Alejandro Zambra’s works have consistently brought contemporary Latin American writing to the forefront of critical thinking. He belongs to a new group of Chilean writers who have been born and brought up during the harrowing dictatorial regime of General Pinochet, notoriously known for committing the worst human rights violations in recent history. The profoundly distressing political climate has consequently moulded their creative expression. Zambra has been one of my favourite writers since I was fortunate enough to read his tiny, elusive and unparalleled debut novel Bonsai which doubled as a love story and a metafictional account of the nature of literature and life in general.
His recent novel, Chilean Poet—expertly translated by Megan McDowell—is infused with the same Zambraesque humour, so engaging, alluring and undeniably original. In one of his interviews, he states:
I don’t think literature can exist without that first measure of distancing that we call humour, in the broad sense of the term. By the same token, you can’t learn anything about yourself if you don’t step back at least a little from that same, comfortable story you keep telling yourself and others. (Rutter, “Interview”)
Thus, underlying the deceptive frivolity, what remains largely unacknowledged is the unmistakable tinge of melancholy threading his narrative. This subtle sombre note dismantles the oft-told tale and brings in ontological considerations. It is divided into four sections—“Early Works”, “Step-Poet”, “How to Become a Chilean Poet” and “Poet-Ship”—and consists of sparkling dialogues, endearing characters, splatterings of poetry and an unforgettable narration. This is also his longest novel yet, with more than three hundred and eighty pages; deliberately breaking out of trademark ‘bonsaiesque’ succinct novellas—Bonsai, The Private Life of Trees, etc. However, the length doesn’t jeopardise the warmth and infectious charm of the novel.
Reminiscent of the famous introductory lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the first section cheekily begins with:
It was the time of apprehensive mothers, of taciturn fathers, and of burly older brothers, but it was also the time of blankets, of quilts, and of ponchos, and so no one thought it was strange that Carla and Gonzalo would spend two or three hours every evening curled up on the sofa beneath a magnificent red poncho… (3)
He effortlessly traces the delightful buoyancy and terrifying abandonment of first love—Zambra at his creative best here!—as teenagers Carla and Gonzalo fall hopelessly in love/lust followed by their eventual breakup. Gonzalo, the eponymous Chilean poet launches into poetry to woo his beloved back and “in a mere five days…[produces]…forty two sonnets, moved by the Nerudian hope of managing to write something so extraordinarily persuasive that Carla could not go on rejecting him” (7). This first section is a cheeky, nostalgic, bittersweet joyride—absolutely unforgettable!
In the second section, he tries to formulate a modern, urbane idea of family, connected through love, trust and acceptance. Gonzalo meets Carla after a decade and discovers the existence of her young son, Vicente. As Gonzalo moves in with the mother and son, he assumes the role of a father willingly and sincerely. Parenthood is the critical enquiry here with Zambra presenting different types of fathers almost as a reference point to gauge Gonzalo’s worth. Fathers—aloof, self-involved, selfish, confused, loving, empathetic, sincere—bring up or fail to or even abandon sons, as Zambra sensitively depicts the fragility of this flawed relationship. More significantly, the author and poet deconstructs entitled masculinity in patriarchal conceptions of fatherhood as is seen in Gonzalo’s distaste and eventual claiming of the term “stepfather”. Trials, tribulations, tantrums and misunderstandings form the foundation of this section. As Carla suffers a miscarriage, the pain ravages the relationship:
He’d cried very little until then – he felt the impropriety, the illegitimacy of his pain. He thought that the claim to crying belonged exclusively to Carla, as if there were a quota of tears, a preassigned quantity of suffering. Both of them had lost the child, but especially her. He was the one who would console her…Because the insides being scraped were hers. (134)
How rarely are such lines written—the gendered dispersal of grief and its questionable proportions.
The final section focuses on the sudden rendezvous of an eighteen year old Vicente and Gonzalo after six years and their budding camaraderie through literature. This is probably the most sensitively written portion, with blurry happy sad memories, resentment and repressed rage, guilt and abandonment. There are photographs of a beloved pet cat, few book covers and Vicente’s new tattoo, also inserted into the text. As Vicente too harbours the wish to be a poet, one remembers Gonzalo’s passion and dedication—as if the desire has trickled onto the next generation, though not tied by blood. Someone reminds Gonzalo, Vicente is not his ‘ex step son’ but ‘step son’—sons, literal and metaphorical, are forever, the bond with them indelible.
As Vicente reads his poem out to Gonzalo, in the very last pages, the authorial ‘I’ suddenly dislodges the third person narration: “I’d like to go on writing until I reach a thousand pages, just to be sure that at least for those thousand pages Gonzalo and Vicente don’t lose touch, but that would be to condemn them, rob them of life, of will” (386). On one hand, the authorial ‘I’ casually alerts the attentive reader that this story has been carefully crafted by this self-referential “I” of the writer. On the other hand, he impertinently and patronisingly offers a semblance of freedom to his literary characters—the eponymous Chilean poets. What a tease!
A substantial part is devoted to a foreign journalist’s (Pru) exploration of the Chile’s poetry scene, and this is the final consideration of Zambra’s text—what is poetry and how does it function in a country inalienably associated with it essence? Chile has produced two Nobel laureates—Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda—as the text indicates: “It’s the only really good thing in Chile. The only thing we win the world cup in – two world cups, actually, two Nobel Prizes. We’re two time world champions of poetry, it’s the only thing we win at” (215). Pru meets diverse poets from all age groups, genders, sexual orientations and subgenres and the choice of a foreign female writer’s gaze identifying, analyzing and acknowledging the still inherently patriarchal and occasionally sexist poetic scene of Chile, is ultimately Zambra’s master stroke. However, amidst all the banter and bravado, there is the subtle message that poetry is what makes one human, helps one transcend tormenting personal, collective and generational trauma, so as to navigate relationships or transform memories and lived experiences into meaning-producing entities. To become a Chilean poet is to become a repository of its socio-political consciousness, its historical trajectory and its cultural ramifications. To become a Chilean poet is to be human—arrogant, boastful, egotistical, as well as, diffident, sensitive and observant. It is to be vulnerable.
As Pru pens her article she writes:
…that the world of Chilean poets is a little stupid but it is more genuine, less false than the ordinary lives of people who follow the rules and keep their heads down. Of course there is opportunism and cruelty, but also real passion and heroism and allegiance to dreams. She thinks that Chilean poets are stray dogs and stray dogs are Chilean poets and that she herself is a Chilean poet, poking her snout into the trash cans of an unknown city… (302)
Everybody is a poet in Chile, claims Zambra, with a subtextual rhetorical question—what other alternative can there be?
Zambra, Alejandro. Chilean Poet. Trans. Megan McDowell. London: Granta Publications, 2022. Print.
Rutter, Samuel. “Interview with Alejandro Zambra.” The White Review. April 2018. Web. 01 May 2023. https://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-alejandro-zambra/