Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero and I (1914)
Trans. Eloïse Roach
University of Texas Press, 1957

When I saw that Platero and I was listed in both 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I thought I must really have been missing something wonderful.

Here’s how it’s summarized in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: “The text is written in the form of short pieces (some would see them as prose poems), while the story summons up a joyful world of children, the boisterous life of animals in the fields, a frieze of peasants ranging from the entertaining to the mischievous, and some unforgettable landscapes described with adjectives of almost Fauvist colors.”

Or, you could say, instead, that it’s like The Little Prince, but it has a man with a donkey instead of a boy with a flower. (Of course if you haven’t read The Little Prince, the former description will be far more useful.) And as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story is one of my favourites, you can imagine that I did find Platero and I to be wonderful indeed.

It is the sort of book whose scenes and vignettes could be easily appreciated by children, and yet there is an increased poignancy to read them as an adult, the simple joys and beauties appearing alongside instances of intense brutality and cruelty.

Even the descriptive sentences can combine a startling juxtaposition of emotions, simple language peppered with poetic bursts:

“Spring has the coquetry to arrive early this year, but she has been obliged to take her tender nakedness, all ashiver, back to the cloudy bed of March. It is sad to see the virgin blossoms of the orange grove die in the bud.”

It has a fable-like quality, and yet it appears immediately and sharply relevant in terms of its commentary on human nature and its celebration of human pleasures:

“At noon, when the sun is at its warmest, the town begins to smoke and to smell of pine wood and warm bread. The whole town opens its mouth. It is like a huge mouth that eats a huge loaf of bread. Bread is life. It goes with everything: with the oil, the stew, the cheese, and the grapes, giving its flavor of kisses; with the wine, the soup, the ham, with itself, bread with bread. Also, it may be bread alone, like hope, or bread with an illusion….”

But what is missed in the snippet I pulled from the 1001 Books description, and what I’m not giving a clear picture of here either is Platero, and that’s because you are best introduced to him on the pages of this charming novel.

If you thought you couldn’t love a book about a donkey, Platero will prove you wrong.

PS I read this as part of Dewey’s Read-a-Thon, but it also counts towards the 1% Well-Read Challenge.