Book of Questions: Pablo Neruda’s Poetic Reckonings with the Magic and Mystery of Life, Illustrated

“Do unshed tears wait in little lakes?”

Book of Questions: Pablo Neruda’s Poetic Reckonings with the Magic and Mystery of Life, Illustrated

“To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb meditation on the life of the mind, would mean to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization It is founded.”

But our questions, besides having the power to civilize us, also have the power — perhaps even more needed today — to rewild us.

Often, our deepest questions are our simplest ones, and our wildest questions — the most maddeningly unanswerable ones — are our most resaning, most redolent with meaning. This is why children’s questions are so often portals to the profoundest answers.

Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) channeled 320 such questions — questions earthly and cosmic about art and life, dreams and death, nature and human nature; magical-realist questions that could have been asked by a child or a sage — into his final work of poetry, originally published months before his sudden death.

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His Book of Questions (public library) now comes alive in a stunning bilingual picture-book, illustrated by Chilean artist Paloma Valdivia, whose father grew up in the same coastal region that shaped Neruda’s boyhood and whose grandmother was friends with Neruda’s sister.

Of Neruda’s original questions — each of them unanswerable, all of them worth asking, crackling with some vital spark of playfulness or poignancy — seventy come ablaze amid the vibrant illustrations and fold-out delights, radiant with the colors and textures of Latin American tapestry.

Out of the totality arises a larger sense of reckoning — a person of uncommon soulfulness and sensitivity to the subterranean strata of life, approaching the end of his days with a cascade of curiosity, singing the ultimate question: What isAll this and more?

This is an abstract and lyrical version of the meaning-questions Tolstoy had to face at the end his life.

Why do trees hide
The beauty of their roots

Given Valdivia’s roots and her personal resonance with Neruda, many of the illustrated questions are chosen for and filtered through the lens of landscape and its ecosystems.

Many are filled with abstract wonderment and astronomy.

Many are aimed at bodies of water, evocative of poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan’s sublime meditation on the sea and the soul.

What are the questions that waves pose to me?
They ask me the same questions that I do?

They can be both painful and healing, with almost uncontrollable soulfulness.

Unshed your tears
wait in little lakes?

One breaks us from the solitude of our own mind:

Does 4 equal 4?
Is it possible for all seven to be the same thing?

It has been three and a quarter centuries since Kepler wrote his. Harmony of the World, envisioning the Earth as an ensouled body that breathes and sounds — a vision that landed his mother in a witchcraft trial — and a century after Ernst Haeckel birthed the notion of ecology, Neruda asks:

Can the earth chirp just like a cricket
Are you a part of the orchestral sound of the clouds?

Valdivia reflects in her artist’s afterword:

Illustrating these poems was like deciphering a map of the poet, exploring the territories of his words, looking for meanings in his houses and among his collections, tracing symbolic pathways — only to arrive at understanding, after five years of creative labor, that there are no answers, only more questions arising from Neruda’s questions.

Complement the paper-cast enchantment that is this Book of Questions with Neruda’s love letter to the forest, his ode to silence, his stirring Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and a lovely picture-book about his life, then revisit artist Margaret C. Cook’s stunning century-old illustrations for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Illustrations by Enchanted Lion Books. Photos by Maria Popova

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