of Neftalí’s father is nuanced—he’s a self-made man who wants his children to have a better life than he had, and he fears his younger son and middle child will succumb to illness as his mother did (she died shortly after his birth). The poet’s older brother Rodolfo, younger sister Laurita, and stepmother Mamadre are also lovingly portrayed. Rodolfo tries to protect his younger brother from his father’s wrath, and Neftalí in turn feels a sense of responsibility toward Laurita when their father forces them to swim in the ocean.
Ryan touches also on the political concerns that would become an important part of Neruda’s life and work, through his Uncle Orlando, the newspaper editor, and his own meeting with a Mapuche boy his age—part of an Indigenous nation that resisted conquest for hundreds of years but was ultimately driven from ancestral lands in central and southern Chile. (Battles to reclaim those lands continue today.) Throughout the novel, names, usually only mentioned, convey the country’s Indigenous roots—the rivers Bío-Bío and Cautín, the towns Ranquilco, Lonquen, and Carahue, and the chucao bird and copihue flower.
Through vignettes real, embellished, and imagined—for Ryan ventures several times into the realm of pure fantasy—readers observe the 12-year process in which Neftalí, with the support of his siblings, Mamadre, Uncle Orlando, and other caring adults (though left out is Chile’s other Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral, whose brief relationship to the future poet is portrayed in Deborah Kogan Roy’s To Go Singing Through the World) is able to come into himself. He adopts the pen name Pablo Neruda, which circumvents his father’s fear that his literary and political pursuits will embarrass the family.
Sís’s illustrations and the book’s overall design are exquisite. This is a book that dreamers young and old will treasure. Highly recommended.