Pablo Neruda’s only daughter, Malva Marina, was born in Madrid, in August 1934, and died a little over eight years later, in Nazi-occupied Holland, from the complications of hydrocephaly. She hadn’t seen Neruda for six years, and he refused to acknowledge her passing. In fact, he doesn’t once mention his first-born child in the 400 prolix pages of his 1974 memoir, Confieso que he vivido (Memoirs, 1977). Still, in the months following his daughter’s death, Neruda did find the time to prevent her mother and his first wife, Marietje Hagenaar, from escaping to Chile. Marietje ended up in a Nazi transit camp; the liberation, in May 1945, saved her from deportation.
How could Neruda, the Nobel Prize–winning champion of the oppressed, abandon his wife and child like this? That’s the central question driving Malva, the debut novel from Dutch poet Hagar Peeters (b. 1972). The story’s narrator is Malva herself, who speaks to us posthumously to call her father to account. Enlisting the help of wise spirits such as Socrates and Goethe, she seeks answers to questions that haven’t stopped nagging her since her death. In the timeless comfort of eternity, Malva has also grown close to other imperfect children whose parents’ literary ambitions ended up expelling them from their families’ lives—James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, for example, and Arthur Miller’s son, who was born with Down syndrome and secretly institutionalized from a young age.
Malva, poised to tell her story, has chosen Hagar Peeters as her amanuensis. The Dutch poet lends a sympathetic ear. As it turns out, Peeters, too, spent much of her childhood alone with her mother. Her father, the well-known sociologist Herman Vuijsje (b. 1946), grew up in the difficult Dutch postwar years, in a Jewish family decimated by the Holocaust. In the early 1970s, when Hagar was born, he was a progressive journalist covering Salvador Allende’s Chile. Parenthood could not have been farther from his mind. Two weeks after the Pinochet coup, on September 23, 1973, Vuijsje returned to Chile. As it happened, Neruda died that same day; Vuijsje attended the funeral in Santiago. Because he had worked with Allende’s ambassador to the United States, Orlando Letelier—assassinated in 1976 by Pinochet’s secret police in Washington, DC—the regime later declared him persona non grata.
How could Neruda, the Nobel Prize–winning champion of the oppressed, abandon his wife and child like this?
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when his daughter was 11, that Vuijsje was willing to assume his role as Hagar’s parent. Although it took both some time to get used to each other, they eventually managed to repair their relationship. This is actually one of the reasons, Malva says, why she’s asked Peeters to write her story. She, too, wants to patch things up with her father. And she really wants to know why Neruda tried to erase her from his life and memory. Maybe, she ponders, as a poet he was simply too drawn to beauty, perfection, and fame—three things that she would never be able to offer him. “I know perfectly well I wasn’t meant like this,” she says in the novel:
I am the jeer of creation, the price that must be paid for so much beauty, so much perfection, the exception that proves the rule … I am that which everyone would rather forget, and that is exactly what I am here to remind them of: the possibility of something going wrong. I am the embodiment of error, a mistake on legs, a walking blunder of Mother Nature.
“A gigantic head,” the Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre—who, like Neruda, would go on to win a Nobel Prize—wrote in his diary in August 1934. “A relentless head, capable of devouring its own features, it was just that: a cruel head, swollen without mercy, without respite, to the point of losing its purpose. A creature (was it that?) you couldn’t look at without pain. A disorderly mass of tissue.”1 Aleixandre had just gone to see Neruda’s newborn in the legendary Casa de las Flores in Madrid, where the Chilean poet lived with Marietje, whom Pablo preferred to call Maruca. They had met in Indonesia in 1930, Malva explains, where they got married in December of that same year. Neruda was a young, good-looking consul. Maruca was the descendant of a powerful Dutch family that had made a fortune in colonial trade but was now on the verge of financial ruin. He was 26; she was 30.
Neruda had a hard time accepting his daughter’s disability. “My daughter, or what I call by that name,” he wrote in a letter to a friend that Malva quotes, is “a three-kilo vampire, a leech, a freak, [a] monster, a perfectly ridiculous being.” In early July 1936, the mounting political tension in Spain—Franco’s coup would take place on July 18—gave him the perfect excuse to rid himself of his wife and daughter. He sent Malva and Maruca to Barcelona, from where, in November, they left for The Hague. In the nearby city of Gouda, Maruca found a strict Protestant family, followers of Christian Science, willing to take Malva in. She visited her once a month.
