For the longest time, Chile was said to be a “land of poets.” And truly, we have an extraordinary lyric tradition that has varied in style and purpose throughout the centuries. Written poetry is a foundational genre in Chile that emerged with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors: among them was the poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, who wrote one of the most beautiful books of his time in praise of the newly “discovered” Chile and its formidable peoples, the mapuches. Inadvertently perhaps, the book contradicted the values of the imperial venture to which the poet belonged; from then on, our poetry has always had something to say about the politics and the peoples of Chile, and the lyric tradition that was to ensue made itself heard.
Indeed, poets were public intellectuals who were heard and revered internationally: one should not be surprised then to learn that Gabriela Mistral was, for Latin America, not only the first author and the first poet but also the first woman writing in Spanish to earn the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945. Nor should one be amazed that yet another Chilean, Pablo Neruda, followed in 1971. Two poets in the Nobel academy was no small achievement for such a slim, peripheral country. This alone helped build the reputation of Chilean poetry as prodigious and boundless—hardly exceptions, Mistral and Neruda were just two great poets among other notorious albeit dissimilar and even oppositional figures that together justify of the mythic moniker of land of great poets.
This myth, however, has obscured the equally important prose written and published in Chile during the past century. Not to blame the poets. One way to explain this invisibility is the excessive cost of books in a country with a relatively small literate class, a tiny readership, the country’s remote location, and a geography that certainly made the circulation of books difficult and expensive, both within and without national borders. As is known, Chile is framed by the driest desert in the world (the gorgeous Atacama which once belonged to Peru and Bolivia), and, to the south, by a rainforest that gives way to the Antarctic’s eternal ice. The insurmountable Andes range is a natural border with Argentina to the east, while the Pacific Ocean churns to the west.
One must add to these topographic barriers two decades of a literary production shackled by a grim military dictatorship that gutted public education, closed publishing houses, levied heavy taxes upon books, and censored all forms of cultural expression, among other more gruesome acts against writers, intellectuals, and other civilians. Remarkably, only those who were able to transcend both geographical and political isolation had a chance to make their work known. This is certainly the case of Mistral and Neruda, both unrelenting travelers who spent long periods abroad.
However, novelists contemporary to these mythic poets remain largely unknown, or only known to experts in the field: the Argentine-born Manuel Rojas, who in his time was widely translated, or José Donoso, the only Chilean among the ranks of the Latin American Boom, although his work never gained the critical acclaim or the popularity of the celebrated Colombian Gabriel García Márquez or the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel laureates in 1982 and 2010 respectively. A contemporary of José Donoso, the extraordinary Carlos Droguett, fell into obscurity after some international success. These novelists, who might have turned this Chile-land-of-poets myth on its head, were figures who, on their own, lacked the influence to open up the field for the novelists who followed them. Interest in Latin American writers had abated by then, and editors seemed to turn their eyes to other continents.
It was not until the international uproar caused by the late Roberto Bolaño that some light shone once again upon the Chilean novel. What is of interest is that Bolaño, very much influenced by the idea that poetry was the genre of prestige, himself declared he was more of a poet than of a prose writer. Still, despite this claim, it would be Bolaño’s novels that would earn him renown and a lasting legacy.
Until Bolaño appeared, Chilean novels in English translation were extremely hard to find. A few selected works by Donoso, a novel by María Luisa Bombal, three by Diamela Eltit (a recent recipient of Chile’s National Prize for in Literature) and the only novel by the queer performer and nonfiction writer Pedro Lemebel. Among that generation, there are other authors who have had only one book translated; that is, they are authors who were given only one chance before being abandoned by their US publishers.
In a translation field that remains strikingly small—Spanish fares relatively well compared to books originally written in other languages—it’s also important to note that a younger generation of novelists has benefitted from the curiosity of a new generation of translators who have focused their enthusiasm upon Latin American Spanish–Megan MacDowell, for one, has specialized in Chilean writing and now lives and works in Santiago. She is certainly not alone in finding a cohort of varied and vibrant voices, both emerging and well known (Natasha Wimmer, Sophie Hughes, Susannah Greenblatt, Ellen Jones, and Rahul Bery are doing their share) and this is no small matter: translators play an indisputably decisive role in what is being published today. More often than not, they are the first readers, they are the trusted informants, they are a book’s bridge to editors who are seldom able to read Spanish.
