Alejandro Zambra’s Chilean Poet and the book group

Aalejandro Zandro, Chilean Poet: A novel, translated by Megan McDowell (Granta 2022)

Before the meeting: I enjoyed this novel enormously. I expect people who know Chile, and especially the Chilean poetry scene, would enjoy it even more.

In the freezing Chilean winter of 1991, teenagers Carla and Gonzalo curl up night after night under a magnificent red poncho watching television in her mother’s house and manage to do ‘everything except for the famous, the sacred, the much feared and longed-for penetration’. Just as the nights are beginning to warm up and remove the excuse for the poncho, they get an opportunity, but the famous etc event turns out to be less than absolutely pleasurable, at least for Carla.

The story goes on from there. In my innocence, I was surprised by the turns of events, so I won’t go into detail, except to say that Gonzalo as a teenager is an aspiring poet, and we get to read one of the atrocious sonnets he writes for Carla; and some years later Gonzalo becomes stepfather to Carla’s son Vicente.

The second half of the book begins with an echo of the opening of the first half. Vicente, now a teenage aspiring poet (probably more promising than Gonzalo), is in explicit sexual action with Pru, an older woman visiting Chile from the USA, using alarmingly explicit English he has picked up from porn.

It may be a spoiler, but I’ll risk it: the relationship between the two poets Gonzalo and Vicente is the heart of the book and its narrative spring. Carla and Pru, and Vicente’s natural father León, are vivid secondary characters. Chile, in particular Santiago, and most specifically the Chilean poetry community, provide the charming, engrossing, at times hilarious, always lively milieu.

Pru is visiting Santiago on her first major journalistic assignment. Her editor wants a ‘human interest’ story about stray dogs, but she persuades him to let her explore the poetry scene, and Alejandro Zambra has a lot of fun describing her interviews with poets.

I have no idea if poets and poetry have the prominent role in Chilean life that these poets claim. One of them says that for Chileans the Nobel Prize in Literature is as significant as the World Cup, and it’s a matter of huge pride that Chilean poets have won it twice: Gabriela Mistral (1945) and Pablo Neruda (1971). Not that any of the living poets care too much for Neruda or Mistral – the living are much more interesting and important, and their mutual competition, championing and denigration make Australia’s so-called poetry wars look … well, I was going to say tame, but really it makes them look normal.

I’ve read two other novels with poet protagonists recently: Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother and Niall Williams’s A History of the Rain. Unlike the former, we believe that the characters in Chilean Poet actually write poetry of varying quality; unlike the latter, these poets are part of a thriving scene rather than slightly deranged, isolated mystics. One of the joys of the book is the way their alertness to language features strongly in all their relationships. The account of Vicente’s wooing of Pru, for example, is full of the joys and perils of communicating across a language barrier.

There’s a terrific scene in the first part, when Gonzalo is a hands-on father to Vicente. He breaks one of Clara’s rules by allowing Vicente to sit in the front seat of the car – and accidentally reveals his crime to her. She explodes, using the word betrayal, which sets him off:

‘I’m so sorry for taking care of Vicente every single day,’ said Gonzalo.
‘It’s times like these it’s clear you’re not his father,’ retorted Carla.
Gonzalo looked at her with astonishment and contempt. He grabbed his hair with his left hand, and with his right he tore up an abundant clump of grass.
‘I’m a much better father than that lame-ass, ugly, mediocre motherfucking pusillanimous sack of balls who stuck his dick in you.’

(Page 75)

Rather than continue with the fight, the narrative stops there, and the poet-mind kicks in. Gonzalo spends two pages mentally critiquing his own sentence. It ‘felt a bit ungrammatical and was a pretty stupid outburst, but …’ He ponders the accuracy of ‘ugly’, acknowledges that pusillanimous doesn’t apply, and wonders if he used that word ‘for the mere pleasure of saying a word that León would have to look up in a dictionary’. He quite likes sack of balls because it’s not only hurtful but original. And before pouring himself a double whisky and stomping off to his writing-room he indulges in this final piece of poetic analysis:

The truly damning part was definitely that grand finale, who stuck his dick in you, which brought jealousy to the forefront and insinuated that Carla was some kind of whore. Still, the accusation held a trace of childishness, as if Gonzalo had only just found out how babies are made.

