While reading Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra, you are likely to make strange noises. Gasps of astonishment, anxious finger-tapping, laughter when seeing a super-specific moment from your past characterized in unvarnished terms. Your romantic partner(s), roommates – who might also double as occasional bedmates, family (blood or chosen), and people sitting next to you on the train will likely respond by glancing your way. If you are lucky enough to meet their eyes, their expression will tell a story about the nature of your relationship, be it one of your choosing or one of happenstance. Whatever sound you made (and the emotion on which it was based) will only become more intense.
“Suddenly freed from the dictatorship of their childhoods,” Zambra writes, “Chilean teenagers were living through their own parallel transitions into adulthood, smoking weed and listening to Silvio Rodríguez or Los Tres or Nirvana while they deciphered or tried to decipher all kinds of fears, frustrations, traumas, and problems, almost always through the dangerous method of trial and error.” Trial and error is a recurring theme in the novel. Early in the 1990s, Gonzalo and Carla meet in late adolescence and stumble their way through the confusing rites of sexual experimentation until the relationship breaks for all the reasons why youthful horny love rarely survives into adulthood.
Like lovelorn teens across generations and borders, Gonzalo throws himself into poetry, thinking “that in the future Carla would be nothing but that distant girlfriend of his youth who hadn’t known how to appreciate the budding poet he had been (the woman who, in spite of the many signs, had not taken the measure of the man in front of her—and had even cheated on him!).”
By the time of a chance encounter years later in a Santiago nightclub, the once and future couple have figured out the mechanics of sex. No longer do they paw at each other with a heady mixture of fear and excitement. Both have touched – and been touched by – many other people since the last time they shared a bed, and have in the process become adept at the physical demonstration of love. Carla’s body tells another story as well. She has a child. A lesser book might use this opportunity to stage a big reveal. The child is Gonzalo’s. Cue gasping and attempts to atone for years apart. Carla even lets him believe it for a second before saying “And of course he’s not your son.”
Meet Vicente, a six-year-old boy with a love for his cat and for eating his cat’s food. Along with his mother and the man who has newly entered their home, a negotiation begins about what their lives together will look like. Gonzalo looks to his grandfather, a man referred to simply as “the lech”, for a model of what (step)fatherhood will not look like. It’s always easier to figure out what you don’t want as compared to what you do. A conscientious kid, Vicente recognizes Gonzalo’s earnest efforts to set a good example. Even through inevitable missteps. Even as the man struggles to find the right word to describe their burgeoning relationship.
Just as quickly as familial bliss develops, with its unique language and nuances, it falls apart. Carla’s concern – one shared by single parents everywhere – that Gonzalo isn’t in it for the long haul, comes to a head when he secures a grant to move to New York City. “Without a word to Carla,” Zambra describes, “he had filled out forms, gotten certificates and letters of recommendation, and he’d even taken the precaution of using his work address, so that no correspondence endangering the secrecy of his efforts would be delivered to their house.”
Gonzalo doesn’t consider the impact of his decisions on those with whom he had built a happy family until it is too late. However, his influence on little Vicente – who becomes less little over the course of their four years together – doesn’t disappear just because his mother ended her relationship with the man. When a bond is created in a formative place and time, it’s everlasting. Gonzalo takes most of the books that he arrived with and collected over his time at their home. Except for a few poetry collections left behind, Vicente is left with an almost empty library to reconstruct on his own terms.
When we next see Vicente, he is an aspiring poet on the verge of adulthood, at least in a legal sense, resistant to his parents’ attempts to force him into college. After a night out with fellow poets, he hooks up with Pru – a woman in her 30s unsuccessfully chasing stray dogs to write about for an article in a Brooklyn-based magazine. (North) Americans have long headed south as part of a storied tradition to find meaning in the region’s landscapes, cities, and people. Initially, her intention is to collaborate with Jessye, her New York City roommate turned girlfriend, but a break-up at the last moment leaves her alone and confused in an unfamiliar country.
After negotiating the boundaries of their situational friendship, Pru leans on Vicente to introduce her to the world of Chilean poets, a world filled with ego, jealousy, and countless colorful characters. She soon realizes 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.” She sets off to tell a better story. One of her notes reads, “Oddly, Chilean poets are more famous than fiction writers, and there are many fiction writers who write novels about poets. Poets are like national heroes, legendary figures.”
A proud lineage of Chilean poets has manipulated the Spanish language to craft new meanings throughout history. The country’s linguistic and poetic influence is comparable to the Irish’s role in English. The citizens of the uniquely shaped country tucked between a vast ocean and a treacherous mountain range have a delightfully distinctive way of speaking. Even native Spanish speakers, including this humble reviewer, have struggled to adapt to the melody, syntax, and slang, po. Translator Megan McDowell’s ability to capture the novel’s Chilenismos beyond the usual linguistic chasms between English and Spanish is a remarkable achievement.
In Chilean Poet, Zambra strikes a perfect balance of self-aware yet sincere. He reaches the sublime through descriptions of everyday routine. He never takes himself too seriously while acknowledging the gravity of introducing a child to the world in all its glorious contradictions. He exhibits the distance between who people tell themselves they are and the actions that betray their self-perception. The tone is never mean-spirited, but rather based instead on a recognition of the inevitable shortcomings of love and the language we use to describe it in all its forms.
“The word stepfather, and the word stepson, are so ugly in Spanish—padrastro, hijastro—but we have to use them,” Zambra writes. “We have to use them or maybe invent others.” Chilean Poet takes readers on a courageous journey of invention.
Alemany, Luis. “El español de Chile: la gran olla a presión del idioma”. El Mundo. 30 November 2021.
Poetry Foundation. Gabriela Mistral profile.
Poetry Foundation. Pablo Neruda profile.
Rodriguez, Silvio. “Al Final de Este Viaje en la Vida“. YouTube. Uploaded 23 June 2015.