– Mamá, ¿allá atrás se acaba el mundo?
– No, no se acaba.
– Te voy a llevar más lejos de lo que se ve a simple vista.
Lorenzo miraba el horizonte enrojecido al atardecer mientras escuchaba a su madre. Florencia era su cómplice, su amiga, se entendían con sólo mirarse. Por eso la madre se doblegó a la urgencia en la voz de su hijo y al día siguiente, su pequeño de la mano, compró un pasaje y medio de vagón de la mano, compró un pasaje y medio de vagón de segunda para Cuautla en la estación de San Lázaro. (p. 9)
Some of civilization's greatest thinkers began their paths to discoveries by asking simple questions in life. There is something of a child's wonder at what lies beyond the horizon, discovering whether or not there is truly an "end" to the earth, or if, as is stated by the mother above, that such a child can and will be transported to a place beyond current sight, a locale where perhaps conceptualizations of reality can merge with those of a child's flights of fantasy. Such stories, both real and fictitious alike, can move readers who witness the development of that curious child into an inventor or trailblazer.
In Elena Poniatowska's 2001 Premio Alfaguara-winning La piel del cielo (a possible translation being The Sky's Skin or The Skin of Heaven), she traces the life of such a singular child, Lorenzo de Tena, from his impoverished youth through his struggles to arrive at where he seemed destined to be, an astronomer. It is not the end point that fascinates as much it is the difficult journey that Lorenzo has to make. The son of an out-of-wedlock relationship between a distant, wealthy businessman father and a determined, intelligent, yet impoverished mother, Lorenzo has to fight and scrape in order to follow his ambitions. His humble social origins are repeatedly thrust into his face, as he has to battle in order to make it through into college. He is for a time associated with Mexican Communists during his youth (the middle decades of the 20th century) before he changes course and becomes an astronomer.
Poniatowska goes to great pains to make sure that Lorenzo's narrative arc is not clichéd. While he has difficulties in achieving his ambitions, some of the issues arise from his own sometimes prickly personality. His demeanor and social attitudes can at times be offputting, but this is almost certainly intentional, as Poniatowska seems to be tracing the machismo roots of certain attitudes that Mexican scientists had during the mid-20th century. Lorenzo's flaws, as much as his achievements, are a large part of what makes La piel del cielo such a fascinating character study. It is difficult to make genius into something relateable, yet for the most part Poniatowska manages to pull this off and make it seem almost effortless.
Yet there are times where the story flags a bit, particularly in the middle sections of the novel. Here Lorenzo's struggle does not feel as vital, nor is there a strong enough narrative "hook" to overcome this fall in the action. However, this fall in narrative power only occurs for a few chapters in this book, as the beginning and concluding chapters are much stronger. Likewise, Lorenzo's character, as mentioned above, can be polarizing in how he views the world and its people, but even at his least likeable moments, his strength of character shines through. Poniatowska's prose is subtle in its depictions of character interactions and with only a few mild hiccups along the way, the narrative flows smoothly from beginning to end. La piel del cielo ultimately is an interesting look at how genius can triumph over adversity without ever resorting to alienating the genius's personality from that of the surrounding environs. It is a fascinating character/society portrait, one that is deserving of the literary prize bestowed upon it.