What to say about a novel that is humorous, charming, excellently written, and yet, at the turning of its final page, inspires you to merely shrug and think, Well, that was alright, that was a novel? What to write about a new work that does not entirely excite or thrill, from one of the most exciting and thrilling writers of the last ten, twenty years?
I wish I had gotcha answers to the above. But I don’t. I feel bewildered by this novel because even now, having scoured through it twice with numerous insightful ticks in the margins, it is as if I haven’t read it. To use a soccer analogy—as Zambra wields in his work some of the greatest soccer analogies and references—reading this novel felt a lot like watching a humdrum nil-nil between two Premier League teams. Yes, there were flashes of enviable quality because there were twenty-two top level professional players on the pitch, yes there was running around and lush green grass and some sturdy defending to admire, but can you remember anything substantial from those ninety minutes, anything worthwhile, and what freak cares about a well-oiled defence?
A poet before switching sides to prose, Alejandro Zambra is the author of one short story collection and four other short novels that don’t feel like novels. His last one, for example, Multiple Choice (2016), was structured like the Chilean state aptitude test—think: fill in the blanks, circle the correct answer, etc.—and still managed to be moving, freewheeling and politically potent despite its self-imposed rigidity. His books are all bangers: each one surprises and delights, each one is confident and wise and never impenetrable or unaware of the audience, even at their most experimental. And each one has been smoothly translated by Megan McDowell—including the reissue of Zambra’s debut novel, Bonsai, slated for later this year—whose name on a book’s title page is surely as much of a draw as whomever she is translating.
Zambra is the rare thing: a writer who writes incessantly and tenderly about writers and writing and books but is not annoying. Adjectives I would use to describe Zambra’s work include: sly, inventive, cheeky, mischievous, funny, intelligent, contemporary. He gets away with sentences that no one else can—as for example in Chilean Poet:
It was as if on the day of his parents’ separation, instead of doing what normal people do—yell, apologize, wound each other, and cry and screw one last time while considering the idea of a reconciliation, to then, two minutes later, yell and wound and cry again, and so on until giving or hearing one final slam of the door—as if instead of or in addition to or after all of that, they had sat down civilly in front of a Word document to outline a rigorous code of conduct.
And he is capable of leaving you weepy and introspective about nostalgia—rather than simply tickled by the piling up of time or the fact that nobody uses an iPod or that your living room is no longer home to the blocky desktop computer that made sounds like the ones you once thought robots would make. He is irreverent yet always makes you care. His prose is casual and devastatingly precise and riddled with off-centre similes that feel completely right. Many of these undoubted strengths are evident in Chilean Poet—bar perhaps the usual degree of inventiveness. But I will get to that.
Split into four sections—Early Works, Step Poet, How to Become A Chilean Poet, Poet-Ship—the novel for the most part traces the sometimes madcap and often mundane ups and downs of Gonzalo (a wannabe poet) and Carla (a middle-class girl), and their parenting of their kind-of son, Vicente. We meet them as horny teenagers who exchange fingers and hands beneath a blanket in Carla’s house, and eventually do the deed, and then eventually break up. In the next section we see them reuniting years later at a gay bar. They hook up and the next morning Gonzalo realises via ‘the faint scar from an operation’ that Carla must have had a child.
No, of course not—this is a Zambra novel. Rather than be shocked by this news of an offspring, Gonzalo is overcome by sentimentality towards the six-year-old Vicente: ‘The father lets the son win, because to be a good father you have to let your children win. Being a father consists of throwing the match until the day when the defeat is real.’ Gonzalo wants to be with Carla, and her son is almost a bonus prize. What follows is a chronological and generally lovely story of this developing relationship and bond—Stepfather and Stepson—until a breach of trust between Gonzalo and Carla breaks up the happy family forever.
The novel then shifts forward in time, and we get a bizarre and mildly amusing section where we glimpse a now-eighteen-year-old Vicente’s coming-of-age/becoming-a-poet story, but mostly spend time in the company of an American journalist named Pru who Vicente falls head over heels for. The section is driven by Pru’s spontaneous quest to interview a host of ‘new’ Chilean poets—including women poets, indigenous poets, gay poets. In the final section, we get the inevitable reunion between Gonzalo and Vicente, the poet and emerging poet, the Stepfather and Stepson, and watch as they reminisce, bond over books and chat about who is shit and who is good, and try to figure out what their relationship is now: it is beautiful and real and sad and optimistic.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The novel is really funny. Zambra is witty and the comedy is never directed at characters: it arises naturally from them and their peculiarities. Additionally, the central family dynamic is so believable and heartfelt. Vincente, Gonzolo and Carla are vulnerable and faulted and cranky and sometimes silly and all the more compelling for it. Is there a better feeling when reading a novel than wanting things to work out for a fictional character? In particular, the relationship between Vicente and Gonzolo is gorgeous. Zambra’s exploration of what it means to be a parent, a father, a mentor—figuratively and literarily through Gonzolo’s search for a better term than the ‘ugly’ Stepfather and Stepchild in Spanish (padrasto, hijastro)—is quietly brilliant and profound. There is no easy answer—even Vicente’s wantaway biological father has some redemption, or at least humanity, by the close—but one does feel their understanding shift as they read along and encounter a version of fatherhood not often portrayed: fatherhood via surrogate and stepparent, fatherhood via books and authors.
Line by line, reading Zambra is a supreme pleasure. His sentences are just great: the prose is supple, and his tone is laidback yet underpinned by real emotional intelligence and plain old boring intelligence. He can make complex situations and feelings read very simply and succinctly. Despite this novel’s length—it is comfortably Zambra’s longest work of fiction, clocking in at 387 pages—it moves at a brisk pace for the most part.
