The Sky Over Lima

by Juan Gómez Bárcena and Andrea Rosenberg

A retelling of a fantastical true story: two young men seduce Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez with the words of an imaginary woman and inspire one of his greatest love poems.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544630055
  • ISBN-10: 054463005X
  • Pages: 288
  • Publication Date: 05/17/2016
  • Carton Quantity: 12

About the book

“Refreshing, comic, and sublime...The conquest in this novel, a game played by one writer and his readers, captivates, drawing us in through the seductive power of a monumental young author.” 

—Laura Esquivel, bestselling author of Like Water for Chocolate and Malinche 


“Intoxicating…I’ll be thinking of these characters, what they longed to create and what they managed to despoil, for a long time.” —Helen Oyeyemi 


A retelling of a fantastical true story: two young men seduce Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez with the words of an imaginary woman and inspire one of his greatest love poems. 


José Gálvez and Carlos Rodríguez are poets. Or, at least, they’d like to be. Sons of Lima’s elite in the early twentieth century, they scribble bad verses and read the greats: Rilke, Rimbaud, and, above all others, Juan Ramón Jímenez, the Spanish Maestro. Desperate for Jímenez’s latest work, unavailable in Lima, they decide to ask him for a copy. 


They’re sure Jímenez won’t send two dilettantes his book, but he might favor a beautiful woman. They write to him as the lovely, imaginary Georgina Hübner. Jímenez responds with a letter and a book. Elated, José and Carlos write back. Their correspondence continues, as the Maestro falls in love with Georgina, and the boys abandon poetry for the pages of Jímenez’s life. 




About the author
Juan Gómez Bárcena

JUAN GÓMEZ BÁRCENA holds degrees in literary theory, comparative literature, and history from the Complutense University of Madrid, and a degree in philosophy from Spain's National University of Distance Education. He's the author of numerous essay, short story, and poetry collections, for which he's received the José Hierro Prize for Poetry and Fiction, the International CRAPE Prize for stories, and the Ramón J. Sender Prize for Narrative, among others. He lives in Madrid.

Andrea Rosenberg

ANDREA ROSENBERG is a translator from the Spanish and Portuguese and an editor of the Buenos Aires Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Words Without Borders, The Iowa Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Absinthe, and other publications. Her translations of David Jiménez's Children of the Monsoon (Autumn Hill Books 2014) and Lina Meruane's Viral Voyages: Tracing AIDS in Latin America (Palgrave Macmillan 2014) have recently made their way to bookstores. She holds an MFA in literary translation and an MA in Spanish from the University of Iowa.



A Comedy 


At first it’s just a letter drafted many times: Dearest friend, respected poet, most esteemed sir, a different opening for every sheet of paper that ends up in a crumpled ball under the desk, glory of Spanish literature, most distinguished Ramón Jiménez, peerless bard, comrade. The next day the mulatta servant will sweep up the wads of paper scattered across the floor, thinking they’re the poems of the young master of the house, Carlos Rodríguez. But the young master is not writing poems that night. He smokes one cigarette after another with his friend José Gálvez, and together they mull over the exact words to use in writing to the Maestro. They’ve searched for his latest collection in every bookshop in Lima and found only a dog-eared copy of Violet Souls, which they’ve read many times already and whose lines they know by heart. So now they jot down grand words that a moment later sound ridiculous: Noble friend, immortal scribe, our most intrepid revitalizer of literature, might you, in your infinite kindness, offer a small courtesy to us, your friends across the Atlantic, your ardent readers in Peru — who follow your verses, Don Juan Ramón, with an admiration of which you may be unaware — might it not be too onerous an imposition on our part to humbly ask that you vouchsafe to us a copy of your most recent book, those sad arias of yours, impossible to find in Lima; might it not be an abuse of your generosity to hope to be granted that consideration even though we have not included the three pesetas that the book costs? 


