What the Swedes Read
A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate
by Daniel Handler
- LAUREATE: Juan Ramón Jiménez (Spain, 1956)
- BOOK READ: Platero and I, translated by Eloïse Roach
In the only fiction-writing class I ever took, there was one of those guys who makes you swear off fiction-writing classes for life. When it was time to talk about his short story, we tried our best. It was a long, very long, story, with no dialogue whatsoever. The plot involved a group of people lost in the Arctic, dying off one by one, until they were all dead and covered with snow and the icy winds were blowing and the story was over. We discussed it as respectfully as we could while he glared at us. “You just don’t get it!” he finally couldn’t keep himself from snarling. “None of you get it! This story isn’t about people lost in the snow! It’s about how I was treated in high school!”
And that young man grew up to be Nobel prizewinner Juan Ramón Jiménez.
No, no, of course he didn’t. But I was reminded of my former colleague as I made my way through Platero and I, Jiménez’s best-known work in English. Not because I found Jiménez insufferable, not at all—I’m sure he was a much more decent guy than [name redacted, too easy to google]. But I just wasn’t getting it. And by “getting it,” I don’t mean any of the loftier, more slippery ways you can’t get something—that the language was slipping by me, or that the cultural context was so inscrutable that the book remained essentially foreign. I mean the much more basic feeling of not getting something—best summed up, perhaps, in a question we’ve all asked ourselves when looking up from a book, one time or another. The question is “Whuh?”