“People look at me and they just see a woman who works in an office. It’s as if your body isn’t an anchor or an iron bell anymore. That’s all. Just someone who answers the phone. Nobody asks me, what’s that you’re reading? Eduardo Galeano’s The Book Of Embraces? Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha? Elena Poniatowska’s La Flor de Lis? Xenophon’s A History of My Times?”
“Any city is beautiful if you’re rich. (…) I think it is curious how the rich always have more light and sky and pretty lawn. How when you’re just trying to get by, there isn’t time to take care of those little things that make for such big happiness, is there?”
This little dual language book is a unique epistolary novella which tells a story of three young women: the narrator, Corina (the American-Mexican), Marta (the Argentinian), Paola (the Italian) who are trying to pursue dreams of their youth in Paris. But they don’t live in Paris of dreams. Instead, their life in the City of Lights is marred with constant financial struggles, sleeping in the overcrowded studios, and never-ending worries how to survive till next day. This is far from glamorous Paris we know from the films and books. This story portrays underbelly of the 1980s Paris, people living in cheap hostels, totally impoverished. The immigrant experience resonates throughout the book; the immigrants who live in Paris due to political or economic reasons or they dreamers who want change their lives.
Two of the protagonists – young women work in a tanning shop and pretend that they got their tan while skiing as they don’t want others to think of them as not privileged; they fear of being classified as poor and unable to live without their dreams of becoming writers and artists. During her time in Paris, Corina reflects:
“It makes me sick to count my money, to look and see how little is left. I try not to think about it. Every day I have less and less, the money dribbling out like in the French public phones (…). But I don’t want to go home. I’ve come from so far away because Paris is the city of dreams. Not yet, not yet, not yet. (…) She [my mother] imagines I am looking out at Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, though I can’t even afford the second-floor observation tower.”
In the decades that follow three women fall out of touch and end up living on three different continents until the old letter from Marta is unearthed in a closet drawer by Corina which makes her reflect on her life in Paris and two women she stroke a short but intense friendship with. The last letter from Marta ends with the line “Don’t forget me”.
Three of them were dreaming big but the prose of life has verified their aspirations and ambitions due to lack of money.
In her youth, Corina dreamt of becoming a writer in the cafes of Paris but life had a different plane for her. She is now her late 30s working for the gas company in Chicago:
“because I was tired of being poor, so frightened of it. Going to work with clothes that always give you away. Living in terror of the mail. Money problems always nipping at your ankles, even when you think you’ve outrun them. But they follow you, don’t they? All my life trying to keep a little ahead. It broke my father’s heart to see me poor. It broke mine to have him see me that way. Do I like my job? No I don’t like it. Of course not. I like eating buttered bread with my coffee. I like reding books. It is a job that pays well. Something I can depend on (…). I don’t call myself a writer anymore, but I console myself with books, with reading.”
This book is a tribute to friendship, and dreams of our youth. It is also an exploration of memory and growing apart with those who have once been very close to us, and the myth of dreaming big as well as we rarely become the people that we planned on becoming when we were young. In one of her letters to Martita, Corina shares her feelings about her life and how it became something else to what she wanted in her youth. She felt her life was not enough:
“I did not want to admit to myself this was all I had to tell you this life of mine. At that time, it did not seem enough, not what I expected, not what I had ordered, not what I wanted to share.”
This book is also about the change of what is important in life and how our perception evolves when we face bleakness of reality. The notion of happiness changes. In the last letter Corina writes to Marta she reflects on her current life:
“This morning, rereading your letters and drinking my coffee in the kitchen and sitting under a little square of sunlight that comes through the lace curtain in a graceful pattern, just sitting here and looking at the walls and not thinking anything special. Just to be able to sit, nice and warm in this lovely square of sunlight, and not have to go work today, and no-one calling me (…). And far away the sound of the expressway whooshing like the ocean, and to realize suddenly … happiness.”
Martita, I Remember You is a short read but undoubtedly it is an extremely enjoyable book which filled me with warmth, light and hope. Writing is poetic, nostalgic and tender, with many beautiful reflections on life. I highly recommend this little novella to everyone.