Let me turn from the life recently given Chile’s prose writers, from how Chilean novels have begun to shirk their invisibility on the Anglophone literary scene, and say a word about this issue on domestic life, a powerful selection of texts—but narrow and arbitrary, as all selections are—that presents works of fiction in various forms and styles written by authors whose childhoods were marked by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
The writers in this selection were born after 1970 and were raised in a subdued atmosphere of cultural obscurity and censorship where poets were regarded as heroes revolting against the system. This poetry, mostly self-published, often sold in the form of photocopies, had eluded censorship (censors were not sophisticated readers) and was readily accessible. These young writers surely applied their freedom of language and form to their own storytelling: now, in full command of a wide range of techniques, they tell stories that are as innovative as they are moving. In all of them the reader will find an exquisite refined concern for form, for the right word, for the decisive phrase. For these authors, storytelling is not only about crafting a plot but about seeking a structure that can hold its constituent parts, that will engage readers and demand they read differently.
Perhaps the most radical take here is Alejandro Zambra’s “Story of a Sheet.” Like Bolaño, this well-known writer was a poet before he turned to prose and is known for short novels on intimacy and family life. His piece inhabits the margins: not quite a poem, not yet a short story. Barely fragments of a story that readers may never figure out: the beauty and the horrors of family life play out in intense scenes that are seldom longer than a sentence. The time before a father burned down the family house. The bed where the parents slept (“in love or in error”). The sheet hung out to dry over and over again.
Moments of family violence also appear in Eduardo Plaza’s “Hyenas” (the short title story to his first and only book published in Spanish). What seems a more conventionally structured short story is in fact punctuated by unexpected turn of events, which revolve around the fearful image of a savage herd that “hunted down a wounded buffalo, and ate it while it was still alive.” This episode, told in passing, reveals itself as a symbol of the ferocity of family life and a celebration of love found elsewhere.
No matter who narrates the story, something always seems to be wrong at home. The poet Catalina Mena contributes here a manifesto of the housewife who deftly defines home as “a fire that that’s always being extinguished.” Something fragile that she, on her own, insists on keeping alive even to her own detriment. And her call is in sync with some of the dilemmas faced by women today, forced to choose between the private duties of the home and public endeavors.
The fragility of the happy family is also tested by fiction writer and essayist Alia Trabucco Zeran. Based on the story of a real murder, her short story—part of her book on women criminals just out in Spanish (Las homicidas, on the real cases of four women murderers)—features a cleaning lady telling the court, in an irreverent tone, in a defiant act of confession full of vibrant details, her tense relation with the housewife who employs her. Work is all there is for her, day and night. Her severe back pain becomes the metaphor of the fixed class structure she lives in, a place where there are no other prospects and no company. Because class struggle has no solution, it can only be sorted out by a violent act. By an act of revenge.
Also in a confessional mode, Nancy, the protagonist of Bruno Lloret’s novel—from which we have selected a passage–narrates the progression of her terminal breast cancer and her loneliness while her husband is at sea (or at a bar getting drunk). Interspersed with black crosses—perhaps a visual indication of his imminent death or of the recurring X-rays that mark the growth of her tumor—hers is a tale of domestic loneliness.
Something of this same sort is present in the domestic scene narrated by the extraordinary novelist Nona Fernandez, in two short excerpts from her novella Chilean Electric: a girl describes the arrival of electricity to Chile as told by her grandmother. In the events that ensue, the girl enters a dark room where her grandmother is undressing, only to discover something mysterious about her body. A truth revealed without electric light but, at the same time, kept from the view of others. Like a family secret, behind closed doors.
These exciting works from Chilean prose writers now make their way into English—in this issue as well in forthcoming book-length works. Paradoxically, they narrate domestic scenes where, contrary to the epic, totalizing, and politically engaged narratives of the Latin American Boom, the scope is narrow, intimate, more local than ever before. The appearance of these works comes at a time when the idea of home has started to show its cracks everywhere.
“Behind Closed Doors: Outing the New Chilean Narrative” © Lina Meruane. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.