by Alejandro Zambra
Published February 2023
Translated by Megan McDowell
‘Who expects small things to survive when even the largest get lost? People forget years and remember moments,’ Ann Beattie wrote. ‘Seconds and symbols are left to sum things up.’
When I was younger and just discovering writing, I wrote short stories and thought I would always write them. Then I wrote screenplays, and thought I would always write those. These days, mostly I write essays. Mostly, that is, when I feel like writing. Mostly, in terms of time in general, I work an office job that I really like and I see my friends whom I really love. I haven’t written poetry since an elective I did during my first year of uni. During my honours year, I remember telling a poet friend that I didn’t understand poetry, good poetry. I told her that understanding poems often felt far beyond me. I said, ‘Is the point that it’s like a puzzle that you have to figure out?’ and she took a beat, genuinely perplexed, and replied, ‘No. No, it isn’t like that at all.’
Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m really a very good critic because while I think I’m intelligent enough, I can be stalled on thoughts that I’m not smart enough about literature and I’m not widely read enough to expertly contextualise what I read. What I have read, I often forget the details of quickly. At the realisation of everything I don’t know or everything I’ve forgotten, that imposter feeling creeps in. I think lots of people feel some version of this – a pressure to prove your love for literature by being convincingly literate about it. But this formal expectation – this burden of proof – can be so far removed from the pleasures that reading creates and that draw a reader to read in the first place. Because despite this niggling sense of my own limitations in this formal approach to reading, I never stop knowing that I love it. I simply love to read, and often I will love a novel, or an essay, or a poem, or a film, likely without understanding it, just for the way it made me feel. And sometimes I will love these things not for what they are as a whole but for a single moment that feels so explosively profound and beautiful that the momentum of my love for that moment will enshroud the rest, anoint it all too as exceptional. In response to these texts, formalism feels so inadequate anyway for the task of unpacking their meaning. So I keep writing about writing not to convince or guide but to linger in affect. I don’t want to prove anything or provide references. I just want to hold onto the love I feel for those single moments that made me feel high and clean. For years since I read the Ann Beattie short story ‘Snow’, that phrase, ‘people forget years and remember moments,’ has popped into my head, deployed against, incited alongside, all manner of moments. I remember it and I feel tethered to some understanding of the world that has been captured in art. I don’t have to worry about that understanding slipping away or being proven false. The book is on my shelves and if I need to, I can find it again – one version of a truth about the world that makes sense to me.
I hadn’t read any novels by Alejandro Zambra before I read Chilean Poet. I know that his books are beloved, and that he’s been touted as the new Bolaño. Zambra’s works frequently depict artists and writers or figures grappling with the profound influence of language – its primacy in creating the world, the medium through which shared ideas move. His first novel Bonsai was about a writer writing a novel. His last release Multiple Choice explored a father-son relationship within Pinochet’s dictatorship, through the form of oppressive standardised testing. I started Chilean Poet just before Christmas while I was visiting my family in Brisbane and then I finished it during the first days of the new year, while I was ferociously coming down. It was life-affirming and glorious and gently wise and I loved it, needed it. It temporarily restored some sense of hope, like a synthetic serotonin.
Chilean Poet is a long, unfolding story of an unconventional family; the way the various bonds forged inside it, unfold, expand and shift. In the nineties, teenagers Gonzalo (an aspiring poet) and Carla (who is beautiful and roundly capable – female characters might be Zambra’s Achilles heel, but more on that later) end their heady romance due to the disappointing experience of losing their virginity to each other. When they reconnect in their 20s, Gonzalo now able to fuck, they quickly form an idyllic family unit – Gonzalo, Carla, and Carla’s 6-year-old boy from a previous relationship, Vicente. Gonzalo slips easily into de facto fatherhood. He and Vicente forge an instant bond. For a while, Gonzalo functions as an ‘older brother or indulgent uncle or live-in clown’ but as their family unit settles into a sustainable rhythm, Gonzalo falters in finding the appropriate word for his role in Vicente’s life. In Spanish, the word used for stepfather is padrastro, with the suffix -astro having negative connotations. Gonzalo, whose family’s own patriarchal figure leaves much to be desired – a philandering grandfather who has produced countless offspring, only ever known as ‘the lech’ – knows that he is a better father figure than many biological fathers and bristles at having the suffix apply to himself.
