The Other Caribbean Nobel: J. R. Jiménez

Juan Ramón Jiménez was born in the small town of Moguer, near Huelva, on the south-western coast of Spain, all the way back in 1881, when there was very little in the form of Caribbean literature. Nevertheless, a long life with its fair share of twists and turns landed Jiménez and his wife, Zenobia, on the pristine shores of Cuba in the mid 30s and later took the inseparable couple to Puerto Rico. Indeed, he had been living in San Juan, teaching at the university, for over five years, when the Swedish Academy decided to award the 1956 Nobel Prize for Literature to the venerable Spaniard, who had been closely linked to the island, and to the Latin American literary establishment, since his decision to flee his war-stricken Motherland in 1936.

Originally intending to carry out studies in Law, Jiménez traveled to Sevilla in 1896. Nevertheless, what he found in the city was his passion for art and literature, rather than the discipline required to complete a degree. Following a number of contributions to Vida Nueva, one of the small magazines, so prolific at the time, published in Madrid, Jiménez was invited to the capital by Rubén Darío, one of the most important figures of Spanish Modernism, then as now. That is how he made his incursion in the small literary world of the capital, attending meetings at cafés and salons with the likes of Valle-Inclán, Azorín or Pío Baroja. But Jiménez’s nerves were frail at their best, and he found the pace and nature of life in the capital too much to take, so, after publishing his first two collections of poems, Almas de violeta and Ninfeas (both from 1900), he returned to his natal Moguer.

Tragedy, however, awaited Jiménez at home, where, just a couple of months later, his father would suffer a fatal heart attack. Juan Ramón Jiménez fell into a deep depression and developed an obsessive concern for his own health. He spent several years between France and Madrid, from one sanatorium to the next, before returning to his hometown in 1905. His family’s economic situation had worsened considerably and he sought refuge in the idyllic countryside of the region. It was there where he conceived, and perhaps even lived, the episodes that would later form his most famous volume: Platero and I.

Written in lyrical prose and segmented into short, self-contained episodes, Platero and I (1914), became an instant success and cemented Juan Ramón Jiménez’s reputation in his country. The collection is usually regarded as a children’s book, or a storybook for children, primarily because it was first published by La Lectura as part of its “Youth Library”, and because, at the time, Jiménez wrote a short prologue that hinted in that direction. The fact, however, is that he wrote this highly sensitive text between 1911 and 1913, just before departing Moguer (again) for the cosmopolitan surroundings of Madrid, during a period of pseudo-reclusion and nostalgia in which he sought the Moguer of his childhood in his peaceful interaction with nature and his donkey (Platero). For the modern reader, Platero and I might seem excessively laden with conceit and somewhat naive in its idealization of nature. Nevertheless, as recently as 1956, the Swedish Academy, which normally awards the Nobel Prize for the complete oeuvre of a writer, singled out the collection as Jiménez’s outstanding achievement. And even before receiving the Academy’s recognition, Platero and I had been translated into a variety of languages and had sold close to a million copies.

In 1915 Jiménez met Zenobia Camprubí, who would become his wife the following year. A blend of Puerto Rican with Catalan, Zenobia linked Juan Ramón for the first time with America, taking him to New York for their wedding and their honeymoon. Between 1916 and 1936 the Jiménezes lived in Madrid, among a close-knit circle of disciples of his (many of them part of the Genaración del 27), who continued to produce new material and conceived the idea of compiling his entire works into a series of several volumes. The project changed shapes repeatedly and he was in the middle of restructuring it when the War broke in Spain, in 1936. Having pledged his allegiance to the Republican cause, he requested a diplomatic passport to travel to Puerto Rico, in order to fulfill previously arranged contractual obligations. Juan Ramón Jiménez left Spain on August 22, 1936, never to go back. At 55 years of age, he was forced by circumstances to rebuild his life.

Zenobia and Juan Ramón. Photo: lavozdegalicia.es.

That is where the Caribbean plays its central role in his life. He arrived in Puerto Rico in 1936, gave out several lectures and planned to publish anthologies of his work. But he could not find the necessary presses to carry out the work, so he soon moved to Cuba. There, he was the cornerstone of the literary establishment for three years, and he likely would have stayed in the island a lot longer, had the War not favored the fascist faction. Afraid that his diplomatic passport might be revoked and he forced to go back to Franco’s Spain, Zenobia and Juan Ramón fled again, this time to the United States, where Zenobia had relations.

There followed four fruitful years in Coral Gables, where Juan Ramón wrote his famous Romances de Coral Gables (written in 1943, published in 1948) before heading north, to Washington, first, then Riverdale, Maryland, where both he and Zenobia taught at the university. But his health had been deteriorating all through his life in exile, and while he became more and more recognized across South America, serious bouts of depression often landed him at the hospital in Miami, in Maryland, in Washington. His poetry became more transcendental and much of his time was devoted to the completion of his collected works.

In November 1950, the couple moved to Puerto Rico permanently. Zenobia began teaching at the university and Juan Ramón saw his health improve slowly. But Zenobia was diagnosed with cancer a year later and had to undergo surgery. The last five years of her life she spent battling the illness, while Juan Ramón, now permanently interned in a sanatorium, came in and out of a chronic depression, working only at times. He imparted several seminars at the university of San Juan and continued to produce new material until 1954, when the couple donated all their books to the library of the University of San Juan. The Nobel Prize came in 1956, just a few days before his beloved wife passed away. He did not attend the ceremony.

Today the Sala Zenobia y Juan Ramón Jiménez at the University of San Juan remains one of the most impressive research centers in the region. A kind tribute to the life and gift of the troubled couple who, unable to stay at home, chose the islands as the place to live the rest of their lives.

 

 

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON MAY 28, 2011.

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