Malva by Hagar Peeters, Vivien Glass (translated by)


The moral of the story is that my parents’ mismatch was the result of their individual miseries, and out of this misguided union came an even greater mistake: a misfit, namely me.

It took me some time to flow with the narration. Malva, Pablo Neruda’s abandoned daughter born with hydrocephalus, was his only child, born from his first marriage to María Antonia Hagenaar. In this fictional novel, Malva (named after a pretty flower the malva or mallow) speaks to the reader from the afterlife. She has for company other discarded children of the famous, with stories just as gut wrenching. Having died at only eight years old, this isn’t a happy story by any means. Having recently finished a novel about Albert Einstein, whose youngest son struggled with schizophrenia and was greatly ignored by his father, I was surprised to hear mention of him in this stroy, to see Neruda sharing similar behavior towards his own child with needs. It’s disheartening to know so many great man have ‘excised’ children that didn’t fit the trajectory of their purposeful lives. Like Albert, Pablo Neruda felt passionately about justice and humanitarian rights, his own writing itself became political as he was anti-fascist, particularly after the assassination of his friend and fellow poet Lorca. The man doesn’t need any puffing up from me, there is plenty written about him. What I hadn’t known was his cold indifference to his only child and the cruelty towards her mother. Upon Malva’s death, he didn’t even bother to respond. Her tomb as forgotten in later years. War isn’t an excuse, really, for not once did he do anything to help with Malva’s care. Can his feelings towards her mother really excuse erasing his own (and only) child from his life? It’s hard to reconcile in my mind that a man of great romantic passions, beautiful flowery writing, could have so little room in his heart for his own fragile daughter. “I was named after the mallow. And I turned out as ugly as that flower is beautiful.” Is it really all about a lack of beauty?  Would little Malva have been easier for him to accept if she were a pretty, rosy cheeked doll of a baby? He certainly isn’t the first to cower from the demands of caring for a child with difficulities, be them physical or mental. I am trying to be fair, not everyone has the strength to take on the selfless mantle of caregiver, maybe it was easier for him to re-write his reality, as a form of self-preservation but I am not a psychiatrist, I am just a mother who is appalled.

I don’t imagine fans of Neruda, and I count myself a fan of his writing, would readily wish to embrace this story. It is interesting that people forgive their idols all sorts of heinous behaviors, things the common man could never get away with so freely. I suppose so long as you make your mark, so to speak,your dirty deeds can be erased. My heart really went out to Malva’s mother, Maryka (or Maruca as Neruda called her) who was constant in Malva’s life as much as Pablo was an absence. The doting father at first, then banishing them both with a handy excuse,  as fate would have it the civil war had him ‘packing my mother and me on a train to Barcelona.’ This freed him to be with his lover, Delia. It seems he blamed, in some strange ways, his wife for the happenstance of Malva’s condition. I’ve read other articles about things Neruda has said, done. It doesn’t exactly paint the portrait of a hero. No longer burdened by their presence (it sickens me to think of Malva begging for help, for money that would never come), Neruda was now free.  She took it upon herself with the help of a family who were Christian Scientists to  care for her child Malva until her death at age 8. Malva goes on, within this fictional tale, to tell of the sad life her mother lived after and to follow her father’s political and personal life. Malva is often jealous of the attention he lavishes freely on his two women while she, his pretty little flower,  was left to wilt and die without so much as a mention in his memoirs and books. He is known as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was a Nobel laureate, a diplomat and a member of the Communist party. He took his duties for his country Chile seriously, why not then passion for his helpless child? I guess she was too much of an anchor for a man who traveled the world and was occupied with fights for others. He discarded Delia much in the same way he did Malva’s mother, thrown over eventually for another. Who knows what was in his heart when it came to Malva, he was too busy hiding her. It’s just interesting that a man who wrote so prolifically was silent about his only child. Poor Maryka, because she too deserves her story to be told. That there was a time when Neruda seemed her chance for happiness, with her father and brothers dead, it is heartbreaking that a life so full of promise was instead one of neglect and abuse. Dismissal, banishment, poverty. She worked hard and gave all the money she could for her child’s care, living in a limbo of never knowing for how long her child would remain of this earth, with no family to turn to, no one to support her in her living grief. I can’t even imagine the hardship, the pain. It is my hope that  Hendrik Julsing and Gerdina Sierks (with children of their own) the foster family who took on the care of Malva, were able to be a shoulder now and then.

It’s hard to erase what you learn about someone whose own actions are so contradictory with their public face. This book gives Malva a voice, her father Pablo had his words, a plethora of them, his entire life. In a sense, this is her turn to be heard but mind you, it is fictional. The style isn’t for every reader. I felt like I was one with Malva’s spirit, a shadow over her great father. There are light moments, I was absolutely warmed to my toes to read about  what Roald Dahl (the famed author) helped invent for his own son Theo (a four-month old infant at the time) suffering from hydrocephalus, caused after a taxi cab in New York hit the carriage he was in, while crossing the street. Look it up, not all great man are absent or cruel fathers.

A very heavy, surrealist novel that broke my heart. If only those without voices could have their say in the afterlife.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Doppelhouse Press



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