Book review: Alejandro Zambra’s lyrical look at the love of Chilean poets

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chilean poet

By Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
Fiction/Granta/Paperback/360 pages/$30.98/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5

The Chilean poet has everything but also very little to do with poetry. These are the poets who populate the world its pages describe, but at the heart of it is a longing – for a father, for a conflicted lover, even for success – that no amount of poetry can satisfy.

In his signature lyrical style, Alejandro Zambra, a poet himself, writes this tribute to the unique milieu of the Chilean literary circle, in which poets are treated as national heroes and one poet’s opinions about another spark fights.

In this world, how established a young person is as a poet is a matter of social and sexual currency. The inability to remember the exact year of death of an older poet is a source of shame.

When childhood sweethearts Gonzalo and Carla reunite after years without seeing each other, a heady night at the club ends with them tentatively picking up where they left off – except Carla now has a son, Vicente, who is without doubt the true protagonist of the book.

Gonzalo and Vicente quickly like each other and the three of them become a temporary family unit in a country where the word for stepfather, padrastro, is also synonymous with bad father.

But Gonzalo has to leave and the young Vicente is abandoned twice. Yet their bond isn’t so easily severed, bound as they are by Gonzalo’s guilt, Vicente’s ambivalent longing and, above all, their shared love of poetry, which Carla can’t access because she doesn’t. It was never a selfish, saber worldly one that caused her brief glimpse of happiness to evaporate in the first place.

Alternating between perspectives and a willingness to stretch and examine seemingly trivial interactions, Zambra’s writing recalls that of Czech writer Milan Kundera, who also makes extensive reference to poetry.

In one particularly amusing episode, Gonzalo scrutinizes every clause of a series of insults he hurls at Carla about Vicente’s biological father, Leon, concluding that “the sentence seemed a bit ungrammatical but almost all of its assertions were pretty accurate. “.

“As for the word pusillanimous, it didn’t apply,” he reflected on one of the words he used. “Perhaps he accused Léon of being pusillanimous for the sole pleasure of saying a word that Léon should have looked up in the dictionary. But Leon wouldn’t even have cared. I don’t know, I just burst out laughing.”

Despite its subject matter, Zambra’s writing is never insular, and its poet characters aren’t overly sweet. The poet-publishers, poet-journalists, poet-critics and poet-booksellers he describes are both ridiculous and heroic, worthy “of a country where poetry is apparently the only good thing”, as one character put it. .

Nor is he afraid of the limits of poetry. Beyond its ability to express, soothe and entertain, the language of poetry is also a diversion, hindering in many ways the development of real relationships between characters who would be better off talking about how they feel in simpler terms.

“I need to speak about the things that matter. I’m still learning. But I’m going to learn to speak better than you,” Vicente told Gonzalo.

It is unclear whether he is referring to poetry or the spoken word, as non-poets do.

If you like this, read: Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera, translated by Aaron Asher (Faber & Faber, 2000, $22.42, buy here, borrow here)a semi-ironic look at a young poet growing up in tumultuous Czechoslovakia.


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