In 1975, the year I turned 11, I was sent to work in a tobacco field in one of the small, red-clayed, mosquito-ridden towns that surround the city of Havana like a string of pearls. This was not a punishment; rather, it was an attempt by the Cuban government to turn children like me — children who couldn't even make our beds or comb through the knots in our hair — into hard-working and loyal communists.
Anticipating evenings of intense boredom, I prepared for my 45 days of work in the country by visiting my elementary-school librarian, who had become a friend, and asking her for books. Any books, as long as they were not about Soviet space exploration or the war in Vietnam.
She understood, gave me a tight little smile, and led me to a section in the stacks where I had never been before: French Literature, the label read. She pulled out a thick tome. "This," she said. "I think you are ready for this."
The book was a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, a name I had never heard of and couldn't pronounce. But yes, she was right. I was ready.
This is what I remember from The Necklace:
"She danced, intoxicated, swept away, heady with pleasure, thinking of nothing, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her conquest, in something like a cloud of happiness made of all that homage, all that admiration, all that awakened yearning, all that complete victory that is so dear to a woman's heart."
I felt elated, curious about the life of luxury and beauty she aspired to, so different from hers; so alien to mine.
Who was this man who so completely understood the adolescent I thought I was and the woman I then hoped to become?
He was born in Normandy in 1850 and died 43 years later in an insane asylum. In the last decade of his life, he produced nearly 300 short stories, half a dozen novels and about 200 newspaper articles.
In my early adolescence, Maupassant was the author I called my favorite. I even kept a framed picture of him, copied from a book, on my night table. That picture and his book remained behind when I left Cuba in a rush in 1980.
With time and other books, the obsession passed, but not the lessons.
On an impulse to re-read some of the books of my childhood, I went back to Maupassant this summer, just as one returns to an old love: unsure of whether the feelings are still there, afraid the magic may have dissipated. I need not have feared. While 30 years ago, I had read him because the worlds he created held me enthralled, in July I read him to find out why.
I discovered that his writing is deceptively simple. He used strong verbs, precise descriptions, short sentences, few adjectives — just like a journalist should. He wrote with restraint, and yet the poetry of life pulses through in every single one of his stories.
He was, I see now, the model I followed, the writer I always wanted to be. His sentences are the type that I labor over. His themes — sex, mystery, madness and greed — still make my heart flutter with the anticipation of a good read.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.