By Jeremy Paden, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Poetry (Translation) Faculty
When considering fiction writers to recommend, the list is long and any attempt at exhaustiveness is impossible in such a short post. As I’ve already mentioned Ariel Dorfman and Isabel Allende in Part I of this series, I’ll move on to others.
One of the first stories I remember reading in my Spanish master’s program was “Gate No. 12,” published in 1904 by Baldomero Lillo, a Chilean author who was heavily influenced by Émile Zola. The story explores the fatalism of downtrodden miners and the harsh realities of child labor. It was how Lillo deftly played with the contrasts of light and dark throughout the story, though, that got my attention. I had only recently been introduced to art of Georges de la Tour and was fascinated by tenebrism and chiaroscuro. I marveled at how an author whose intent was to denounce social ills would still take the time to ensure that his prose was artful. Later that year, we read the novel Alsino (1920) by Pedro Prado, one of the many Chilean writers who also is a well-regarded painter. In highly poetic prose, the novel retells the Icarus story from the point of view of a young boy in rural southern Chile. In fact, Prado is the one who introduced prose poetry to Chile. Writers like these, though important to the development of Chilean literature in the 20th Century, are harder to find in English.
So I’ll start with Roberto Bolaño, a poet who came into his own when he decided to leave behind poetry and dedicate himself to fiction. A teenager in the 1970s, he fled to Mexico in the wake of the Pinochet coup. There, he was an enfant terrible. Some of his antics provide the fodder for his 600-plus-page novel The Savage Detectives (1998). Yet to think that this story of young bohemian artists is merely fictionalized autobiography misunderstands the bizarre and surrealist fun-house of the novel, which some critics place on a par with other greats of Latin American experimental fiction, like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963) and José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966).
In 2003, Bolaño died of liver failure. A year later, his sprawling thousand-page novel 2666 (2004), a meditation on violence and death that centers on the femicides that have plagued Northern Mexico, was published to much critical acclaim. Its 2008 translation into English won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for fiction. Shortly after, Roberto Bolaño was officially an American literary darling. Should these two massive tomes by Bolaño prove too hefty a read, his novella By Night in Chile (2000) is eminently readable and quirky. The novel is the deathbed confession of a priest who is also poet and critic. Set before and after Chile’s military coup, it is a searing indictment of an intellectual and artistic class that absconds itself in art as a non-political endeavor only to find itself complicit with the political violence of Pinochet’s regime.
Other great novelists include Antonio Skármeta, Diamela Eltit, and Alberto Fuguet. Skármeta began writing in the late 1960s but is best known for his novel Neruda’s Postman (1985), which was turned into the 1995 film, Il Postino. Eltit, a novelist of social and political conscience, along with Raul Zurita formed part of an avant-garde group of poets dedicated to performance art. In 1983, she published her first novel, Lumpérica, about a beggar woman who spends the night on a bench in a public park narrating her experiences and calling her experiences and her narration into question. Her novel The Fourth World (1988) is narrated by prenatal twins and charts their jealousies and rivalries. Both of these novels, along with much of her work, explore the distortions of life under Pinochet and prominently foreground language—what it can and can’t express when constantly censored and policed.
Alberto Fuguet, like Dorfman, grew up between the U.S. and Chile and explores the relationship between the two countries in his work. Differently than Dorfman, though, who excoriated Disney and the American entertainment industry in his classic essay of cultural criticism, How to Read Donald Duck (1971), Fuguet incorporates North American pop culture in novels like Bad Vibes (1991) and The Movies of My Life (2002) as cultural references of the Chilean middle class. And he does so without moralizing and without pointing to these as evidence of American cultural imperialism. Fuguet is also one of the country’s important gay voices.
I began this post with two Chilean writers from the early part of the 20th Century, writers I first read as part of my master’s program. I would like to end it with another such writer, María Luisa Bombal. Most of Bombal’s novellas and short stories were written and published in the 1930s. Her novellas The House of Mist (1935) and The Shrouded Woman (1938), along with her lovely short stories, like New Islands (1939), combine surrealism, memory, fantasy, and eroticism to explore the place of women in Chilean society in ways that align her with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, and Virginia Woolf.
In my next post, I’ll discuss some Chilean poets.
Born in Milan, Italy, and raised in Central America and the Caribbean, Jeremy Paden received his Ph.D. in Spanish & Latin American literature fromEmory University. He’s the author of the chapbooks ruina montium and Broken Tulips, and his translations of poems from Spanish have appeared in Words Without Borders. He teaches translation in Spalding University’s MFA program.