‘Chilean Poet’ is a playful novel about (yes) Chile and poetry
Your appreciation of “Chilean Poet” will depend on how patient you are with the writer-protagonist tendency, a symptom of the autofictional turn. The flow of poets, journalists, and literary types in the novel made me wish that vet Vicente’s cat was going to have a bigger story arc.
“Chilean Poet” is most compelling when it situates the minor dramas of Latin American literati within the larger politics of how that identity was constructed in the first place. Pru’s presence is essential to this significant change. As a writer from New York, she wields considerable power in Chile. His interviewees are nervous and ready with quotable lines. An indigenous poet complains about the “intelli-nonsense” of certain poets in Santiago. Another worries that her poet ex-husband is stereotyped as a typical patriarchal Latin man and assures Pru: “He totally deconstructed his sexism. Pru introduces an important element in the novel’s dialogue with Chilean poetry, namely that the idea of a national literature, especially for Latin American writers, has always been used as a branding tool in the global market.
Indeed, Zambra is sometimes invoked in the context of a new “boom” of Latin American writers. The original term refers to a period in the 1960s and 1970s when South American literature enjoyed dizzying international acclaim. The “boom” took on particular significance in the United States in the context of the Cold War. After the Cuban Revolution, Washington and private interests (such as the Rockefeller Foundation), fearing that communism would spread to the southern continent, established cultural diplomacy programs and funded translation scholarships that put Latin literature -American on the radar of many American readers for the first time. time. Writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Clarice Lispector, Silvina Ocampo, and Gabriel García Márquez were translated into English by major presses and reviewed by critics in venues that ruled the tastes of scholars and scholars. In other words, the pressure Zambra characters feel to be a Chilean poet, rather than just Chilean poets, is not just internal.
The cultural coffers of the Cold War may have dried up, but Latin American literature is once again enjoying something of a resurgence in the United States, thanks in large part to translators like the prolific Megan McDowell, who translated “Chilean Poet”. She has translated more than two dozen works by contemporary Latin American writers, especially women, including “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” by Mariana Enríquez, “Birds in the Mouth” by Samanta Schweblin, and “Nervous System.” by Lina Meruane. Although one can imagine her as Pru, an American prey to the Chilean literary scene (McDowell is originally from Kentucky and now lives in Santiago), she also knows a little about the plight of Chilean characters, the joys and sorrows of to be seen as part of a larger phenomenon rather than as an individual.
In a 2017 interview with The Paris Review, McDowell shared her theory that the reason she became a translator was because she’s a twin: “A translated text is like a strange duplicate of the original. As a twin, you define yourself – and others define you – in relation to each other, not as a separate entity. No wonder, then, that Zambra and McDowell made a good team here; “Chilean Poet” treats the thorny subject of collective identity not as a tragedy, but as a family comedy. His laughter is forged across languages, in fraternal back and forth, so mutually constituted by English and Spanish that we happily lose track of any originality.