Some people live without needing literature. They summer in vacation homes, host parties, marry sweethearts with perfect smiles, bear children who will become not followers but influencers, and pass peacefully in their sleep with smooth faces. The rest of us read books. We chase romance at bonfires and dive bars, trudge through blizzards for groceries, quarrel with our parents about trifles from our youth, and crawl to the ends of our workdays and nights. We are eternal children: our bodies widen, wrinkle, stubble, and sag, but we look out from them as nine-year-olds, forever, with amusement, hope, desperation, and wonder. We do not have what the others have: this is why we imagine and read.
Alejandro Zambra is the writer of readers. His novels are for readers and about readers, especially the ones who cannot resist the shout within to write. Zambra voices not just the lives of his generation of poets and dreamers, raised in Chile under the Pinochet regime, but also the lives of the eternal nine-year-olds, people like us.
Chilean Poet continues the trajectory of Zambra’s career. He found an international audience with Bonsai, a 90-page novel about lovers of literature. The Private Lives of Trees, another 90-page novel (and this reviewer’s favorite by Zambra), continued these themes and Zambra’s characteristic meta-commentary. (Multiple Choice, Zambra’s 2014 book in the form of an exam, is more of an étude or poetic dream.) Ways of Going Home expands to 160 pages about personal lives set against historical events, not the perfect bonsai of a novel but a more expansive, digressive form: the novel as conversation. Now, with the 350-page Chilean Poet, Zambra abandons his miniatures, mostly leaves behind his meta-awareness, varies point-of-view, improvises plotlines more than ever before, and proves his talent in the held-with-two-hands novel.
Chilean Poet, translated by Megan McDowell, opens with reminiscence: “Those were the days of apprehensive mothers, of taciturn fathers, and of burly older brothers, but they were also the days of blankets, of quilts, and of ponchos…” From here the narrator winds through multiple love stories. At the beginning, he introduces Carla and Gonzalo, two teenagers trying to have sex under those blankets, quilts, and ponchos to avoid being detected by Carla’s mother. We follow how “Gonzalo had no other option but to go all in on poetry … moved by the Nerudian hope of managing to write something so extraordinarily persuasive that Carla could not go on rejecting him.” Zambra understands that absurdity and sincerity share a room, so when the teenagers rent a hotel room to properly copulate, and fail, he describes how “they were like two strangers searching desperately for a subject in common; it seemed like they were talking about something and were together, but they knew that really they were talking about nothing and were alone.”
Young love dies soon, and at the end of the first section, when an early Zambra novel would reach its end, the narrator goes on: “The city of Santiago is big and segregated enough that Carla and Gonzalo could have lost touch forever, but one night, nine years later, they saw each other again, and it’s thanks to that reencounter that this story will grow into enough pages to be considered a novel.” The novel moves into the future and its best scene: they hook up after spotting each other at a nightclub, and Gonzalo discovers that Carla mothers a boy named Vicente. Although Gonzalo continues to aspire “to some imprecise sort of relevance … to be considered a good poet, that’s all,” he also learns to occupy the role of Vicente’s new father, or stepfather.
Soon we meet Pru, a journalist from New York who arrives in Santiago to write “an article about a literary country, a country where poetry is oddly, irrationally important.” She interviews many writers for her mosaic of unacknowledged poets, or poetic types: “poet-critics,” “poet-editors,” “poet-booksellers,” “poet professors, poet-journalists, poet-fiction-writers, poet-translators,” “several bards dedicated to less literary professions,” and one “poet-performer” who writes two poems, simultaneously, on separate sheets of paper with both hands. “The world of Chilean poets is a little stupid,” Pru concludes, “but it’s still more genuine, less false than the ordinary lives of people who follow the rules and keep their heads down.”
The novel slows in these pages; the tension dissipates. At first I found them unnecessary, then realized the unnecessary is lifelike: we do not live on dramatic arcs. Our lives digress; people enter them, drift out of them, and burst back into them when we do not expect it. As in Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Zambra dramatizes a relationship before distancing us from it so that we can revisit it from the perspective of maturity and loss. Both artists do not merely describe a protagonist’s change: by bringing us through then and now, they allow us to experience the change.
In this section we lose sight of Gonzalo, who left the family to teach abroad; afterward, he returns, still troubled by how to define his relationship with his “non-son or stepson or ex-stepson.” Vicente and Gonzalo both write juvenile verses, but Zambra affords them a dignity and strange beauty that preserves their authenticity. A poem of Vicente’s is narrated by “a blender who was looking on in trepidation as it was filled with every fruit imaginable, and even some vegetables. ‘What am I going to do?’ wondered the blender, with automatic despair, but it wasn’t a comic poem, rather a sentimental one, and it was never stated that the speaker was a blender, only Vicente knew that.” This describes everything it means to be not just a young poet but a young writer: talented, imaginative, somewhat ridiculous, humble and proud, attuned to despair, strange but somehow beautiful.
But this novel isn’t about poetry. It isn’t packed with poems or theories of poems. Instead, it is about the promise of poetry: the appeal poetry holds as a domain of magic, where one can dwell with diverse solitudes and where reality merges with fantasies and dreams. Near the end, Gonzalo asks Vicente, “What kind of poems do you want to write?” Vicente responds, “True poems. Honest poems, poems that make me change, that transform me.”
In life, love passes through disappointment, rejection, misunderstanding, bad timing, accident, circumstance, and tribulation. This is what Chilean Poet captures so honestly: the course and damages of love. And Zambra’s novels remain clever and poetic, never too serious, always affirming. This quality could be described as warmth, but I will call it inclusivity: Zambra’s novels will always accept us. They will not be bitter and they will not allow us to writhe in anguish. They will show us the pain of maturation and the pain of relationships, but they will lead us through these passages gently, with humor and compassion. One could call this unrealistic; we break others and people break us without warning or consideration. But from the distance of the future, where Zambra’s narrators stand, you can see more of each event, as if you were standing back to admire a fresco. From that distance, you can admire and pity our human trials and mistrials.
These novels dangerously approach the sentimental—with their humor and tenderness, with their one-liners about reality, home, literature, and love. Somehow they never cross it. I don’t know whether it is because the actions approximate the strange turns of life or because Zambra writes in an earnest voice. Or because he believes his wise lines—believes them so strongly you must accept them on the page. Reading them I feel like Vicente, who in heartbreak “spends a week lying in a bed reading thin, intense books that fascinate and perhaps also wound him.”
I have to end this review. I haven’t really said or reviewed anything, and I fear the editor’s backspace. I am abandoning a separate document crowded with 2,500 words of quotations I copied out from the novel—quotations that are beautiful, funny, moving, and sincere. Zambra ends novels better than anyone alive, and the ending to Chilean Poet is one of the most memorable a reader can experience. Just before then, Gonzalo pages through poems about fatherhood to prepare for a meeting with Vicente, and Zambra best describes his own novel in this description of verse:
“He remembers when he thought he could affect other people with his poems: he thought he could be loved, be accepted, be included. It would have been easier to be disillusioned by poetry, to forget about poetry, than to accept, as Gonzalo did, that he’d failed. It would have been better to blame poetry, but it would have been a lie, because there are those poems he has just read, poems that prove poetry is good for something, that words can wound, throb, cure, console, resonate, remain.”
By Alejandro Zambra (trans. by Megan McDowell)
Published February 15, 2022
Marek Makowski is a writer living in Chicago. His work recently appeared in venues such as Hyperallergic, Ploughshares, World Literature Today, The Point, and The Yale Review. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can find more of his work on his website, marekwriting.com.