Neruda, meanwhile, had moved with his new lover, Delia del Carril, to Paris, where he worked to bring more than 2,200 Spanish refugees to safety in Chile. In June 1940, he was appointed consul in Mexico. The month before, the Nazis had invaded and occupied the Netherlands. Maruca sent him letters asking for money, which he ignored. After Malva died, in early March 1943, Maruca asked Pablo to help her get out of the Netherlands—something that, as a career diplomat, he could have arranged. She also hoped that, with Malva gone, they could get back together. But Neruda refused. By then, in fact, as his biographer David Schidlowsky later discovered, he had already divorced Maruca in secret.2
Ironically, it was in Chile that Peeters found out Neruda had had a daughter who had died in the Netherlands. In 2005, she read her father’s diary of his 1972 reporting trip to Santiago (in which, incidentally, she found no mention of her own birth). She then traveled in her father’s footsteps to Neruda’s birthplace, Temuco, where a tourist guide told her that Malva’s tomb had just been discovered in Gouda.
Malva is a hypnotically poetic novel, in Peeters’s original Dutch as much as in the translation by Vivien Glass. The afterlife has granted the disabled eight-year-old Malva Marina a precociously eloquent kind of wisdom and a wicked sense of humor. Mute and powerless during her brief earthly existence, she’s now chatty and happily omniscient. She barely seems to hold a grudge against her absent, famous father. But she’s also ruthless when it comes to his contradictions. Quoting from his famous poem to the mothers of militiamen slain in the Spanish Civil War (“I do not forget your misfortunes, I know / your sons / and if I am proud of their deaths, / I am also proud of their lives”), she notes wryly: “There was nothing hopeful about my death. I had not died for something greater or better than myself, nor sacrificed my healthy body for my home country. My mother was not the mother of a hero … whose valor brought her solace, admiration, respect … No, I had not been a testament to an education in virtue, I had only been myself.”
Malva takes full advantage of the perks of her disembodied state to travel through time and accompany her mother and father. She’s there when they meet in Indonesia; she relives their trip to Buenos Aires, where Neruda first met Federico García Lorca; and she witnesses her father’s many moments of glory as well as her mother’s painful loneliness. Of all of Neruda’s Spanish friends, only Lorca and the poet Miguel Hernández treated little Malva with kindness. Both died in the war, victims of right-wing repression. “I suddenly realize with a shock,” Malva notes, “that the two dearest poets, the only ones who were ever good to me, were also the ones to risk, and lose, their lives by putting their families first—while my father, who abandoned his family, went on living.”
The afterlife has granted the disabled eight-year-old Malva Marina a precociously eloquent kind of wisdom and a wicked sense of humor.
Malva stands in solidarity with her mother. But she thinks she understands why Neruda cut them loose: “I would have become his greatest hurdle on this earth, that is beyond a doubt; I was the stagnation, the stumbling block, the setback that would have kept him from everything else in his life. If he had stayed with me, he could no longer have been anywhere else. … It was either me or an entire continent at his feet.” Neruda, Malva notes, was “the great maker of names, the great dropper of names and the great concealer of my humble name.” Now that her garrulous, pompous, and self-involved father is gone, she finally gets her chance to claim her narrative agency.
Ironically, the fact that Neruda never even described her in his published works grants Malva an unusual autonomy. “At first,” she says, “I was angry with my father for not writing a single word about me (lower lip in a pout, sulky frown, petulantly kicking the limp lines of his poetry), but not only have I come to terms with my non-appearance, today I can even see its advantages. By not describing me in any way, he has not pinned me down, either. I am given the last word about myself, and, in regard to his writing, the ultimate and definitive one.”
Marietje Reyes-Hagenaar died of cancer in 1965, in The Hague, alone and broke. By then, Neruda had returned to Chile, where he received a letter from a representative of his ex-wife’s church, wondering if the poet might contribute to some of the unpaid funeral expenses. In exchange, the representative offered to send him Marietje’s ring and wristwatch. The letter, which was written in Dutch, remained unanswered.
An earlier, Spanish version of this review appeared in CTXT: Contexto y Acción on January 27, 2016.