‘What does your padrastro do?’
‘My padrastro is a poetastro.’ He imagined Vicente giving that reply.
Gonzalo knows his strengths and weaknesses. He can accept one as the truth but not the other.
For a while Gonzalo, Vicente and Carla’s family life is peaceful and joyful. The absence of biological absolutism bends without breaking for a time – when Gonzalo lets Vicente ride in the car’s passenger seat, Carla snaps at him: ‘It’s times like these it’s clear you’re not his father.’ To which Gonzalo replies: ‘I’m a much better father than that lame-ass, ugly, mediocre motherfucking pusillanimous sack of balls who stuck his dick in you.’ Eventually though, there is a slip, a lapse, Gonzalo thinks like a single man, though he’s not led astray by sex or romance, but by his ambition. He thinks like someone who does not have family responsibilities. He goes to New York to teach poetry and the family is separated.
In a later section of the book, Pru, an American writer, visits Chile after a succession of troubling romantic entanglements. She was supposed to travel with her roommate-turned-girlfriend. They were to write an experimental travel piece about Santiago, but Pru is unceremoniously dumped right before the trip. Vicente meets the much older Pru vomiting on the side of the road. She moves into Carla’s house, in Gonzalo’s old study, and Vicente, now, like his ex-stepfather, himself an aspiring poet, encourages her to write about Chile’s poets. Not the Nobel Prize winners but the lesser-known poets, the everyday heroes of Chile. For poets are to Chile what soccer players are to Brazil or chefs are to Peru, as one of the poets Pru interviews tells her.
Chilean Poet is a tender, life-affirming novel about many forms of love. Even in the relations between characters who have slept together – Pru and Vicente, Carla and Gonzalo – what’s being explored is some other element of that love, some deeper, intrinsic connection at play. And all of this sits alongside an exploration of poetry and its significance – to the culture and politics and history of Chile, to its people generally, as explored in Pru’s section, and to these characters specifically, as explored most acutely through Gonzalo and Vicente. While Gonzalo might be a poetastro, he is a devoted, deeply feeling man and poetry guides him well. He considers the significance of words, he’s moved by them, and Zambra as novelist-narrator does so alongside him. Sometimes this is quite funny, as in that argument quoted earlier when he tells Carla her ex Leon is a pusillanimous sack of balls, and then spends a page and a half reflecting on his word choices. Sometimes it wonderfully considers the power of poetry directly. On first discovering a collection of Emily Dickinson poetry that Gonzalo left behind, Vicente reads the lines ‘A dim capacity for wings/ degrades the dress I wear’:
He still didn’t understand much but the image managed to communicate something, and it transformed into, so to speak, an instantaneous memory, a kind of truth. He spent an entire day reading the six-hundred-plus poems in the book, and although he didn’t entirely like any of them he retained a piece of almost all of them.
Sometimes, very satisfyingly, this translation considers the living force of translation itself, ‘[Gonzalo] remembers sitting by the Washington Square Fountain reading that story [A small, good thing by Raymond Carver] for the first time in Carver’s language and thinking, though he doesn’t usually like translations to Spanish from Spain at all, that ‘Parace una tonteria’ (‘It Seems Like a Silly Thing’) felt like a more accurate and beautiful title than its original.’
Zambra represents complexity simply and gently but strangely, he falters in characterising female characters. His sex scenes are otherwise full of desire and fun but when Pru drunkenly brings an older woman back to Carla’s house, Zambra’s language becomes disembodied. ‘They sleep in an embrace, like classmates or old friends, and their snores play out a weary dialogue of questions and answers.’ A nice image but lacking the electricity and particularity that Zambra elsewhere gifts his characters. When Carla, who loves watching Sex and the City, fucks Vicente’s dad, she thinks ‘No one, not even the most oversexed of her friends, would understand that story, which even to her sounds inconsistent. Samantha Jones herself wouldn’t understand me, Carla thinks with a smile’. WRONG. Samantha Jones understands even the most inappropriate of fucks and a girly would know that. It’s bizarre because I feel so strongly that Zambra sees, in multiple dimensions, the humanity of all of his characters, it’s just as though when the male characters leave the room he gets nervous talking about the women.
