Disclaimer: I’ve known Alejandro Zambra since before he was a novelist. Or rather, I met Alejandro Zambra before he published his first novel, Bonsai, when he was presenting a collection of poems at a public library (or it may have been a bar) and trying, just like the title of his latest novel, to become a Chilean Poet.
Eventually, due to the confined Chilean literary scene, Alejandro became my teacher, confidant, and interviewee. He even once, since I didn’t have a penny to my name, put me up after a night of partying and karaoke that included Zalo Reyes, Aterciopelados, and David Bowie. I’m sure those were the years that inspired scenes from this novel, Chilean Poet, which is about Gonzalo, a mediocre poet, as well as Pru, a “gringo journalist who becomes an accidental witness to the elusive and intense world of literary heroes and frauds.”
And, of course, the title of his novel is not a surprise to anyone. Alejandro Zambra was (and is) a reader of Chilean poetry. A continuation of a tradition and even a cliché (“Chile, country of poets”). He was also one of the first readers of my novel, which, among other things, was about Nicanor Parra (and although he refused to write the introduction, he later referred to me kindly: “An author who writes in small revelations born of a religious attention to literature and life”).
We did part of this interview for a newspaper in Chile, over email conversations, a phone call, and several WhatsApp messages. Chilean Poet was published in Chile (and throughout Latin America) at the beginning of the pandemic. Megan McDowell has been working on its translation since then, which is to be published in February in the United States and a month later in the United Kingdom.
It was April 2020 and Alejandro Zambra was in Mexico City, where he has lived for some time. And the writer of this introduction was somewhere in Florida, in a small town where the sole existing bookstore hosts only two Chilean authors: Pablo Neruda and Zambra himself.
Antonio Díaz Oliva: As I was saying in one of my emails regarding the style (long sentences) and scope of the book, I feel that with this novel you are playing another writer, right?
Alejandro Zambra: I always play another writer—if not, why would I write? Likewise, I don’t have fixed feelings about style. Sentence by sentence, I say. I didn’t consider myself, nor do I consider myself a writer of short sentences. If I look from Bonzai onwards I find few short sentences. But who am I to comment on this, I’m just the author… I’m serious; of course, there are things about my job that accidently escape me. I find that looking in from the outside is difficult for me to imagine. For me, all my books are very different from each other. I am more sensitive to the differences than the consistencies, but I suppose that from outside the differences are more visible than the consistencies. In general, I decide to publish when I am convinced that I say something truly distinct from what I’ve already published and when I feel, for evasive and even partly esoteric reasons, that all I’ve written does not belong to me. I relate to my previous books with fondness, I love them, but I don’t think much about them. I don’t see the sense in the idea of a “body of work,” which feels pretentious, uncomfortable. I like the idea that one writes a unique book, and regardless that book is going to change every day because you change and the world changes. It is as if to write a book were always to sate the same need that is going to change and, at the same time, remain.
ADO: What can you tell me about the length: four hundred and something pages. I believe your first three books don’t add up to that many pages even put together. Was this by chance?
AZ: Actually, I was writing several books simultaneously, that has never happened to me. I finished them all and then began to write them again, to correct them. And with Chilean Poet, correcting really meant adding. Also, it was like that before, in any case, especially with My Documents. Only Bonzai is a pruning book.
ADO: Anyway, at some point, I imagine, you realized the book was going to be long…
AZ: I think at first I thought of Chilean Poet as a novel, not as short as my first two, but of similar length. When imagining it, a phrasing emerged, similar to that of some of the stories from My Documents or the final texts of Facsímil. I only became aware of how long it was when I began to correct it. Sometimes I would spend the whole morning having the sensation that I had worked a lot, only to discover that I had not even corrected half a page or that half a page was now two… But that’s the way it is, I like that strange relationship between desire and speed. The ups and downs of patience, the desire for craftsmanship, the meticulous passion, all of that.
ADO: How would you define the motivation behind this novel?
AZ: There is in the novel, of course, a desire to tell stories, I wanted to create a story as if it were a conversation. I love the moment when a character is like a stranger who you want to talk to, who you want to keep listening to, so then you have to continue inventing what that character says. There is a lot of fun in that.
ADO: The biggest novels in Latin America bring the boom to mind, and I feel that your first books, in fact, went against that idea. Against serious literature. Anyways, Chilean Poet, I believe, does not seek to be a total novel, no? Yes? Why?