When their energy flags, they drink pisco. They open the windows and look out on the empty streets. It’s a moonless night in 1904; the boys are just twenty years old, young enough that they will live to see two world wars and celebrate Peru’s triumph in the Copa América soccer tournament thirty-five years from now. But naturally they know nothing of all that tonight. They just crumple up one sheet after another, searching for words they know they’ll never find. For with the last letter they toss to the floor, they realize that they will never acquire their signed copy of Sad Arias: however much they address the poet as an eminent dignitary of literature and the great hope of Spain and the Americas, they will receive not a single line of correspondence in response if they confess that they are only two young masters playing at being poor in a Lima garret. They must embellish reality, because in the end that is what poets do, and they are poets, or at least they’ve dreamed of being poets on many late nights like this one. And that is exactly what they are about to do now: write the most difficult poem of all, one that has no verses but can touch the heart of a true artist. 


It starts out as a joke, but then it turns out it’s not a joke. One of the two says, almost idly, It would be easier if we were a beautiful woman, then Don Juan Ramón would put his entire soul into answering us, that violet soul of his — and then suddenly he stops, the two young men look at each other a moment, and almost unintentionally the mischief has already been made. They laugh, congratulate each other on this inspired idea, exchange pats on the back and two more glasses of pisco, and the next morning they meet up in the garret again with a sheet of perfumed paper that Carlos has remembered to pilfer from a sister’s desk. Carlos also takes care of the writing; his schoolmates used to tease him about his feminine handwriting, the letters soft and round like a caress, and the time has finally come to put it to good use. Whenever you’re ready, Señor Gálvez, he says, stifling his laughter, and together they begin to sound out those timeless words that require only a sheet of fine paper and a writer with a womanly hand — a poem with no verses, which will appear in no anthology, but that is poised to do what only the best poetry can: name what has never existed before and bring it to life. 


From those words Georgina will be born, timidly at first, because that’s how they write her: a young lady from Miraflores who sighs over the poetry of Juan Ramón and whose artless sincerity makes them laugh during their pauses. A girl so ingenuous she can only be beautiful. It is she who requests a copy of Sad Arias, she who is so ashamed of her own audacity, she who begs the poet to understand and to forgive her. Only the signature is missing, and with it a last name, sonorous and poetic, that the two finally agree on after a debate so long that both the liquor and the pastries run out: Georgina Hübner. 


And Georgina begins as simply that: a name and a sealed letter that will travel from hand to hand for more than a month, first in the bodice of the illiterate housemaid, then in the pocket of a lad who charges half a sol and a pinch of the maid’s broad buttocks for the errand. It will then pass through the hands of two postal workers, a customs official at the docks, and a sailor, and thence to the steamship covering the Lima–Montevideo route in a sack of letters in which bad news predominates. From Montevideo, an unnecessary detour to Asunción, thanks to a negligent postman only thirty days from retirement whose eyesight is too weak to read the delicate handwriting. From Asunción, back to Montevideo by train through the jungle, and then setting sail in the hold of a ship, where it will miraculously be saved from the jaws of a rat that has left many other letters utterly unreadable in the past. 


Still Georgina has not yet begun to live; she is still nothing more than a sheet of stationery that, in the darkness of the mailbag, is already losing its last whiff of perfume. First will come three weeks of transatlantic travel in the company of two stowaways who occasionally whisper to each other in a coarse Portuguese, and then debarkation in La Coruña, train, post office, train again, a postal worker who doesn’t read poetry and to whom the name of the addressee means nothing, and then Madrid, Madrid at last. It’s at some point on the long journey that Georgina begins to breathe and to live — so when she finally arrives at the poet’s house, she has become a flesh-and-blood woman, a languid young lady who thrums through a stream of ink and is currently awaiting a response to her letter back in Lima, at her Miraflores estate. A creature as real as the scentless letter that Juan Ramón Jiménez will read that very morning, with hands that are steady at first, but that soon begin to tremble.


