In 1985 the forty-five-year-old exiled Chilean Antonio Skármeta, one of the most brilliant Latin American writers of his generation, published the novel Ardiente Paciencia, which nine years later Michael Radford made into the film Il Postino.1 The premise was enchanting. In the late 1960s, in a remote seaside village in Chile, the revered poet Pablo Neruda is waiting to hear if he has won the Nobel Prize, while Mario, the postman who might bring that news, has troubles of his own: he is unable to find the right words to win the heart of Beatriz, a dazzling young woman of a higher social status. Neruda, who has risen from the ranks of the poor thanks to his mastery of language, will coax those beguiling words from the tongue-tied young man.
Though Neruda gets the Nobel Prize and Mario gets the girl, the story does not end well for either of them, or for Chile. Neruda dies in late September 1973, almost two weeks after a coup overthrows the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, and Mario is arrested and becomes one of the desaparecidos—the disappeared. Despite this bitter ending, Skármeta affirms that the bond between the exalted poet and the ordinary man is a lasting one, that the dream of social and artistic empowerment of the Allende years will persist beyond defeat and dictatorship.
In 2020 the forty-five-year-old Chilean Alejandro Zambra, one of the most brilliant Latin American writers of his generation, published the novel Poeta chileno, now superbly translated into English by Megan McDowell. Like Ardiente Paciencia, Zambra’s novel starts off with a young man (Gonzalo) in pursuit of a young woman (Carla) from a more prosperous background and neighborhood. The year is 1991, Chile is just emerging from seventeen years of dictatorship, and though Neruda is no longer alive to personally mentor Gonzalo, his verses are still popular among erotically inclined teenagers. So when Carla decides to never see Gonzalo again, he has
no other option than to go all in on poetry: he locked himself in his room and in a mere five days produced forty-two sonnets, moved by the Nerudian hope of managing to write something so extraordinarily persuasive that Carla could not go on rejecting him…. Unfortunately none of those forty-two compositions held genuine poetry.
What will attract Carla to Gonzalo is not poetry (she prefers novels) but voracious bouts of copulation—insufficient to cement an enduring relationship, which they eventually establish nine years later. By then, besides the sex, there is sincere affection, a shared taste for pop culture, and, above all, the playful, responsible, endearing way in which Gonzalo connects with Vicente, Carla’s precocious child from a failed marriage. It is this boy who, years after Carla and Gonzalo again separate, will turn into the “Chilean poet” that Gonzalo yearned to become.
As Vicente blooms into adolescence, he embarks on an apprenticeship that is entirely different from the one that Mario went through with Neruda. In this picaresque, sprightly, contemporary version of a bildungsroman, Vicente’s road to anguished self-expression passes through a vast, dispersed community of poets and styles and visions, showcased by Zambra in a startling and original fashion.
At the end of 2013 Pru, a thirty-one-year-old wannabe journalist from New York, arrives in Chile with an assignment to write something about this faraway nation for a US magazine. Escaping her own failed love affairs, male and female, she has a drunken one-night stand with the eighteen-year-old Vicente, who convinces her to focus her article on poets here where they are considered really important, “where poetry is oddly, irrationally relevant” (my translation), as Pru’s New York editor has already pointed out.
This preeminence of the poetic genre compared to other literary endeavors (novels, theater, essays, chronicles) has long been a given in Chile. When I arrived in Santiago at the age of twelve as an Argentine émigré and told my parents’ friends that I intended to be a writer, they warned me off poetry in a land that could boast of the Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, as well as Vicente Huidobro, Pablo de Rokha, Humberto Díaz Casanueva, Ángel Cruchaga Santa María, and, of course, Neruda.
But Neruda, so central to Skármeta’s generation, does not excite Vicente and his pal Pato or the myriad poets Pru meets. The author of Residence on Earth and Canto General is not an adjective (Nerudian) as he was for Gonzalo, but fome (lame), mattering only inasmuch as the foundation that bears his name hands out stipends to prospective writers. There is, in post-dictatorial Chile, no celebrity who can steer the poet toward glory and articulation, no poet with the key to some mythical Parnassus. Instead, the young who aspire to become bards are faced with a kaleidoscope of models and projects in a disjointed world where, as the antipoet Nicanor Parra announced, “the poets came down from Olympus.”
Contemporary Chile lacks a sense that the nation’s fate depends on a meeting of poet and people, great man and public. On the contrary, Zambra is drawn to marginality, to a fragmented multitude of secondary characters.2 A conceited professor explains that
for too many years Chilean poetry was studied as a clash of titans, and those heterosexual macho men fighting over the microphone were the only protagonists, which left many poets out, especially women and minority groups.
Pru sets out to explore these voices disregarded by a commercialized society and the result is a tour—and tour de force—as tender as it is entertaining.