AZ: Chilean Poet wants to be the novel that it is, nothing more. Neither Bonzai nor The Private Lives of Trees were created to fuel literary debates either, not at all. I feel that in order to write I have to get away from the literary noise, that paralyzes, that pesters. I adore some books from the boom. I also like the books and especially the authors who were left out of that lot. And above all, I did not grow up in the boom nor were my references fiction. I like words, and from there I jumped, thanks to various twists of fate, to poetry. Although I’m already quite old, I still feel like a novice in those debates about the boom or about fiction and nonfiction. That is to say, the debates consist of half outsiders, foreigners, especially Spaniards and gringos. I arrived late to those authors, to most of them. I remember having a good time reading Vargas Llosa—now I would love to say I never liked him, but his books left an impression on me. Also his essay about Madame Bovary, which I read by chance at a young age, right after reading Madame Bovary itself
ADO: How young were you?
AZ: Well, not too young, it was published the year I was born… And I don’t know, I could talk a long time about novels from the boom that interested me. I don’t know, The Kingdom of This World, by Alejo Carpentier. Carpentier’s idea of “lo real maravilloso” (the marvelous real) seems much more precise to me than the idea of magical realism, of course. Later, actually quite recently, I caught on that when the gringos talk about magical realism, they are referring to a tradition that is almost unknown to us, of gringo authors who follow a recipe García Márquez never wrote. In other words, they’re talking specifically about a type of literary genre created in the United States that included people flying. But I liked the thick novels by García Márquez a lot. And the first novel I reread was No One Writes to the Colonel. That ending, please! Anyone who has read that novel knows what I’m talking about. What an extraordinary thing! I was reading it for a reading quiz; my deskmate in the classroom couldn’t believe I reread it already knowing the ending. I tried to explain that I wanted to reread the ending, to go down that path again until I read the ending I already knew. I also believe I didn’t perceive those authors as a group. In other words, I didn’t read contemporary novels, because of money and because they didn’t really interest me. But I did read Manuel Rojas, Carlos Droguett, María Luisa Bombal, and the other authors I mentioned, all of whom were almost “high school classics” anyway. Then, in college, I discovered González Vera and Juan Emar. I only kept up to date with poetry, for many years it was like that.
ADO: Let’s talk about the structure of Chilean Poet: How did you think of it? Did you think of it? You said somewhere they were like “two short novels that intersect.”
AZ: Of course I thought of it, although I tend to believe writing’s purpose is to destroy the plans, the previous ideas. That’s what I enjoy the most: when I see unexpected phrases come out of my head. Similarly, this novel has a lot of origins, but I think I glimpsed or gleaned something like its final form right when the final scene appeared. Almost all the novel is the past building upon the lightness of the present. They are two short novels, perhaps, that intersect, and above all two characters who, so to speak, intersect in the fickle land of Chilean poetry, in that raging and supportive community, in that family that, in the end, is more durable, stronger than it appears at the start.
ADO: Exploring Chileanness, and its various layers, is something that repeats itself in this and others of your other books. In Chilean Poet there are Chilean words, moments, foods and places; there is an emphasis on local color. I wonder if this is something that is more important to you now, being in Mexico.
AZ: “To explore what is Chilean” as a framework sounds too serious, but to answer, yes. Perhaps I’m really exploring what is Mexican and therefore becoming more aware of what I lack, of what I no longer have. Something like that. Some time ago my friend Andrés Anwandter told me that he wrote in order to live in his Chilean language. For too many years he’s been living in English, and instead of beginning to write in English, as other writers do, he stuck to his language. I really like that idea on several levels, it’s much more complex than it seems. In my case, I’ve lived in Mexico for three years, my son speaks “Mexican,” and I see little chance that we will ever live in Chile again. Actually I can’t even use the plural, because we have never lived in Chile. I’ve experienced fatherhood only in Mexico, I say cariola rather than coche.1 It’s strange what happens when you move within the same language. English has never done anything to my Chilean, but the subtle or violent shifts in meaning that a different accent of your own language produces are lovely and challenging. I like having that problem at the age of forty-four. Sometimes, very consciously, I cling to Chilean Spanish, and the loving pressure of another accent makes me discover nuances I had never noticed. Expressions like “de todas maneras,” for example, that only mean what they mean in Chile. Or “occupying the bathroom,” which seems like a threat to a non-Chilean, as if we intended to enter the bathroom, stake down a flag, and never leave there again… And alongside this unceasing reflection on words, eventually my son began to speak and became a witness to that process. The joyful responsibility of influencing his infant babble has been the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me. I feel like recently I’ve learned everything all over again. Back to your question, I think writing this novel was a way of going back to Chile. Even “physically,” because I write in a small room upstairs that we used to call “Chile” as a joke. Now, when the landline rings, you get scared. I feel that way all the time, I’ll think the landline is ringing because something happened in Chile. It’s absurd, since plenty of bad news comes through the cell phone, but I have that idea, that feeling.