One of Vulture's Fun Beach Reads of 2016 

Winner of the 2014 Ojo Crítico Literary Prize 

An official selection of the Festival du premier roman in Chambéry 


"The best heartbreaker novels are the ones that sneak up on you like this one." —Alexander Chee, Vulture 


“This marvelous story is stitched together by the seduction of three epistolary lovers, distant acquaintances that together conquer reality and fantasy, transporting us to an imaginary world that is at once refreshing, comic, and sublime. The conquest in this novel, a game played by one writer and his readers, captivates, drawing us in through the seductive power of a monumental young author.” 

Laura Esquivel, bestselling author of Like Water for Chocolate and Malinche 


“Here’s a tale with the subtlest of stings in it, dark wit and telescopic perspective aplenty. And then there's the intoxicating folly of the games that the protagonists play with fantasy and fact, malice, tenderness, ambition, envy and other forces that strike at our most vulnerable selves. I’ll be thinking of these characters, what they longed to create and what they managed to despoil, for a long time.” —Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy Snow Bird and What Is Not Your Is Not Yours 


“A beautifully written novel, chock-full of sharp humor and penetrating insight, The Sky over Lima has at its heart a captivating, ventriloquistic love story, not unlike the classic Cyrano de Bergerac. But in this epistolary romance, the woman is a fiction written by two boys—reminiscent in their way of Bolaño’s Visceral Realists—who come alive on the page as impeccably-wrought emissaries of their time and place, while remaining incredibly relatable and engaging to readers today.” —Andrè Aciman,  author of Call Me By Your Name and Harvard Square 


“Bárcena shines where so many writers stumble—his writing about art, of the artifice both in the narrative and implicit in his prose, feels alive, fresh and important. His words, which so easily could have become overwrought when translated into English, feel subtle and whimsical in Rosenberg's deft hands. Against the fascinating backdrop of Lima's burgeoning rubber industry, The Sky Over Lima explores notions of class, identity, and friendship, and reminded me of how it first felt to fall in love with writing.” —Sara Novic, author of Girl at War 


"Bárcena has an incredible voice, and The Sky Over Lima evinces the attention to detail and characterization of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez...The Sky Over Lima is a magician’s conjuring through which we are made to see our own artifice. As Cristóbal says to Carlos over drinks, placing a hand on the young man’s shoulder, 'Open your eyes, my friend; love, as you understand it, was invented by literature, just as Goethe gave suicide to the Germans. We don’t write novels; novels write us.'” —ZYZZYVA 


"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." —National Book Review 


"A gentle, beautifully crafted, humorous and incisively profound essay on love, identity and writing."  

Books Reenchanted 


"Charming...A love letter to the creative process." —Kirkus 


“An intriguing tale of transatlantic catfishing ... Bárcena grounds the literary games in a richly detailed, early 20th-century Lima and its cast of secondary characters: dock workers, prostitutes, café-haunting literati. Its lightly ironic tone darkening as it proceeds, the novel sensitively explores how a literary prank shapes the sentimental, romantic, and moral education of Carlos.”— Publishers Weekly 


“The novel is faithful to the facts, recreating in great detail the minutia of the story and time period, but also transcending them…Gómez Bárcena tackles the most serious topics while masterfully showing how to write a story that’s simultaneously a comedy, a tragedy, and a portrait of another culture. The style is magnificent, the narration told with originality, pulse, and rhythm. There’s little more to say: read Gómez Bárcena.” —El Cultural  


“A solid, marvelously written narrative…The careful language, the ability to dig into the human psyche, the finely-tuned portraits of characters and the landscape of Peru in the earlier twentieth century, with is social upheaval, strikes, brothels, the rubber industry (the reader might be reminded of The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa), plus the story’s literary web, all wisely employed, turn The Sky over Lima into a novel to be read with supreme pleasure until it’s been completely devoured.” —Estado Crítico 


“Gómez Bárcena succeeds at turning this singular moment into fiction with flying colors…The narration of this minimalist work flows and advances like an afternoon bike ride." —Buensalvaje