Years later, when Gonzalo returns to Chile, he meets Vicente again by chance. They talk, because of course they do, about poetry, trading recommendations and references.
‘Right. I started it, I liked it. I’m going to keep going. Still, the truth is I almost always get bored with novels. So many pages. As if a poem wasn’t enough.’
‘That’s what Pound thought,’ Says Gonzalo. ‘In a letter to William Carlos Williams he says he only writes the good parts of novels. And that everything else, the other four hundred pages, are just filler and tedium.’
Zambra writes about writers, but this is far more inviting to read than the autofiction that has proliferated in recent years from young writers. I understand that Zambra’s earlier novels are more experimental with form than this one. Chilean Poet certainly does not have the energy of something truly new and exciting but it’s comfortable in its wisdom. I like how assured it is. Zambra’s maturity and experience as a novelist is clear. Chilean Poet feels like the culmination of his wisdom on the matter of poetry, presented without pretence. It’s the opposite of the autofiction of young creatives, which can so often feel anxious but still arrogant.
Gonzalo knows that he would die for Vicente, he imagines that if anything had happened to Vicente while he was in New York, whether he would have come home:
And if he had taken that flight, what would he have done when he got there, other than cry? And what would his crying have sounded like? A prudent, embarrassed sobbing, the cry of a secondary character? Or a wrenching an honest cry, one whose decibels would compete with the wails of a Vicente’s mother and grandparents and friends? Crying as a pose, or a pose of crying?
While there can’t be one word that quite grasps their relationship, the conversations Gonzalo and Vicente have about poetry at the end of the book, perhaps will continue to have past the book’s conclusion, are full of words and ideas and passions that demonstrate the strength of their relationship.
Then his stepfather said something that is difficult to record here without any further description; one has to imagine the slow, ceremonious rhythm of the sentence, which was both a question and a confirmation, maybe more of a confirmation than a question:
I don’t quote what comes next, not because it’s not important or, conversely, because it’s a spoiler of any kind, but because the instruction is the profound thing, I think. Zambra’s novel shows repeated respect for the fact that to understand a life or a person, to fully understand what passes between people, you need all of the context of the lives lived before it. The instruction to imagine the rhythm of the words rather than the words themselves, is the beautiful part and the part that poetry, in some ways teaches. Don’t try to understand words literally, but consider everything around them too.
This is Ann Beattie, again:
I remember the cold night you brought in a pile of logs and a chipmunk jumped off as you lowered your arms. ‘What do you think you’re doing in here?’ you said, as it ran through the living room. It went through the library and stopped at the front door as though it knew the house well. This would be difficult for anyone to believe, except perhaps as the subject of a poem.
I guess it’s naff or deficient to describe literature as heart-warming or uplifting, but this novel is that. It’s funny and encouraging and re-enlivening. It makes you notice things again and hold them softly. It celebrates the small things that survive and the moments that sum up what words, alone, discreet, can’t capture.
While it’s true that I think Carla is a character who deserved better writing, there is a moment in her life that Zambra captures so well that when I read it I had to put the book flat against my chest and take a breath. When Carla has a miscarriage and is on the way to the hospital to have a D&C, Zambra writes,
Carla didn’t hear the useless words of consolation Gonzalo said to her. She was focused on imagining some kind of ancient god, vengeful or more like resentful: a failing god, aware of his irrevocable decline, who was using his final ammunition, the remnants of the immense power he had once wielded, to make himself known, to remain faithful to the habit of destruction.
It is the plainness of the way Carla considers this god. The assurance that her immense pain is the result of callous higher power and that for something more powerful than you to enact cruelty is also pathetic. Carla accepts it, hates it, and remains powerful in her human vulnerability. This struck me as particularly beautiful and tender and the perfect distillation of Zambra’s writing: specific enough to be surprising while remaining open to all possibilities.