ADO: The phrase “la literatura de los hijos,” or “literature of the children,” went from the subtitle of your novel Ways of Going Home to an academic cliché, until it became almost a model for how to write about childhood and the dictatorship in Chile. Of course, I imagine, none of that was planned. How do you remember that book and what it provoked in local literature?
AZ: My general feeling is that these books are enduring, and I’m happy and grateful for that. The fact that there are people reading these books for the first time, that they appreciate or disregard them, I don’t know, it excites me. Why say it in another way if it is pure feeling. Ten years is a long time and I don’t cling to my books, not at all, that doesn’t do any good.
ADO: Either way many people clung, and continue to cling, to that idea. The idea that there was “una literatura de los hijos.”
AZ: There was talk of that, of “literatura de los hijos,” and that’s fine, these are ways of talking about books—I would only object to the thematic emphasis. I don’t think my novel has been a model for anyone. Perhaps it was a counter-model, perhaps someone thought my novel was exactly what they didn’t want to do and they did something different, and that seems to me not only good but necessary. That’s what it’s about, that’s the game we all play, we have to build that collective multiplicity. The fact that everything is later translated pettily in terms of controversy or competition is another question. In Ways of Going Home, a thousand conversations emerge from the “green forest,” as we called the barren lawns of the university department, about our memories and expectations. I suppose all of us who participated in those conversations carried a different novel inside ourselves. And I read En voz baja by Alejandra Costamagna, Memorias prematuras by Rafael Gumucio, and Especies intencionales by Andrés Anwandter, three radically different books that rhymed for me. This was many years before writing Ways of Going Home, so I think I continued something instead of starting it.
ADO: I laughed a lot while reading Chilean Poet. It’s like the poets in your pages are more like Buster Keaton than Pablo Neruda. Was it your idea that Chilean poets should be less serious in this novel?
AZ: That idea is very old, too. That solemn idea of poetry has been blown to pieces a thousand times, and the pieces have also been blown to pieces. I don’t know if I was exactly interested in demystifying, but mythologizing would have been boring. For what? I’m not a fan of overly affirmative literature, even if I agree with what it affirms. And the poets who appear in my novel are in the world, they participate in society, sometimes they exaggerate or make a scene but they are in the world: they are teachers, they give workshops, or they work on other things. Sometimes they do jobs they hate, but their real work is underground and unconditional, pure vocation. I’m interested in the literary vocation in itself, to not take it for granted, to narrate it, to try to understand it. In some way the novel was influenced by that much-quoted sentence from Gombrowicz: “You cannot speak poetically of poetry.” This novel is about poetry, and yet I think it is by far my least literary book. I like that contradiction, it’s interesting to me.
ADO: On the subject of contradictions, one of the erratic ideas that one has, or could have, of Chilean poetry, is that the poets are monolithic statues.
AZ: I don’t think it makes sense to artificially separate humor from tragedy. We are all half mysterious and half ridiculous when observed up-close. More than portraying the scene of Chilean poetry, like in a Fondart project2, I wanted to inhabit the spaces that the protagonists inhabit or try to inhabit. It is a community that I more or less know, of course, and one that is valuable, intense, strident and silent, heroic, self-critical, full of ambiguities, sadness, enthusiasm and resentment, beyond any myth or jest.
ADO: If you hadn’t taken a detour into prose, that is, if you had continued with poetry, what kind of poet do you imagine yourself or would you like to imagine yourself being?
AZ: I guess writing novels was my way of getting closer to poetry. Certainly from a distant place, but I have never abandoned the desire to get rid of that distance. I write things daily that could be considered poems. Don’t kid yourself into thinking they’re anything that makes sense to publish, but I do write. And if Fascímil had been presented as a book of poetry, I suppose it would have been read from that perspective, for better or for worse. It seems to me that it is the book of mine most accepted by exclusive readers of poetry and most resisted by exclusive readers of prose. It is impossible for a tradition like Chile’s to suffocate or obstruct you. Our earliest idea of literature already had an anti-literary element. A tradition that includes The New Novel, by Juan Luis Martínez, generates a formal freedom compatible with all kinds of experimentation. Still, I have to say I had a lot of fun writing my characters’ poems. It was a liberating exercise, writing bad poems. I’m good at writing bad poems.