Chile, like Ireland, is a sparsely populated, geographically isolated country that produces a staggering number of poets. Two Chileans have won the Nobel Prize: Gabriela Mistral in 1945 and Pablo Neruda in 1971. Mistral’s image appears on the country’s currency; Neruda’s homes form an integral branch of the Chilean tourism industry. Other celebrated poets include Nicanor Parra, who came from a family of performers and was regarded as something like a wizard; Enrique Lihn, a cosmopolitan figure who connected generations of poets; and Raúl Zurita, still living, who has had his poems scrawled in the sands of the Atacama Desert at enormous scale, a cross between concrete poetry and art installation. In a manner almost unthinkable for U.S. poets, their Chilean counterparts can and do achieve folk-hero status.
This reverence for poets drew me to Chile. Adrift in my twenties and eager to become a great poet myself, I moved to the country’s capital, Santiago. To make a living, I taught English to students, businessmen, and naval officers. After class, I prowled the city’s bookstores and cafés, buying volumes of Chilean poetry that I read with the aid of a Spanish-English dictionary. I didn’t manage to become a great poet. But I did get to observe up close a new generation captivated by the romance of Chilean poetry, mostly thanks to a Chilean poet who left the country long ago, and who never wrote much poetry either.
At the time I was living in Chile in the mid-2000s, Roberto Bolaño, already famous in the Spanish-speaking world, was rising to international prominence. Bolaño was born in Chile, moved to Mexico with his family as an adolescent, and went on to lead a peripatetic life across the globe. He died in 2003 at only fifty years old, and immediately passed into legend. The Savage Detectives, the novel that first made him famous, was a loosely autobiographical tale about radical young poets in Mexico. But Bolaño wrote poetry before turning to fiction, and his fiction mythologized poets as outlaws, figures living on the edge of society in pursuit of beauty and truth. The next generation of Chilean writers couldn’t help but see Bolaño’s prominence as an opportunity to reach a wider, global readership.
No Chilean writer has navigated the contours of the post-Bolaño moment, its promises as well as its limits, as deftly as Alejandro Zambra. Like Bolaño, Zambra began as a poet before turning his talents to fiction. He too writes about writers, poets, and students of literature, shuffling through life with slim volumes of verse in their back pockets. But the mood of Zambra’s work is wholly unlike Bolaño’s, which is precisely what makes Zambra so interesting. Whereas Bolaño’s poets are outlaws, diving outside of polite society and into the churning waters of capital-H History, Zambra’s poets are bystanders. They are reticent, even timid, fearful that the moment for greatness has passed them by, and that they must endure this sense of belatedness for the rest of their lives.
The year 1973 was a decisive one for the twentieth century, and an especially dramatic one in Chile. Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist leader, was ousted and killed in a violent coup led by Augusto Pinochet, a right-wing military leader supported by the CIA. On September 11 of that year, La Moneda, the seat of the president located in downtown Santiago, was bombed by fighter jets. Pinochet would imprison thousands of citizens—including, so goes the legend, Bolaño, who had traveled back from Mexico to join in the struggle against the dictatorship and was arrested soon after arriving. But his jailer just happened to be a childhood friend, and he let Bolaño go after a week. A thrilling, dramatic story.