Ever since Persona non grata, the best-known book by Chilean writer Jorge Edwards (Cervantes prize winner, 1999), which made him world-renowned and threw the political world of Spanish-speaking America into turmoil, very few of his novels have escaped the undeniable fact of being invariably marked by political intention; they decry a world torn apart by the abuses and atrocities caused by the narrow-mindedness of the system—whatever it may be—and tell of how people of all social classes and political views contend with them. But nothing in these fictional stories resembles a biased claim, troubled neither by preaching nor by any claim other than that of the protagonist who observes reality and devotes themself to a particular reflection on the human condition which, in Edwards’s case, in the case of his literature, has to do with the events that deeply scarred his country and also the recent history of Latin America.
That “novela sin ficción” (“fictionless novel”), as the author himself called it in an interview, also signaled the direction he would take with his subsequent fictional works and even some of his essays, such as Adiós, poeta: Pablo Neruda y su tiempo and La muerte de Montaigne, or his own memoirs, which he gave us in two volumes—Los círculos morados (volume I) and Esclavos de la consigna (volume II)—where fabulation, memoir, speculation, and reality weave together in such a way that it becomes difficult to discern when we cross from one genre into another, something Edwards himself pointed out on more than one occasion as a very him approach to setting his novels, memoirs, and essays in motion. Especially demonstrative of this particularity of Edwards’s narrative world is the simultaneity of his first volume of memoirs and his novel El descubrimiento de la pintura, written in 2011 and released in 2013. Their great similarity in style, theme, and what they evoke makes it such that the novel could very well be seen as an appealing excursus from the first volume of his memoirs.
Edwards’s more political novels, such as Los convidados de piedra or the metaphorical El anfitrión, or even El museo de cera, invariably adopt a critical lens that transcends the peremptory nature of the story to become something more comprehensive: these are not just works that speak out against a specific system or regime; rather they act as fables with a broader significance, tools for understanding the human condition. That aspect, the human condition, also underlies his most intimist novels, such as La mujer imaginaria—a Chilean bourgeois woman’s sudden liberation from the corset of society—or El origen del mundo—a carefully thought out and complex reflection on jealousy that takes place in Paris—just as we also see the mixing of genres in his essays and works written later in life: a convergence of fiction, memoir, essay, and the human condition as the driving force behind his literary work.
However, this convergence is not something done on the whim of hidden urges pushed around by a capricious, spontaneous wind that carries the narrative vessel hither and thither—now fiction, now biographical memory, now history, now speculation. It does not come across that way because Edwards, in addition to his craft, which he practiced with such dedication and vitality until the end of his days—quite literally—was careful to develop a highly refined and deliberate technique to resolve what, in the majority of his books, may at first glance seem to be in conflict.
He was never one for glitzy technique, as if he well knew the dangers of using glitz—with its ostentatious sleight of hand—and therefore misdirecting his readers from his primary goal, which is none other than to immerse us in the story he is telling. This literary technique of his works effectively, like a veritable device that measures out and dispenses the plot by introducing various narrative angles corresponding to different voices and perspectives. Many novelists do this, that is a well-known fact, but in Edwards’s work those voices correspond not only to the characters, but often to the omniscient narrator themself; and even to the author—voices from outside the fictional world, thus extending its borders, giving them a highly unique permeability, rarely seen in the literature of our times. Pauses, reflections, ironic comments, and speculations that guide the narrative, applying layer after layer of a disciplined and powerful gloss that smooths out the contours of what we are reading (until the tangible notion of what is true and what is not fades away). It is an ambitious approach to covering the totality of the story and its meanderings.
Jorge Edwards had a transgressive interest in the narrative act and its many possibilities, alongside his concern with narrating the uncertainties of human nature, which explains why he was so focused on emphasizing the placement of one (the transgression of genre) at the service of the other (narrating the human condition). Thus, the transgressive narrative strategy serves to tell not just the story but also something more profound: what surrounds and gives body to that story, a metaliterary context that can be personal, social, or historical, but that always introduces the narrator and their opinions, breaking the standard rules of fiction.
