Chilean Poet

Given that Alejandro Zambra’s previous novel, Multiple Choice, was exactly that – a novel written in the form of multiple-choice questions – it would be fair to say that readers (most recently instructed Not to Read) can never be sure what to expect next. So perhaps we should not be too surprised that Zambra, who began his writing life a poet and was initially praised for short, poetic novels, has, with Chilean Poet, written his longest and most prosaic novel yet; long enough to, in fact, to make identifying its central character an example of multiple choice.

It begins as the story of Gonzalo, an aspiring poet, who we first meet as an aspiring lover, longing to progress from covert groping under a blanket with his girlfriend, Carla, to actual sex. An opportunity occurs when a road accident empties Carla’s home:

“Counting the thirty seconds the penetration lasted and the three and a half minutes they spent cleaning up the drops of blood and assimilating the insipid experience, the entire process took a mere four minutes.”

This is our first indication that Zambra’s poets are not heroic figures in a novel where male characters in particular will often find themselves more laughed at than lauded. Carla at first refuses to see Gonzalo again and then breaks up with him; it is at this point he discovers his love of verse:

“Gonzalo had no other option than to go all in on poetry: he locked himself in his room and in a mere five days produced forty-two sonnets.”

Though there is a brief reconciliation (a second attempt in a hotel room “Lasted about as long as it would take  a hundred-meter sprinter to run the first fifty meters”) the relationship ends but, as this amusing tale of adolescent love takes only the opening twenty pages, and it is not giving away too much to reveal they meet again number of years later in a gay bar – Gonzalo’s opening gambit is, “I’m not gay!” They rekindle their relationship, and, as Carla now has a child (Vincente), Gonzalo soon becomes part of a ready-made family. Zambra writes about relationships beautifully. He is particularly good on the way arguments escalate, for example when Gonzalo is caught letting Vincente ride in the front seat which Carla has expressly forbidden – he accepts he is in the wrong until she uses the word ‘betrayal’ to which he immediately adopts a passive aggressive tone:

“I’m so sorry for taking care of Vincente every single day.”

This, in turn, leads Carla to comment that at “times like this it’s clear you’re not his real father.” In fact, identifying his relationship with Vincente is something that torments Gonzalo. At one point, when asked, he says they are ‘friends’. Later, he reflects on the fact that stepfather in Spanish is much less positive term than in other languages. Eventually they reach the point where:

“Usually Carla thought that if she died, Gonzalo would go on living with Vincente. Gonzalo also thought that.”

Of course, this is not how things turn out.

Having invested half the novel in Gonzalo and Carla’s relationship, Part III begins with another fast forward through time. Vincente is a young adult and he, too, wishes to be a poet, and he, too, is in love – with an older American woman, Pru, whom he first met vomiting at the roadside. In many ways, Pru, rather than Vincente, is the main character of this section. We learn her back story: her escape from an abusive relationship; her love affair with her room-mate, Jessye; their plan to go to Chile and write an article for a magazine; Jessye backing out at the last moment – and, having bought the tickets, sending Pru to entirely the wrong part of Chile:

“If I had bought them, I wouldn’t be a dumb gringa lost at the ass-end of the world.”

Unfortunately, Pru is a less interesting character than either Gonzalo or Carla (who is now very much in the background), and her decision to research Chilean poets for her article leads us into literary satire, and, I suspect more than one dig at Bolano (whether at his expense or at the expense of his American readership is less clear). This is as entertaining as the earlier part of the novel but less engaging. Luckily, Zambra is not finished with Gonzalo, and, in the final part, the novel will return to his relationship with Vincente.

Chilean Poet is a warm-hearted, hopeful novel which showcases Zambra’s skill at writing relationships with both heart and humour. It is particularly good on the stepfather / stepson relationship between Gonzalo and Vincente, much more common in life than literature, which it portrays with great humanity. All Zambra’s characters are flawed, but no-one (not even Vincente’s real father, Leon) is entirely written off by the author. In the end, Zambra shows us poetry transcending literature to express love.


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8 Responses to “Chilean Poet”

  1. Tony Says:

    Probably won’t be rushing out for this one, but I’d like to give it a try at some point, having read several of his other books in English.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    The humour really comes through in your comments – and in some of the passages you’ve quoted in your review. He sounds like a really interesting writer, with another book coming soon from Fitzcarraldo. (Bonsai, I think it’s called.) I’m curious to see what you think of it…

  3. Bonsai | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] of Zambra’s strengths is depicting the idiosyncrasies of relationships, as seen most recently in Chilean Poet, and here he tends to introduce his characters with a history of their partners). One story they […]

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