Familiar Gestures

Reflexive insularities tend to crop up in Alejandro Zambra’s fictions. Two of the Chilean writer’s early novels, Bonsai (2006) and Ways of Going Home (2011), feature stories-within-stories, a narrative reality wilfully compromised by nested iteration. Multiple Choice (2014) adopts the form of a standardized test, providing a rigid armature for post-Pinochet malaise. Born in 1974, Zambra is a leading writer of the ‘children of the dictatorship’, the generation that came of age at the end of Pinochet’s reign. Precociousness, in this context, can be seen as a kind of screen for diffuse apprehension. Gossamer strands of domestic ennui lacerate with hidden implication. The brevity of his novels – most sit at around a hundred pages – belies this depth of inquiry. Each is a little laboratory of narrative effect, mining metafictional potential from the diminuendos of the Chilean middle class.

This is what makes his new novel, Chilean Poet, such a puzzling addition to his oeuvre. One reads its nearly four hundred pages in a state of torpor. Gone is the compressed insinuation of the earlier works. Instead, we’re given something like the easy, nebulous sentiment of a romantic comedy. The novel’s themes – fatherhood, betrayal, inheritance, self-discovery, forgiveness – emerge from a cloying syrup of anecdote. It’s all somehow risibly cinematic, rife with quirk and melancholy, as if Noah Baumbach started reading a lot of Juan Emar, say, or Wes Anderson got really into Nueva Ola. I longed constantly for what Adam Thirlwell has referred to as Zambra’s ‘experiments with brevity’. The novel commits the gravest of literary sins, and one I’d never expect from such an accomplished miniaturist: interminability.

Chilean Poet is broken up into four parts that cover perhaps two and a half decades. In part one, our protagonist, Gonzalo, is a teenager in the Santiagan suburb of Maipú. His girlfriend, Carla, breaks his heart, the pain of which inducts him into the poet’s vocation. Part two, set nine years in the future, finds Gonzalo and Carla reconnecting as adults. Gonzalo struggles to define his tender relationship with Carla’s young son from another union, Vicente. (There is a riff on ‘step-father’ across languages; the beautiful French beau-père is contrasted with the comparative ugliness of the Spanish padrastro.) A tragedy subverts the family’s happiness, and Gonzalo, having written a book of poetry and grown otherwise restless, departs for New York. Part three again jumps forward a number of years. Vicente is now eighteen and an aspiring poet. He meets (and goes down on) a thirty-one year old American, Pru, who is writing an article about Chilean poets in the wake of her own break up. A coming-of-age story unfolds amid the seamy but high-minded Chilean poetry scene, of which Vicente is a fledgling member. In part four, Gonzalo returns to Maipú, happening across his stepson in a bookstore. In the hesitant intimacy of their reunion, a happy ending is suggested, if not specified.

Another Chilean novelist and poet, Roberto Bolaño, looms over the novel. Zambra is obviously and self-consciously referencing his late, world-beating countryman throughout, particularly Bolaño’s masterpiece The Savage Detectives (1998), in which a pair of dope-selling poets seek out the reclusive Cesárea Tinajero, founder of the Visceral Realist movement to which they subscribe. Zambra is of course far from alone in this sampling. The post-Bolaño novel has been all but inescapable in recent years. His heirs are many and tend to accrete around particular aspects of his fictions. There are the sages of apocalypse (Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season); the pop polymaths (Rodrigo Fresan’s The Invented Part); the fabulists of violence (Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings); the border investigators (Carmen Boullosa’s Texas); the alt-historians (Mathias Enard’s Zone); and the pocket surrealists (Cesar Aira’s Artforum), to name only a few. We could ascribe this popularity to Bolaño’s indelible voice – slangy, coolly forecasting, hypnagogic, both humble and cocky – in all of its appealing unliterariness. There is, too, the fluid way he manages tone and register, the effortless dips into dreamlike menace. His compulsive restaging of Benjamin’s dictum on barbarism and culture is reliably disorienting. He generates violent potential from the little fiefdoms of poets and academics that populate his works. The apocalypse could emanate from a symposium; a forgotten novelist might foretell the end of the world. It is here ­– in the barely glimpsed linkages between art, obsession and annihilation – that the Bolañoesque becomes most fully legible. It is also precisely what is missing from the smooth and neutered Chilean Poet.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting Zambra need to have rewritten 2666 (2004). But if he’s going to ape certain aspects of an illustrious forebear, he could have at least chosen the interesting ones. This is doubly true when such referential borrowing is ostensibly part of the novel’s draw. Clues are littered throughout the text. ‘We’re going to find a bunch of savage detectives’, Pru’s New York editor says of her assignment in Chile. After going out for a beer with Vicente and his poet friend, she quips ‘You guys are like Bolaño figures’. These call-backs will doubtless make a certain type of reader nod appreciatively. But the similarities, if they can be called that, end there. The novel could be read as a metacommentary on the obstacle Bolaño represents for Chilean writers, but if Chilean Poet is the alternative, I’d rather return to Santa Teresa, 2666’s semi-fictional border city, where literature seems a dangerous thing rather than stage dressing for a middlebrow meet-cute. Zambra’s detectives ultimately lack the requisite savagery necessary to sustain comparison.