Now in “La sombra de Huelquiñur,” a story from the collection Fantasmas de carne y hueso, there are clearly two narrative planes: the writer who is reading his stories to his cousins and what happens in those stories. These two planes overlap without issue for readers, who immediately notice the seemingly effortless shift in narration. We are gently pushed back and forth in the story and in time, quickly caught in the subtle cogs of its mechanics; and thus, little by little, we grow convinced of the need for such alterity. We always know that, seamlessly, without warning, we have jumped from one plane to the other.
In his more complex novels, Edwards darts quickly and skillfully from one narrator to the other, sometimes in a single paragraph, as if doing a summersault at such speed that we only catch a glimpse. We see this in El inútil de la familia, where the main character, Joaquín Edwards Bello—a real person and, as we know, the author’s uncle—is gradually crafted through bold shifts in the narrative voice from the very beginning of the book. The voice jumps from one narrator to another, to pester the protagonist from his thoughts and later present to us his actions, as if the narrator were not content to bring the protagonist’s life into focus using just one camera, needing to give it a more robust presence, adding in varied perspectives for us to see. As Ángel Esteban explains,
“…la novela desconcierta a veces, ya que en algunos casos sentimos que estamos ante un tratado de crítica literaria, donde se nos cuentan los argumentos de las novelas de Joaquín y su posible relación con historias reales de la familia, y en otros pensamos más bien en una biografía, un libro de memorias o un documento histórico”
[“…the novel is sometimes unsettling, since in some instances it feels like we are looking at a treatise on literary criticism, where we are told the plots of Joaquín’s novels and their possible connections to real family history, and in others it seems more like a biography, a book of memoirs, or an historical document”].
This is a perfect overview of how Edwards manges the story’s narrative planes, taking the liberty, so to speak, of offering us his own theories on what happens not only in the life of his character, but also in the character’s real biography.
The same is true for La mujer imaginaria, the novel preceding the aforementioned. Here, readers find themselves inside a story where the narrator’s presence tiptoes around thanks to a skillful use of free indirect speech. A rather “conventional” narrative that crumbles suddenly when the narrator barges in, making their presence known, in a way similar to that of nineteenth-century narrators, and tells us: “hemos avanzado con la señora Inés hasta los tramos finales de la fiesta. Escuchamos escondidos detrás de los arbustos…” [“we’ve accompanied Ms. Inés to the end of the party. We listen hidden behind the bushes…”]. “Who is talking?” the reader asks, unsettled. And we discover—or, better still, resign ourselves to—the presence of that self-assured narrator (who knows he is needed to move the story forward and who, far from hindering the plot’s progress, rather moves it along). And this technique is on even fuller, livelier display in El sueño de la historia. The narrator, who is almost always called just that, The Narrator, and sometimes Ignacio (the middle one), is suddenly being narrated by another narrator who does not hesitate to explain that they are observing things “como por encima del hombro del Narrador” [“as if perched on The Narrator’s shoulder”].
In Edwards’s work these discursive approaches are seamless, beyond readers’ initial bewilderment when they stumble upon them, although readers end up accepting them as necessary, because, as so often happens in the greatest fiction, there is no technique, no strategy that can interfere with the verisimilitude of the story being told. The trickery is hardly discernible beneath the seeming linearity of the story in which we are immersed thanks to another equally important aspect of Edwards’s technique: crystal-clear prose, precise and with no frills beyond its own persuasive power. Throughout his many novels, essays, and memoirs, Edwards has built a highly original and powerful narrator that envelopes us and allows us to enjoy the story without knowing exactly where to draw the line between reality and fiction.
Jorge Edwards gave us some of the greatest pages of Spanish-language literature in the twentieth and well into the twenty-first century. In his eighties, he wrote two volumes of memoirs and three novels (El descubrimiento de la pintura, La última hermana, and Oh, maligna), in addition to his continued collaboration with the press in Spain and Chile, writing provocative and incisive articles that often ran counter to what others put forth, especially in the political arena, which drew the animosity and distrust of those who considered him “their own.” But Edwards consistently demonstrated his independence from both literary trends and ideological positions that might compromise more than just his personal approach. He did so without fanfare, always boasting a cheerful and intelligent vitality, which brought him to move to his beloved Madrid, as soon as he finished his stint as Chilean Ambassador in Paris, to embark on his final creative years. And he confided a sentence to me, as we strolled around Geneva, that summarizes much of how he understood life: “Quiero mudarme a Madrid antes de hacerme viejo” [“I want to move to Madrid before I get old”].