(Page 76)

Megan McDowell’s translation is terrific. At many moments, the narrative turns on the use of language, as in the passage I’ve just discussed. At a key moment, when Vicente is quite young, he and Gonzalo discuss the Spanish word for ‘stepfather’ – padrastro. Gonzalo is reluctant to take it on because astro at the end of a word has negative connotations. McDowell does a brilliant job of putting this into English as a completely plausible conversation for a poet to have with a young boy, and manages not to feel as if she is winking at English readers over the characters’ heads.

The meeting: After an hour of convivial catch-up and organising of food, we settled down to the book. Unusually, the Chooser explained how he had made his choice: he started out thinking of something by Annie Ernaux, in deference to the Nobel Prize committee, but as none of her books were easily available he sought advice at from his local bookseller, who suggested this – which turned out, he said, to be a perfect summer read. One chap who usually doesn’t say much, and usually speaks softly, immediately grabbed the floor and disagreed vehemently: not an ideal summer read at all; for that he’d recommend Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series; this author was too intent on displaying his knowledge of poetry and poets to keep his narrative alive and engaging.

And it was on!

No one, it turned out, had done the work of checking which poets in the book are real and which imagined. A number of us, including a late-comer who had missed the opening salvo, just loved the bit where Pru interviews a range of poets and leaves the main narrative on hold. There’s a disorderly poet’s party that got a lot of love.

The bits that might have been irritating, where the author breaks the fourth wall to comment on his decisions, were pretty universally enjoyed. We were sorry to see the end of Pru, the gringa journalist over whose shoulder we get to know the poetry scene. One chap felt that Carla, Vicente’s mother, was a bit two-dimensional. No one contradicted him, but no one seemed to mind terribly. One man said he’d read the book very soon after last meeting and could barely remember it, which he took to mean it is pretty forgettable – though he did remember that it lacked any strong sense of place. Not everyone agreed – perhaps not the physical place, but we felt that there was a strong feel for the cultural milieu, and the food.

One man brought a bottle of pisco and made pisco sours (of which many are drunk in the book), plus a sour-without-pisco for the non-drinker. He also brought a selection of holiday photos from Santiago and Valparaiso, including one of Pablo Neruda’s home, now a museum.

Favourite passages about poetry were read and enjoyed all over again, including one in which a poet says he doesn’t know whether what he writes is any good, but he writes because of what it achieves for his own mind. (That definitely rang a bell for me and my own adventures in rhyme).

As usual, the conversation dissipated, though this time it stayed roughly on topic: there were anecdotes about meeting famous poets and other famous people (including two stories about David Malouf that cemented his status in my mind as a spectacularly kind person), ruminations on the comparative respect in which poets are held in Chile and Australia, an invitation for personal reflections about step-parent experiences that went unaccepted because none of us had been there, stories of young men getting excited when they realised they were talking to an older man who reads books, some excellent ribaldry. Unrelated: George Pell’s faulty theology, Lydia Thorpe’s stand in relation to the Voice, the complexity of some post-Holocaust Jewish family histories.

Towards the end of the evening, the man who had set the ball rolling with vehement negativity announced with equal vehemence that he realised he had actually enjoyed the book. We took this as vindication of the group as a way of taking the solitary act of reading into a shared experience.

After the meeting: Someone mentioned having seen a YouTube conversation with Alejandro Zambra and Megan McDowell. I dutifully watched it during my grandson’s afternoon sleep the next day. It’s full of good things about the translator–novelist relationship – if you watch it and are strapped for time, you could start at the 10 minute mark and skip all the charming introductory stuff. I particularly love their discussion (from 13’00” to 19’05”) of the Spanish word for ‘stepfather’, padrastro, including Zambra’s comment that as a poet Gonzalo is fighting with that word. Poets are always fighting with words, intensely, he says, ‘which is beautiful’.

One response to “Alejandro Zambra’s Chilean Poet and the book group

  1. I recommended this book to a couple of book groups at the end of last year – I don’t suppose any of your group live in Balmain 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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