Poetry, Prose, and Politics in Alejandro Zambra’s ‘Chilean Poet’

A new novel treads a shaky line between cultures in post-dictatorship Chile


Who glorifies poets better than Latin American novelists? For Roberto Bolaño, Valeria Luiselli, César Aira, Isabel Allende, and José Lezama Lima, bards are politically oppressed geniuses, horny teens, and implacable idealists, sometimes simultaneously. A couple of these fictionists were poets, too, and their stylistically varied prose gazes across mediums for manifold reasons. Verse is vital in the Hispanophone Americas, yet aside from 38-year-old Luiselli, these authors all lived in murderous autocracies that stifled the art form. Should you hear a lazy opinion about poetry’s death, remember poetry’s vigor: Authoritarians feel threatened enough to censor it. 

Alejandro Zambra is a star in the constellation of poesy-interested prose writers. He published two collections of verse in his native Chile before gaining an international reputation as a novelist whose “community was always poetry.” Born two years after Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, Zambra was 14 when hard-won free elections finally replaced the tyrant. He recalls in his 2010 essay collection, Not To Read: 

Even if people accepted that it was legitimate to write, to want to write, our generation was still suspicious … that was something we had in common: our childhood under dictatorship, and now this sudden, supposed democracy.

Mostly, Zambra’s fiction explores life in Chile’s rapidly globalizing, post-despot republic. Young and cultured, his protagonists listen to indie rock and pretend to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “The truth is that those were the most important months of my life as a reader,” a character in his 2006 novel, Bonsai, lies. They hang out like countless New Yorkers, with a weed delivery service and a trusted bodega. We learn in Ways of Going Home, a 2011 novel that toggles between the hushed oppression of 1985 and the 21st century: “I spent the afternoons reading novels or watching TV for hours, smoking tobacco or marijuana, drinking beer or cheap wine, listening to music or listening to nothing.” The Internet changed their lives, as Zambra describes in his phenomenal 2013 story collection, My Documents: “Max didn’t watch the news anymore, or waste any time playing the guitar or drawing: when he came back from the university he would immediately turn on the computer.” As though recovering from the country’s frequent earthquakes—catastrophes that occur throughout the author’s work—his characters watch the world get rebuilt around them, and so they see youth’s possibilities with astounding clarity. 

Zambra’s biggest influence is the aforementioned Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003), who had an inverse experience with Pinochet, having fled Chile as a nascent leftist when the junta took power. Both authors’ prose is sunbaked and plainspoken, but Zambra’s new novel, Chilean Poet, makes their lineage clearer than ever. Politics hangs heavy over Latin America’s Parnassus, yet for these writers, poetry is also an eternal lifeway, passed between generations of young and young-hearted. 

First published in Spanish in 2018, and available now in Megan McDowell’s English translation, Chilean Poet focuses on multiple generations of bards, including Gonzalo—a stepdad who hates his own “trivial and fairly pretentious” poetry collection and flees his family for New York to get a doctorate—and his stepson, Vicente. The near-400-page saga saves some room for the boy’s mother, Carla, whose own working life is ignored, and a 31-year-old writer from New York, Pru, who sleeps with Vicente while traveling in Santiago and writes a piece for a “magazine of growing importance” back in New York about the Chilean fascination with poetry. At its best, the book is self-aware, smattered with metafictional intrusions whose playfulness is sadly passé in today’s literature. Whenever Chilean Poet feints toward following a character to New York, the author switches perspectives to stay in Chile. “You guys are like Bolaño characters,” Pru tells Vicente. Zambra understands who influenced him, but on another level, he mocks a New York intellectual who associates all Chilean fiction with perhaps its most admired practitioner.

At its worst—well, Zambra writes about Brooklyn. Before her trip to Chile, Pru lived in Williamsburg: “In an old clothing workshop converted into a gigantic apartment where ten people could live comfortably, but where around twenty were living uncomfortably.” Thankfully, such hackneyed depictions of poor-by-choice bohemia don’t take up much real estate, and one of the novel’s most successful sections finds Pru visiting Chilean poets both fictional and real, such as the sui generis poet and physicist Nicanor Parra (1914–2018) and the polymath Armando Uribe (1933–2020). Yet neither Zambra’s reflexivity nor his cast of thousands can overcome the book’s narrow social perspective. 

Zambra tells us that Gonzalo and Carla reconnect at a Chilean gay bar because friends “dragged him” there “who were obsessed with proving to Gonzalo that heterosexuality was something like a chronic but curable disease.” In the bar’s bathroom, Carla kneels “with his penis throbbing in her mouth,” both a leaden scene and a grossly appropriative opportunity to spice up a straight couple’s amorous reawakening. (As someone who knocks reminds them, “Hey, the bathroom is for everyone, you aren’t the only ones who want to fuck!”) A fistfight breaks out at a party, among males of course, and a character is knocked unconscious: “A gay poet rushes to give him mouth-to-mouth, which doesn’t seem necessary—the first aid evolves into a tongue kiss and right away Álvarez stands up….” There’s believable lesbian romance in Chilean Poet, yet gay men cruise along the narrative’s borders like stereotypes of desperate queens, sinking Chilean Poet from being uncharacteristically uneven to becoming dastardly. 

It’s a shame, since Zambra’s self-awareness redeems sections that would drown capital-R realist prose. The novel’s long beginning follows Gonzalo and Carla’s dull relationship, with details that want to be dry-toned but end up sodden: “They never cleared the leaves from the gutters on time.” Vicente’s interiority, though, injects the book with rejuvenating insights, clueing us in to the possibility that Gonzalo’s boring narration was a deliberate reflection of his lackluster verse. Vicente, however: 

Believes it’s the poet rather than the prose writer who has a responsibility to notice absolutely all the details of every lived experience, not in order to relate them later, not so he can shout about them in a story, but to inscribe them, so to speak, in his sensibility, in his gaze: in a word, to live them.

One passage of Chilean Poet shines particularly bright with this profound core, sparkling unlike the myriad moments when Zambra’s sensibility fails his characters: 

And then Pru thinks about staying in Chile, but her life is not a splendid bad movie, so she gets on the plane, and I would really like to get on it with her and keep her company and follow her everywhere she goes, but at this very moment there are about a million novelists writing about New York, probably while they listen to and hum along with that beautiful song that goes, “New York, I love you / but you’re bringing me down,” and I want to read their sophisticated novels, which I nearly always like, in fact I’m going to try to read them all to see if Pru or someone like Pru is in any of them. Anyway, I really would like to get on the plane with her, but I have to stay in Chile, with Vicente, because Vicente is a Chilean poet and I am a Chilean novelist, and we Chilean novelists write novels about Chilean poets.

I am not a Chilean critic, but I am a gay critic, and we write criticism about homophobic novels like Chilean Poet while keeping them at arm’s length, especially when, as is the case with clever, capable Zambra, the author should know better.   ❖

A regular contributor to the Voice since its relaunch, Daniel Felsenthal also writes frequent criticism for Pitchfork and publishes fiction, essays, and poems in other publications. In 2019, his novella Sex With Andre appeared in The Puritan.

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