But despite these joys, so much of this book left me feeling miffed, or, like a father, earnestly disappointed. Zambra’s usual inventiveness, his rascal-like trickery, is present here, mostly through its omniscient narrator: an all-seeing but not all-powerful Author who intermittently butts in to break the fourth wall and add their own guesses and suggestions, muddling with the reader’s expectation of fiction as a solid form.
In a scene late in the novel, Vicente walks in on his mother fucking someone. It is unexpected for the reader and the characters and it is—oh my lord—funny, and then Zambra sprinkles further absurdity by deploying his intrusive narrator:
… because when he opens the door to his house he comes face-to-face with his naked mother having sex on the sofa with:
- Pato and Rocotto
(Answer on the next page.)
I really loved this moment when I initially read it—it got three ticks from my pen and like a jaded detective from the eighties, I thought: Zambra, you old son of a bitch. But as I read on, as the narration and its structure returned to being a conventionally told narration, something bugged me about it: for all that these interruptions were funny, they also seemed sort of half-arsed. There didn’t seem to be a coherent plan or rhythm to these interjections—a suspicion that was confirmed when photographs started to appear in the final section. Moreover, they are sporadic to the point where they seem to become a cumbersome tool by which Zambra controls the plot and characters: a sort of leash to hold back the drama, stopping the novel from becoming a straight Family novel, or rather designed to make a straight Family novel seem cooler, hipper. This is very unlike Zambra’s previous work where the technically daring aspect—the spareness of Bonsai, say—was essential to the story and its telling.
It is only in the novel’s final two pages that I believe we encounter the thematic purpose of this interrupting voice, or at least see a suggestion of what Zambra might have been seeking to do. In these final pages, the Author is uncertain and searching for answers as much as his readers are. It is a voice that simultaneously bemoans fiction’s limitations while showcasing what makes it such an important and hopeful art form. If it were used consistently over the course of some 300 pages, such a self-doubting voice could be overbearing—and I probably wouldn’t like to read such a novel — but my point is that, at least in these last two pages, the intrusion has a force which is lacking in the earlier parts. I wish the omniscient narration was more consistent, and I wish it was made to feel more important to the novel as a whole.
This nagging lack of purpose also affects the novel’s uneven third section, How to Become A Chilean Poet, where we are suddenly introduced to a new ‘main’ character and a range of whacky poets—all of whom I struggled to care about. Why? Easy answer would be that I am not a poet. Bar a few exceptions—and I write this with zero pride—most poetry leaves me cold. Or maybe I am not clued in enough to fully appreciate what Zambra is aiming for here: showing us the pointedly American journalist selecting the ‘new’ Chilean writers who don’t revere Neruda, who aren’t manly men, who aren’t Bolaño, is perhaps Zambra’s way of depicting the Chile which Vicente will inherit. But, honestly, at 148 pages, the section felt to me like a private joke that went on for far too long. It was funny, or I could intuit it was funny, but it kept going and going until it was awkward, and I wanted to leave. The few highs in this section involved Vicente or Carla and—like the unsocial person I am—I just wanted to spend time with the characters I cared for and had already met. I wanted to see how they were getting on, particularly Carla: a wonderfully brash and steely and dark character who drifts out of the novel.
The repressive shadow of Pinochet’s dictatorship is central to Zambra’s work—his character’s battle with its history and the question of complicity—but in Chilean Poet, Zambra’s engagement with politics doesn’t amount to much beyond a few stray lines, some references to free third-level education, and, most prominently, a side character in the final section who is hired to help Gonzalo move house. We later learn that the young man had to drop out of university—and out of one of Gonzolo’s classes, in fact—because free education hadn’t come to fruition. In the end, this one character comes to represent all the broken promises of the new Chile—which feels too convenient, obvious, unsatisfying, and ultimately unfair to the character. It’s as if Zambra wasn’t too interested in the idea of closely tracking a political upheaval, or that he lost interest in it halfway. Though, even as I write that, it feels grossly unfair because if you read Zambra’s other fiction, or his writing on Chile’s progressive new president, Gabriel Boric, you know he cares deeply.
Perhaps—and this is a haphazard theory—the length of this novel doesn’t totally suit Zambra’s idiosyncratic style: the winks to the camera are not fulfilling when the reader has to invest so much time; the sidelining of central characters is less fun when the section is 148 pages long. Perhaps if this young worker—who ended up representing everything wrong or not yet fixed in Chile—had appeared in a shorter work, his story would have been more entwined in the central story by rule of length. And by the nature of Zambra’s godly skill of making you root and care for every one of his characters, the young man would have seemed less like a simple prop, a heavy symbol, and his poignancy would not have felt diluted, cheap. I don’t know.
Maybe I’m being unduly harsh on the Chilean Poet. I’d wager many readers will love it. But I think you should be harsh on the work of a writer, an artist, if you believe they are great, and know they can do better. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about bad albums by brilliant musicians. I argued that often the most interesting album is the one that doesn’t quite nail its sound. The album where they attempt something different, new, but ended up failing, slightly or utterly. Failure like that can be exhilarating because it brings with it new possibilities, expansion, and offers the artist a wider net for when they go again. Zambra stumbles with this novel and maybe he receives a C+ rather than his normal A, but that just makes this reader even more excited to read what comes next, to see what this falter grants him.
Finally: Is this the best review you’ve read of Zambra’s new novel Chilean Poet?