Some of the writers she interviews are poets who actually exist. Even when their fate is tragic (Floridor Pérez was arrested and tortured by Pinochet’s henchmen; Armando Uribe spent many years in exile and swore never to publish a book until the dictator’s reign was over), their resilience and sense of humor have not disappeared. The most hilarious sequence is a long lunch at the beach with the witty ninety-nine-year-old Parra, a scene that corresponds closely to my own experiences with him. When Pru, for instance, asks Parra if she can record the conversation, he answers, “Of course not!” but then says, “As long as I don’t notice it.” And when Pru tries to clarify—“So I can’t record”—the old poet responds, “You can record me, but in secret.”
Into this mix Zambra mischievously inserts a series of invented, self-promoting, eccentric poets. Hernaldo Bravo, having been run over by the son of a millionaire, uses the compensation he receives to publish disobedient poets who would otherwise find no outlet. The Mapuche poet Chaura Paillacar writes in Mapudungun and Spanish “as a way of returning to a place I’ve never been and don’t know.” Aurelia Bala writes simultaneously with both hands in two notebooks, ambidextrously producing different poems. Perhaps my favorite is a poet who insists on being anonymous but gives interviews because he’s “extraordinarily vain.” He keeps pouring out books like an addict, even though he proclaims that “it’s like Adorno said of the Holocaust. You can’t write poetry in this fucking country anymore.” His only hope for Chile is that people will have “sex, every day, every eight hours, religiously, like antibiotics. But really great sex, exceptional, cosmic.” None of them seem to see any utility in poetry—just beauty. They might have agreed with the answer Borges gave when he was asked what good poetry was: “What good are sunsets?”
Pru is enthralled by this boisterous abundance of contrasting opinions, personalities, extravagances, jealousies, yearnings, squabbles. By visiting so many real and fictitious poets, she affords Zambra a way to go beyond his habitually minimalist approach and to display an X-ray of the chaotic commotion of today’s Chile, an enlargement he was already groping toward in his previous “novel,” the wild, sarcastic, and experimental Facsímil: libro de Ejercicios (2014).3
Pru’s outsider perspective probably reflects Zambra’s own circumstances: this is his first novel since he left Chile in 2017 and settled with his Mexican wife in her homeland. Distance—Pru’s and Zambra’s—allows for transgressions, the sort of mellow irony and soft skewering of self-aggrandizing friends and pompous foes alike that is more difficult if we must face, on a daily basis, the people we are making fun of. And the fact that Pru is a naif in need of explanations about everything in Zambra’s country, from drinks to slang to mating rituals, makes Chilean Poet both local and global, able to appeal to readers at home and abroad. An ideal intermediary, she translates Chile (another of Zambra’s obsessions is translation), helping him to regard his own land from a fresh vantage point.
Pru would not, however, be so effective a surveyor of the ambitions, foibles, and frustrations of Chileans if she were not such an affecting character. She is betrayed and misunderstood, adrift and without a home, and Chile helps her to mature and to accept that many of her misfortunes derive from her own shortcomings, a reckoning, as often happens with the flawed characters that Zambra is so fond of, that is accompanied by enormous generosity of spirit and an irrepressible vitality. By the end of her visit,
she likes to think of herself as a Chilean poet, a Chilean poet who is neither poet nor Chilean, but whose journalistic pilgrimage in search of a break [oportunidades], her always frustrated dream of publishing in the big magazines or at least writing a noteworthy and resonant piece, somehow unites her with those men and especially those women who skulk in the alleyways of myth and desire.
But Pru takes that vision of what Chile has to offer one step further, beyond her own particular circumstances, and concludes that “Chilean poetry seems like an immense family.” She thereby taps into a question that haunts others in this novel and in most of Zambra’s previous fiction: How can we defeat the desperate fear of loneliness and abandonment, what sort of family can we form, and once formed, how can we, lost and confused and imperfect, keep it from being torn asunder?
The word mudanza has several meanings in Spanish. It denotes transformation, mutation, movement in general, but also, very specifically, the act of moving, changing one domicile for another. It is also, significantly, the title of a book of poetry that Zambra published in 2003, which hypnotically reveals an endless series of farewells during an interminable plane trip that for the fluctuating subject, now male, now female, is both inevitable and distressful. 4 One might venture that the novels and short stories with which Zambra followed that lyric incursion (Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees, Ways of Going Home, My Documents) have probed, again and again, the shifting human condition of mudanza, of individuals who are constantly leaving home or being expelled from it, trying to stay put and always setting out for somewhere else, packing and unpacking luggage and boxes, perpetually trying to recover, at least in memory, the parents, spouses, children, sweethearts, playmates left behind.