This matter of inheritance – between Bolaño and Zambra, between older poets and younger poets, between Gonzalo and Vicente – is the novel’s organizing principle. It lightly dramatizes how we become derivatives as artists and as men. Jousts against the father begin as occasions for reprisal and end as useless rebellions over one’s fated becoming. Fighting the anxiety of influence leads nowhere, as both of the novel’s male protagonists discover. Gonzalo’s father, a charismatic lech, repeatedly abandoned his many children (between twenty and thirty, we’re told) in pursuit of women and work. At a family reunion of sorts, he announces he has cancer. Later, Gonzalo whispers in his ear that he hopes it advances swiftly. (The primal scene unfolds after a ludicrous singalong of ‘Como la Cigarra’.) But whatever the nature of his hatred, Gonzalo ends up abandoning Vicente in like fashion, pursuing a fellowship on another continent while the boy and his mother remain behind in Maipú. His betrayal is imitative, a trauma reinscribed. If Gonzalo is aware of this, it isn’t made clear in the novel, which seems to advocate for resignation in the face of a predecessor’s whims and impositions. Rage, sadness, yearning and revenge all lead in the same direction: toward repetition, wherein we find our fathers (hereditary and poetic) lodged deep beneath our skins. We act out their most familiar gestures even in our insurrections against them.

Vicente likewise absorbs some part of Gonzalo, becoming a poet as a teenager. Like most poets, he discovers surrogate fathers through his reading:

He didn’t have faith in his school library, but it turned out that the catalogue did include some books on poetry. None by Millán, but there were anthologies where Vicente read poems by César Vallejo (which he found spellbinding and hermetic, though he wasn’t sure exactly what the word hermetic meant), Nicanor Parra (dark and very funny), Gabriela Mistral (arduous and mysterious), Vicente Huidobro (eminently likable), and Oliverio Girondo (playful). As for the poems of Delmira Agustini and Julio Herrera y Reissig, he thought they were like those songs in Italian or Portuguese that he only half understood but nevertheless hummed and danced to with frenzied enthusiasm.

For Vicente, this taxonomy delineates something like an alternative family tree. Having inherited an absent biological father and dealt with the fallout of Gonzalo’s sudden departure, he comes to rely on the more diffuse paterfamilias of poetry. (‘Chilean poetry seems like an immense family’, Pru says elsewhere, ‘with great-grandparents and second cousins, with people who live on a gigantic palafito that sometimes floats between the islands of an archipelago’.) From poems and poetic forms, he gathers the kinds of lessons one might reasonably expect from a father: how to love, how to be loyal, how to forgive, how to endure. The novel suggests that one of the great consolations of art is that it is a freely chosen association, a family one selects rather than inherits.

Though Chilean Poet rarely veers into chauvinist territory – thanks mainly to the prevailing gentleness of Zambra’s prose – it also inadvertently circumscribes its two female leads. Each acts out her own subordinate drama amidst the angsty confusions of men. Carla starts to blur at the novel’s halfway point, having experienced a tragedy that should have brought her into sharper focus, or else recalibrated our understanding of her. Instead, her presence becomes ever more subdued. One begins to see her as a mere winch in the narrative machinery, a mercenary figure Zambra makes use of to advance his tale of fathers and sons. As for Pru, she seems to exist largely as a vessel for male attention. (Her impressive breasts are mentioned more than once.) The poets she interviews, overwhelmingly male, regale her with their quixotic pursuits. She is a blank slate, a passive collector of aphorism and eccentricity. Say what you will about Bolaño’s machismo, but his women are rarely less than funny, horny, loud and poetic; very often they are terrifying. Pru isn’t nearly so lucky, having been rendered an accomplice to her own story.

Chilean Poet is eminently readable in Megan McDowell’s clean translation. I imagine it will make many year-end lists, with its serio-comic briskness, its ostentatious, Woody Allen-like references to Kandinsky and Rothko, its 90s nostalgia (Double Dragon! Winona Ryder!), its charming story of intergenerational divide, and its vaguely mystical invocation of poets, whom some of us still believe to be wonderful and necessary, a species of holy fool. What, then, is it missing? Call it friction. The novel moves with the greased, serial and ultimately wasteful momentum of a Netflix series. It has the feeling of something likewise padded out, as if it were striving to meet a requirement, an insidious sensation in that this generally signals one’s proximity to ‘content’. Zambra’s marvellous feats of compression squeezed such longueurs from his previous fictions. Will the glancing miniaturist return? One hopes so. Sometimes less is a great deal more.

Read on: Manuel Riesco, ‘Chile, A Quarter of a Century on’, NLR I/238.