My latest read – June 2019

I love a good love story and Nieves Herrero, a Spanish journalist and writer, has certainly given me a few good ones, but her latest book “Esos días azules” (“Those blue days”, in English) has touched my heart in a very special way.

 

A meeting of souls

As her other novels, it is based on a true love story, that of the famous Spanish poet Antonio Machado and his muse, whom he called Guiomar. Long after his death (in 1939) she kept their relationship her secret until she revealed her true identity in her memories, published after her own death in 1979.

 

The story begins in the late twenties, in Madrid. Pilar de Valderrama (the true name of the poet’s muse) is a married woman in her thirties. She has three children who are the joy of her life as her marriage is one of convention rather than love. Her family is of some standing and with a privileged position and means. She writes poetry and is part of a women’s circle called the Lyceum, where she and her friends discuss “hot” topics such as vote for women and the need to free women from their husband’s domination – in Spain as in many other countries married women could do practically nothing without their husband’s consent. One fateful day she learns about her husband’s infidelity and she is so shocked that she almost succumbs to a nervous breakdown, having to travel to another city to try and find some peace of mind.

 

During one of those trips she meets Antonio Machado, a poet and playwriter she has long admired, quite a few years older than she. He is immediately fascinated by her and the intense intellectual connection between them eventually leads to an overwhelming love without any hope of future. In the highly conventional and religious world of Spain in the late twenties and early thirties, couples simply did not separate – nor was there divorce for Catholic marriages. If a woman dared to leave her husband, she would lose all rights to her children and be ostracised by society, so from the beginning Pilar and Antonio’s was a desperate love, feeding itself on their letters and poems, and their possible encounters in a public garden or a café.

 

Platonic love?

And this is where this relationship is so unique: in her memories, Pilar always says theirs was a platonic love. From the beginning she told her lover that she would not be embarking on clandestine meetings that would put her in a dangerous position, possibly jeopardising her life and status. Machado complied, declaring himself satisfied if only he could spend some time alone with her, even though it was not always possible for them to meet due to her family obligations or prolonged absences during the summer holidays. It is difficult, however, reading their letters, to imagine they never tried – not even once – to consummate their love, succumbing to their passion, so palpable in the words they wrote to each other. In this beautiful, sensitive book, there is a wonderful scene described as in a painting, when the two lovers meet on the beach, on the yellow sand dunes and under an early morning blue sky, away from everything and everyone; although we cannot be sure, we suspect there was finally a moment of intimacy between Antonio and Pilar. When she returns from the beach, her face flushed with love, the poet recalls having “tasted her skin”. As a true romantic but also a realistic woman, I prefer to think such an episode really happened, leaving the two ill-fated lovers with a memory of unique moments of physical union, never to be repeated. But, in fact, who can say for sure what really happened between them? Whatever the case, in an age of freedom like today one can hardly imagine the frustration of not being able to fully live any love, let alone such an overwhelming one.

 

The Spanish Civil war finally did what no one had managed to – not even her possessive, suspicious husband; it separated them. The faithful servant who secretly brought Antonio’s letters to Pilar was no more. Fate also dictated that they should be on opposite sides – while he was a staunch Republican Pilar and her family were royalists and supported Franco’s National band. When Pilar and her family escape to Portugal and live here for some time all contact is broken and when she returns to Spain it has been Antonio’s turn to leave, running away from the winning Nationalists.

 

The colour blue

Not being able to see his beloved was too much for Machado and he got increasingly depressed and frail, until after a difficult escape from Spain into France with other Republican refugees he finally dies in Colliure. Legend has it  he had a paper in his pocket where he had written something about “those blue days”. He always thought of Pilar in blue, for she was wearing a blue dress on the day they had met, and often wore that same blue dress for their encounters.

 

Machado’s work is extensively known, both his poetry and plays; Pilar’s poetry is less known, although she also had several poetry books published. However, their love story is in itself a poem about love. Platonic or almost platonic, it is a story about the meeting of two souls, rather than two bodies. Two sad, melancholic spirits that found happiness only in the rare moments when they were with each other, in person or through their writing. They had a secret arrangement whereby they “met” every night at midnight, in each other’s thoughts. They called it their very own dimension, where they found no limitations, no boundaries, only their deep love for each other.

 

Pilar outlived her poet for forty years, dedicated to her writing, her family and above all her memories of the love of her life. Which, in the end, she felt the need to share – she wanted the world to know she was Guiomar, Machado’s true love and inspiration.

 

I am deeply grateful to Nieves Herrero for sharing this beautiful, heartrending story with us. A story of a love so special that it will never die; a love that will live on in the colour of the sea, the colour of the sky, the colour of a dress – blue, the colour of a very special love.

 

But then, I think – every love story is unique and special. No matter how long ago it was, each love story we have lived will always have a very special place in our hearts.

 

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