Though Zambra has always suffused these separations with nostalgia and melancholy, none is more heartrending than the one narrated in Chilean Poet. He disproves Tolstoy’s famous phrase that all happy families are alike. For many charming pages, he minutely describes the multiple varieties of happiness that Carla, Gonzalo, and Vicente experience, along with Vicente’s cat, Darkness, as they build a home together over the course of some five or so years: “People say that’s what happiness is—when you don’t feel like you should be somewhere else, or someone else.” But the narrator adds, “It’s a perfect and impossible idea.”
Impossible? Surely the narrator is wrong. In the next chapter, Carla informs Gonzalo that she is pregnant, and it would seem that the happy family is about to get happier. Though Carla suffers a miscarriage, this is not what ultimately leads to them breaking up. Just before she tells him she is expecting his baby, Gonzalo dreams of taking the sort of long plane trip that was central to Mudanza and then does not confess to Carla what his subconscious is telling him: that he needs to be free, mudarse. Other silences and obfuscations ensue. He lies to her about the poetry he is still assiduously writing. Having concluded that “it didn’t seem like the world needed those poems…, [that they] would excite no one,” he recites to her poems by Emily Dickinson and the luminous Chilean Gonzalo Millán as if they were his own. And then he keeps from her his plans to study literature in New York. Though he insists that he wants Carla and Vicente to accompany him, it is too late. The fraudulent poet is expelled from Paradise.
The loss of Vicente is a far more devastating blow to Gonzalo than splitting from Carla. He had raised the boy with a love and inventiveness that biological fathers might envy, as a model of how masculinity can coexist with the tenderness and domesticity that have traditionally, and more so in macho Chile, been ascribed to mothers. (It cannot be an accident that Zambra’s vision of the ideal father coincides with the birth of his son Silvestre and the hours he has spent caring for him, a process that he has been eloquently writing about recently.)
And yet Gonzalo has no legal rights regarding Vicente, no recourse when he is cut off from the boy, whom his hapless and irresponsible biological father, León, can see regularly. The precarious nature of Gonzalo’s association with Vicente has been anticipated in their uncomfortable semantic search for the right names for each other, settling on padrastro (stepfather) and hijastro (stepson), a solution that Gonzalo feels is unsatisfactory due to the derogatory connotations the “calamitous” suffix astro has in Spanish. (A poetastro is a mediocre poet; a politicastro, a third-rate politician; a camastro, an uncomfortable, narrow bed.) And Gonzalo is right: the astro will end up triumphing over the padre part of his life. He tries to keep in touch, but Carla cruelly asks him to stop: “Why go on confusing things?”
Vicente, however, will continue to be confused. He feels abandoned and cannot forgive Gonzalo for turning him into an orphan—though he’s not an orphan, just as Gonzalo is not really his father. It would seem that the two will never reconcile.
Books have always had an outsize importance in Zambra’s universe.5 Often the plots of the stories he tells revolve around the act of writing—at times even the writing of the very words we are reading. Books are an antidote to loneliness. Zambra’s characters are constantly talking about what they have read or should read, entangled by the imagination of authors they worship, sharing their favorite poems and novels as a way of creating a common space, an intellectual home where they can meet estranged others and go beyond their own limited selves. This presence of literature is even stronger in Chilean Poet, which is swamped with all manner of references and comparisons, page after page overflowing with entire poems or excerpts that illuminate the inner life of the characters or the quiet meaning of the objects that surround their existence.
And poems are what keep Gonzalo and Vicente connected, a legacy unbeknownst to either of them. Vicente’s awakening to the magic and power of poetry is tied to his reading of the two books, by Dickinson and Millán, that his padrastro had used to fool Carla into believing he was an accomplished versifier and that he then hid and inadvertently did not take with him when he moved out.
The connections continue: before leaving Chile Gonzalo had deposited in a bookstore6 two copies of a collection of poetry he had self-published. When he returns from New York years later, he heads for the bookstore. Vicente, who now works there, has read the book (nobody else has) and found it unremarkable, except for one exceptional poem that seems to be about his own childhood.
The novel ends with the two of them wandering for ten hours through Santiago (walking is another form of incessant mudanza that Zambra’s characters indulge in), talking nonstop about poetry and literature and coming to terms with their interrupted relationship. The author leaves them on the verge of a future neither he nor they can predict. Perhaps, it is suggested, Gonzalo will go back to writing poems. If he does, it is because his hijastro or ex-hijastro has taken on the role of mentor, a reversal of the Neruda and Mario relationship. We are now at a time in Chilean poetry and history when the young are parents to their elders, rebelling against an indifferent and mercantile social order that would like everything to be easy, light, and digestible.7
When Zambra finished his novel in February 2019, he could not guess that eight months later the spirit of freedom and revolt of the young that he portrayed in it would explode onto the streets of neoliberal Chile and drastically change the country forever. Or so it seemed when I first read Poeta Chileno at the beginning of 2022, when my wife and I were spending several months in our house in La Reina, the Santiago neighborhood where Carla lived when she met Gonzalo.
