PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Skin of the Sky by Elena Poniatowska

The cover for the English language edition of The Skin of the Sky depicts a figure floating face-down in a pool of water reflecting the stars. The man seems to be drowning, his shoulder blades and back breaking through the blue.

At first glance, trying to glean much meaning from the cover is futile; it is designed to attract the imaginative eye and does little to reference the content, if one has not yet read the book. As I progressed through the text, my eyes would fall to the cover each time I laid it on my desk or bedside table, and I began to think the image described the book well. Though colorful and sometimes beautiful, it is ambiguous in meaning, the main character drowning in a confusion shared by the reader.

We experience 1940s Mexico through the lens of Lorenzo de Tena, who starts as a young child under the care of his devoted mother, Florencia. Teaching him how to recognize constellations in the night sky, she speaks like a sage, the goddess of the stars. Her role remains as such through Lorenzo’s nostalgic musings, though she dies early in the narrative.

This sudden and unexplained death is supposed to act as the catalyst for a lifetime of naval gazing and mysogynistic thought on his part, although the death itself is distant and unmoving. The uneven ground established by this introduction continues through Lorenzo’s troubled adolescence, as he grows not only to despise the women in his life, but the men as well. He becomes the stereotype of the bitter and wounded revolutionary, determined to change the world but hindered by disdain for its inhabitants.

Young adulthood, with its diseased brothels and charged machismo, increases the chasm between Lorenzo and his friends, Lorenzo’s inner life and the world around him. He develops an obsession with the ideals of Marxist thought, and grows determined to carve a niche in science for Mexico. His friends, tiring of his constant condescension and rigidity, rise to prestigious political posts and careers in business, while members of his family take turns dying or entering despicable lines of work.

At this point, the novel truly begins to lose its ground. The character of Lorenzo withdraws into himself, and any vivid description of Mexico at this time fades under a veil of narcissism and pseudo-philosophical thought. Even supposing that Poniatowska intended this shift in mood, perhaps to parallel the reader’s loss of the physical world with Lorenzo’s rejection of it, the technique only emphasizes Lorenzo’s acid unlikability. It is easy to see how Lorenzo melts into the temptation of the sky, powerfully seductive through Poniatowka’s words. The letdown comes as we are drawn back into his tormented (and eventually tedious) inner life.

These attempts to add layers of complexity to his character suffer from a baffling unevenness. He experiences regret like a compulsive gambler — allowing pangs of guilt to cross his mind, then pulling the lever for the next round of indulgence and contempt. At his neglectful father’s deathbed, he supposes his Aunt and father were only human, and so we are expected to assume this realization might change Lorenzo. It does not. For a moment, he recognizes his sister’s ability to enjoy life and his own desperate unhappiness, but this leaves no lasting impression. Though learning little from his mistakes, he rises to prominence through his intellect, and becomes a powerful (but joyless) figure in his own right.

By the end, I was wondering why Poniatowska, a prolific feminist writer, chose to tell this story from Lorenzo’s point of view. The female characters are the only compelling members of a dizzying cast, most of whom (even those we are led to believe are important) drop unconvincingly out of the story. Fausta, the object of Lorenzo’s obsession near the end of the book, rejuvenates the narrative somewhat, but even she is pidgeonholed into the gender roles imposed by the author. Nearly all the significant women in the book are headstrong, fearless, wise bon vivants; exciting characters, to be sure, but often indistinguishable from each other. The men, on the other hand, are opportunistic and oppressive, including Lorenzo.

To be fair, many subtleties of language must have been lost in translation, and the manuscript went to print without much revision, due to the real life loss of Poniatowska’s mother. Without this needed revision, the themes of capitalism and globalization, oppression and obsession, nationalism and universalism, become as scattered as the stars. Picking out the shapes in this narrative is tiresome when the emotional distance of the characters never allows us to break through the skin, to the heart of the story. As a result, we end in the same cloak of darkness under which we began, holding pieces of a puzzle impossible to see.