Reading his biography, one gets the feeling that the Chilean writer Juan Emar could have walked right off the page of one of Roberto Bolaño’s kaleidoscopic capers about reclusive writers, fascist politics, and the international avant-garde. Indeed, Bolaño included a nod to Emar in The Savage Detectives, naming a Mexican bullfighters’ bar—the Peña Taurina Pilo Yañez—in his honor, although this was a cryptic form of veneration, given that Bolaño used the obscure writer’s given name instead of his only slightly more recognizable pseudonym (Emar was born Álvaro Yáñez Bianchi and went by the nickname “Pilo”—thus, Pilo Yañez). Emar certainly did not get the reference; he died nearly thirty years before the Savage Detectives came out, never having had the chance to be feted at literary conferences or listed on Nobel Prize betting sites like his younger counterpart.
The recipient of posthumous critical acclaim in Chile, Emar was barely read during his lifetime and remains virtually unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world to this day. Born in 1893, the son of a successful businessman and diplomat, he grew up spending time in both Europe and Santiago. As a young man in Paris he adopted the pseudonym Jean Emar (as in, “I’m fed up” in French), worked as an art critic, and hung out with André Breton and the surrealists. He returned to his home country in the 1930s and churned out three novels in a little over a year. These failed to find an audience, and a subsequent collection of stories met the same fate. Disavowing the idea of ever publishing again, Emar spent the rest of his days laboring on Umbral (Threshold), an opus of over five thousand pages, whose first volume was published in 1971, six years after its author’s death. Only in the following decades did Emar’s work finally gain recognition, earning praise from Bolaño, César Aira, and other members of the post-Boom generations.
Ayer (Yesterday) was the last of the trio of novels published by Emar before beginning the epic Umbral, and it’s the first book of his to appear in English, in an edition released by New Directions this year. The prolific Megan McDowell has deftly translated the text, and an incisive introduction by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra covers Emar’s biography as well as Zambra’s own baptism into the cult of Emar. The novel describes a wild day in the life of the narrator, Juan, and his wife, Isabel, and it packs a dizzying variety of events and experiences into its brisk 107 pages. There’s an execution by beheading, a clash between a lion and an ostrich, an argument about color theory, a disquisition on the elasticity of time. Reflecting its high-modernist origins, Yesterday shifts from anticlerical screed, to surrealist fantasy, to ontological inquiry. Yet the book is buoyed by a lightness of touch and winking sense of humor; imagine the playfulness of René Magritte’s paintings translated to the page.
Creating a kind of a reverse cliff-hanger, Emar frontloads Yesterday with the most outlandish sequences—the gruesome beheading and the lion-ostrich battle—before devoting the second half to a series of incidents in which the drama largely occurs within the narrator’s own mind. It may seem counterintuitive, given the spectacle-packed early pages, but the later scenes are the novel’s most gripping. One of these moments of intense interior drama takes place in that locus classicus of existential dread, the waiting room. What exactly Juan and Isabel are there for goes unexplained: the waiting, the sense of being perpetually on the cusp of something, is the point. Challenged by Isabel to make some sort of observation from which he can draw a meaningful conclusion, Juan takes in a man sitting across from him. The man has a mustache and wears a bowler hat; most importantly, he has a potbelly. Juan approaches his subject with confidence:
To observe a potbellied man … now I think, will it be easier? To draw a conclusion, you understand, to get something out of it. Will it be easier than observing, let’s say, the separation of water from earth on the third day of Creation? Perhaps.
But the more Juan thinks, the harder it becomes to arrive at any sort of meaning—one definition of the modernist quandary. An attempt to differentiate the potbellied man’s essence from the details of his physical appearance and imagined daily life ends in frustration, as the subject “dissolves, his contours fade, and he becomes hermetically sealed.” Zeroing in on the man’s key feature, the potbelly, only produces thoughts worthy of a “bad poet” or a characterization on the level of “impressionism, vagary” (the ultimate insult for a 1930s avant-gardist). Giving up on the potbellied man, Juan looks out the window instead. What begins as a description of a busy commercial square evolves into an antic, startlingly prescient treatise on consumerism:
In the beginning God created cafés, shops, and cinemas. And then cafés, shops, and cinemas created men. They created them when God’s own initial momentum began to subside and they had to find sustenance by their own means. God, seeing this, was happy. Then came an idea worthy of Satan: “And if we remove the fed and leave only the fodder?”
And He hid the cafés, shops, and cinemas under the folds of his celestial cloak; He took them to heaven and stashed them away. And men, now aimless, with no reason for living, sprouted fur, climbed the trees, and howled.
Replace the phrase “cafés, shops, and cinemas” with “smartphones” and you’d have a fable for our own era. Yet Juan isn’t satisfied with these reflections, either, which to him have the same reek of bad poetry; washing their hands of “potbellied men, lamps, squares, chasubles, people, cosmoses, and shop windows,” the couple escape the waiting room without receiving whatever it was they had been waiting for.
As the novel proceeds, Juan continues to be subjected to these high-intensity mental workouts. A scene in which members of Juan’s extended family place bets on whether he will be brave enough to look and see what is behind a sofa, triggering Juan to reflect on the nature of fear itself, is droll and demented. (The setting, a posh dinner party attended by a Uruguayan consul, also serves to remind us of Emar’s tony background.) Supported throughout by the ever-patient Isabel, Juan remains assured and quizzical, not so much laughing into the abyss as smirking at it, but the repeated crises do have an effect. The final psychological set-piece originates during a bathroom break, as Juan peers into the bottom of a urinal. He believes he has discovered a way to step outside of time, but then he is led into a kind of temporal loop, increasingly terrifying, from which only his wife can save him.
It’s easy to see why Emar’s contemporaries would have been bewildered by Yesterday. The philosophical peregrinations never lead anywhere; there’s a notable absence of political or ideological scaffolding. Emar seems more interested in posing questions than answering them. And yet what might have seemed defects ninety years ago are virtues now. We’ve long come to accept the fact that the search for ultimate meaning is a fool’s errand, yet we keep going through the motions, not because we expect to find an answer, but because we recognize the value in the activity. Yesterday is thus a curveball from the last century that seems somehow perfectly pitched to our present-day predicaments.
Of course, Yesterday doesn’t completely escape the limitations of its time. Its obsession with the Freudian divisions of consciousness will be old hat to most twenty-first-century readers. A tossed-off comment declaring the dispensability of half the human race (“Kill one of every two, or even two of every three, or three of every four. Ultimately, what would change?”), even meant in jest, is a line that could never have been published after 1945 and will make any decent reader cringe. Most troubling is the depiction of Isabel, who too often seems little more than a vessel or sidekick, although she does move the action along with her exhortations of “Enough already!” and “Let’s go!”
Bolaño once described his fellow countryman Emar as “the Chilean writer who bears a marked resemblance to the monument to the unknown soldier”—perhaps an acknowledgment of how Emar seemed to embody an anonymous sacrifice made to the cause of literature. Yet Yesterday shows that Emar hardly deserves to remain unknown. It’s clear that the legacy left by this charming, strange, and formidable writer has more to offer.
by Juan Emar, t.r. Megan McDowell
Published April 5th, 2022