I could not help but see the novel, at that point, as peculiarly prescient. Colossal protests by millions of Chileans fed up with a second-class existence (let’s say they were fed up with being “secondary characters”) had shaken the governing elite to its core, leading to a new constitution being drafted by the kind of people who rarely appear in the media but are omnipresent in Zambra’s fiction.8 Then, in December 2021, Gabriel Boric, a tattooed, thirty-five-year-old former student activist, was elected president—a man who happens to be a devotee of poetry and constantly quotes the authors whom Zambra’s characters venerate (Lihn, Tellier, Millán).9
Unfortunately my predictions of a revolutionary dawn for Chile may have been premature. Boric’s left-wing government is in trouble, and in a referendum last September 62 percent of the electorate rejected a new constitution that enshrined, among other progressive measures, the rights of nature, women, and indigenous peoples.10
Despite this setback, my optimism persists. In the weeks before the referendum I saw photos of long lines of compatriots waiting patiently to purchase a copy of the new constitution and reading it on buses, in parks, in schools, at lunch. And I remembered the photos Carla had taken of people reading, always with a different book in their hands, and the thought arose that this was the first time in our history that everybody was reading the same book at the same time, a communal act of imagining that is profoundly democratic.
“Way before Chile was a nation, it was a poem.” When Raúl Zurita, our most distinguished living poet, wrote those words, he was referring to La Araucana, a sixteenth-century epic poem by Alonso de Ercilla that begins with the word “Chile,” thus bringing it into the Western lexicon, in some sense founding the country by naming it.11 But what if we apply Zurita’s words to the future rather than to the past? What if we think of Chile as an immense and strange book, open, as all authentic books are, to diverse interpretations and identities, a book that is being laboriously and joyfully written right now, by all the Marios and Vicentes and Carlas and Gonzalos and all the anonymous secondary characters of the country, a gigantic book to which Alejandro Zambra has contributed so singularly?
Just as Zambra’s characters turn to literature for hope, so I can now turn to Zambra. Born two years after the coup that destroyed democracy in Chile, he managed to survive the darkest days of our history and to emerge with an incandescent, comedic, compassionate view of humanity, continuing in his own inimitable way, as does his supposedly fatherless generation, the burning patience of Skármeta’s generation, all of us part of the same book that we have not yet finished.
The novel was translated into English by Katherine Silver as Burning Patience (Pantheon, 1987). Skármeta based it on a film of the same name that he directed in 1983. A new, distressingly Disneyfied version directed by Rodrigo Sepúlveda is now streaming on Netflix. ↩
In a story called “Multitude” (nybooks.com, July 11, 2020), Zambra mulls about crowds full of secondary characters that can suddenly take on primary importance, an epiphany he had when he was twelve about passengers in the metro: “They all have lives, they’re all going home, everyone is missing something or has too much of something else, they are all sad or happy or tired.” David Gallagher, in a review in these pages of his novel Ways of Going Home (March 6, 2014), has remarked on Zambra’s fascination with “peripheral characters, modest people on the edge of history.” ↩
Multiple Choice, translated by Megan McDowell (Penguin, 2016). ↩
Zambra appears to consider Mudanza his first book. He had previously published a collection of poems—Bahía inútil (Santiago: Stratis, 1998)—but has never wanted it reprinted, though in my opinion (I managed to get my hands on a rare copy) there is much to rescue from that text, such as the epigrammatic “She pronounces ancient words/as if she would always have to leave.” ↩
The bookstore, Metales Pesados, really exists and is owned by the poet Sergio Parra, who appears as an important character in Chilean Poet, and who, besides being a friend of Zambra’s (and a befriender of Gonzalo and Vicente), published Zambra’s story Fantasía in a bilingual edition (Santiago: Metales Pesados, 2007). The story is about a moving company (Mudanzas Fantasía) that specializes in transporting…books. Just an example of Zambra’s playfulness. ↩
These words are from Libro de lectura(s): poesía—poetas—poética (Santiago: USACH, 2013) by Soledad Bianchi, perhaps the major critic and academic sustainer of contemporary Chilean poetry. See also her Pliegues. Chile: cultura y memoria (1990–2013) (Santiago: Cuneta, 2014). ↩
See my “Progressives Won Chile’s Election. And They Won Big,” The New York Times, May 19, 2021. ↩
For Zambra’s optimistic view of Boric’s victory, and how he tried to convince his father to vote for Boric because he was a poet, see his essay “Experiencia,” latinta.com.ar, December 22, 2021. ↩
See my “Chileans Rejected the New Constitution, But They Still Want Progressive Reforms,” The Guardian, September 6, 2022. ↩
See his introduction to his selection of new voices in Chilean poetry, Cantares: nuevas voces de la poesía chilena (Santiago: LOM, 2004). ↩