BY BARBARA BELEJACK
The Skin of the Sky By Elena Poniatowska Farrar, Straus & Giroux 336 pages, $25. amá, does the world end over there?” With that deceptively simply question, Elena Poniatowska—one of Mexico’s finest writers and a master in the art of asking deceptively simple questions—begins her latest novel. The Skin of the Sky is a whirlwind tour of the political, social, and intellectual history of 20th century Mexico. Both Poniatowska and her protagonist, a brilliant, pioneer astronomer, are after life’s big questions: The origin of the universe, the nature of time, the essence of dreams and illusions, as well as the quintessential Mexican question. It’s the one you will hear again and again with friends over tequilas, with taxi drivers careening down narrow side streets in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico, with passengers on long-distance buses hurtling their way to El Norte. There are many variations, but in the end, the question always goes something like this: If Mexico is so rich, with so many natural resources, then why are we so poor? The novel opens in the 1930s. Lorenzo de Tena is one of five children born to Florencia, an exceptionally astute, but uneducated young woman, who is as adept at teaching her children about the stars and the Wright brothers as she is at teaching them to milk the cows. When Lorenzo dares her to prove that the earth doesn’t end at the horizon, she takes his hand and buys a pair of second-class tickets at the Mexico City train station—just to show him that the earth is round, that it continues and continues and continues far beyond the volcanoes of the Valley of Mexico. Joaquín, the children’s father, is the indifferent scion of an illustrious family. He visits his children sporadically, but overall regards them “as a bunch, like grapes.” Because he is not married to Florencia, to Mexican society neither she nor her children exist. When she suddenly dies, the children are bundled up and taken to the de Tena home, where Joaquín’s elder sister takes charge of their education. Lorenzo proves to be an exceptional student and earns his true passage into the middle class through his high school friendships. Like many of his friends, he studies law. But he has no patience for the hierarchy of the academy and the dismal routine of rote learning: This is just a breeding ground for public office. No one discusses anything, because they all aspire to power and they fear they will not be considered if they rebel. A government post is a fountain of riches, and in order to drink from it, subservience and corruption are indispensable. Sympathetic to leftist causes, he joins a group of socialists who include the writer José Revueltas. He immerses himself in endless political meetings and tries to distribute a radical newspaper in provincial outposts. That proves to be a less than useful exercise, since few of his prospective readers can actually read. “Lorenzo saw his country for the first time,” writes Poniatowska, “and everything about it hurt him. The great Mexican emptiness, the useless stations, the destitute towns.” He becomes increasingly embittered, disappointed by his boyhood friends and his scattered siblings, disenchanted with both politícos and political activism. Just in time, he finds something he can latch onto—the stars. A former politician turned amateur astronomer, Luis Enrique Erro, has convinced government officials to build a new observatory. He convinces Lorenzo, who has a natural aptitude for astronomy, to be part of the project, which will be built in Tonanzintla, a town in the state of Puebla with both an elaborate baroque church—every inch is filled with polychrome cherubs—and a “timekeeper,” a campesino who follows prehispanic tradition and talks to the volcanoes. At last Lorenzo feels at home, observing for hours on moonless nights, painstakingly making photographic plates, and examining the images: They were music and painting: He saw Miro, Klee, Kandinsky. He heard the melodies of space, flute sounds that had soared for 700,000 years and had come down to mix with the oxygen, the rain, and the rays of sunlight…. The spectroscopes that Luis Enrique Erro showed him replaced the structures that he believed to be immutable, the cruel hierarchical Mexican society that had rejected his mother. In the 1940s Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy opens doors, and soon Lorenzo is off to Harvard and an affair with a young philosophy student named Lisa. When he returns to Tonanzintla (sans Lisa), he is even more driven, determined to modernize his country through science and education. The decades fly by and Lorenzo is engaged in a seemingly endless battle with the limits imposed by bureaucracy, poverty, and inertia—not to mention the limits caused by the harshness of his character and a decidedly misogynistic streak. he daughter of a father who traced his ancestry to the king of Poland and a mother whose aristocratic family fled to France in the early 20th century in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, Elena Poniatowska was born in Paris. She came to Mexico with her mother during World War II and was educated in a Philadelphia convent school. According to her father, she was destined to become a trilingual secretary, but Poniatowska had other plans. Today she is best known as the author of classic works of Latin American testimonial literature such as Here’s to You, Jesusa (See “Listening to the Voice of Mexico,” August 3, 2001”) and Massacre in Mexico, the epic retelling of the 1968 student movement and an indispensable text for anyone trying to understand contemporary Mexico. However, she began her career working for a Mexico City newspaper, publishing an interview a day. Among those she interviewed was a brilliant astronomer named Guillermo Haro, an exceptionally driven man who had studied law, engaged in leftist politics with the writer José Revueltas, been a protégé of Luis Enrique Erro, studied in Harvard, and was determined to modernize his country through science and education. Poniatowska and Haro eventually married; he died in 1988. The Skin of the Sky was published in Spanish in 2001, “inspired” as Poniatowska likes to say, by the life of her late husband, who never talked about astronomy with her, because he considered the subject to be beyond her. He was, however, deeply anguished about his country, the way a father worries about his children. “He became discouraged seeing campesinos plowing the earth with simple tools,” Poniatowska once wrote, “while discoveries with international implications were made in the observatory.” And so the novel is an unusual valentine to Haro and his many contemporaries. At times it becomes unruly—there is so much historical background, so many names speeding by like shooting stars, so much detail crammed into polemical discussions like this one: You’re becoming as radical as Narciso Bassols, who refused to be Secretary of the Supreme Court of Justice and told Avila Camacho that not only was he not in agreement with his government, but he was going to fight against it. Poniatowska has had bad luck with translators and too often what should be a lyrical passage is weighed down by Deanna Heikkinen’s English text. But I’m not sure that even Gregory Rabassa, who has translated García Márquez and so many other Latin American writers, could do much with some of the inside policy polemics in The Skin of the Sky. And yet, the novel works—almost in spite of itself—precisely because it is inspired not just by Guillermo Haro, but by all those big questions about life, the universe, and Mexico. One of Poniatowska’s finest chapters deals with the inauguration of the new telescope in 1942. At the time, it was considered the best in the world. The opening ceremony was attended by hoards of national and international dignitaries, as well as thousands of locals. During the festivities one of the dignitaries thought to add the inevitable in his speech, noting that “scientific progress would be the future of all humanity, free of wars.” Actually that’s not all that different from some of the talk that’s coming off the Puebla mountaintops today. For more than 15 years, the University of Massachusetts and Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics and Optics in Puebla (which Haro helped to found) have been building a giant telescope on an extinct volcano known as Cerro la Negra. “With a base like a launching pad and an antenna the size of a big Ferris wheel, the telescope will be able to pick up electromagnetic radiation known as millimeter waves,” Reuters reported last fall. The project will cost about $100 million—when adjusted for current prices, roughly the cost of the telescope that was brought from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Tonanzintla in the 1940s. With the new telescope, “We are going back to 400 million years after the Big Bang,” Itziar Aretxaga, a Basque astrophysicist told Reuters. “We could discover hundreds of thousands of new galaxies.” Mamá, does the world end over there?