Alejandro Zambra wrote two books of poems in his twenties. Since turning thirty, he has written five novels. What looks like a simple transition disguises the fact that genre realignment is not always as absolute as it might appear from the layout of bookshops and bibliographies.
Zambra’s first four novels—translated with great freshness by Megan McDowell—were as slim as poetry books, each shaped with a poet’s eye for form and notably free from the conventions of storytelling. In Multiple Choice (2016), for example, life’s complications are transformed into ninety academic exercises based on the Chilean Verbal Aptitude test for university entrance. Zambra’s latest book, Chilean Poet (Poeta chileno, 2020) – in another zestful translation by McDowell – looks much more like an old-fashioned novel. It takes place over 350 pages and is full of fictional mainstays, such as characters and scenes. Then again, it is chiefly concerned with Chilean poets and poetry, so it seems that Zambra is still in two minds. What is more, although the novel has a central story – that of the making of a young Chilean poet – and is largely told in the third person, you won’t find much of a plot. This is a novel from the poet’s side.
Zambra’s portrayal of the society of Chilean poets is predominantly comic. Deep into the novel, there is a set-piece account of a series of interviews with Zambra’s fictive subjects in which the author enjoys mimicking the little vanities and rivalries, anxieties and poses, of this extended family of artists. (“’For me, writing is a way of returning to a place I’ve never been and don’t know,’ [one interviewee] says suddenly, with feeling, as if she had just thought of it.” Other highlights include a rowdy and pugnacious literary party and an amusingly worshipful pilgrimage by the protagonist, Vicente (our titular hero), to visit the grandfather of Chilean poetry , a ninety-nine-year-old Nicanor Parra. (Parra died in 2018, aged 103; Zambra, in his breezy and enjoyable book of reviews and essays, Not To Read2018 – No leer, 2010 – describes a similar pilgrimage he himself made in 2003.) It should be noted that, while the familiar names of dead poets, such as Neruda and Parra, appear in these pages, Zambra’s depiction of the current boisterous scene is peopled with invented figures. No doubt, for those in the know, these “fictional” poets will be a source of great amusement.
Less overtly entertaining, but more touching, is the story of Vicente. Typically, Zambra comes at it sideways. Part One introduces us to two frustratedly fumbling teenaged lovers, Carla and Gonzalo. Gonzalo is in love with the idea of being a poet; he attempts to read Carla his forty-two woeful sonnets and uses his poetry notebook to ponder the deep question of a good pseudonym. The relationship ends amicably and, nine years later (see Part Two), they meet up again. Carla is now with a young child, Vicente, and the pair attempt to form a new family unit, with Gonzalo as stepfather. Gonzalo’s poetic ambitions remain, though his efforts are chronically derivative; he manages to squeeze out one book of poems before the opportunity to pursue a doctorate in New York breaks up the family.
Finally, in Part Three, the focus is on Vicente, now eighteen. He is also a budding poet, whose love life and writing develop together: after a passionate night, he spends the morning compiling lists of images and words, pursuing his thoughts and feelings towards poetic form. Part Four reconcils Vicente and Gonzalo. After an awkward start, they spend a perfect day drinking beer and talking poetry.
This fifty-page final section is particularly moving as it emerges tentatively from the emotional confines of an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. Zambra’s Chilean poets are men, loud and demonstrative; the few women seem isolated. His Chilean families revolve around randy grandfathers and selfish fathers. And the two prominent women in this novel are both ultimately excluded from it. Carla, Vicente’s mother, is present throughout, but her lack of interest in poetry leaves her perpetually at the edge of the novel’s line of sight. Pru, Vicente’s girlfriend, comes to Chile to write an article, and, when she leaves again for New York, her story is openly dropped by Zambra, who informs the reader – in one of many reflective authorial interventions – that, although he would love To follow her story, there are millions of New York narratives and, in case we had forgotten, he is a Chilean novelist writing about Chilean poets. In a typically playful move, Zambra gives us Pru’s notes for her article on Chilean poets. (“‘Being a Chilean poet is like being a Peruvian chef or a Brazilian soccer player or a Venezuelan model,’ one poet told me. I think he was being serious.”) Her conclusion, which might be Zambra’s, is that, while The world of Chilean poets is a bit silly, and sometimes cruel, it is also full of passion and heroism.
It is a small world, too. When Vicente tells his biological father that he’d like to travel to places he’s never been, it turns out he means “Temuco, Coyhaique, Punta Arenas”, not Paris, Rome or New York. Zambra’s study of provincial life – or at least provincial attitudes – has much of George Eliot’s ironic tone and intelligent sympathy. Also like Eliot, he asks moral questions of his characters’ choices. But there is no Dorothea. This is Santiago: more Middlemuchach than Middlemarch.
Amid this competitive and masculine scene, the delicate emotional negotiations of Vicente and Gonzalo appear even more touching. It is through books and poetry that the two men are able to give voice to their shifting and fragile feelings. Choosing a book as a gift becomes fraught with implications and self-reflection; reciting poems by heart is figured as a deeply intimate act, releasing anger, exposing vulnerability and tenderness.
Zambra’s conclusion is perfectly judged. Laughing, drinking beer and talking poetry into the night, the newly bonded son and stepfather satisfy our poetic desire for a fully-captured moment of connection. But the Eliot-like narrator is well aware that these moments don’t last, that most things “go to shit”, that this happy ending is contrived. The novelist, putatively in charge, has simply allowed the poet a temporary victory. Zambra the poet and Zambra the novelist are beautifully poised. Or you could say they are one and the same.
Hal Jensen is writing a book on the Oxford Professors of Poetry
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