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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Chilean Poet

Alejandro Zambra

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To purchase Chilean Poet

Title: Chilean Poet
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 358 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Chilean Poet - US
Poeta chileno - US
Chilean Poet - UK
Chilean Poet - Canada
Fast ein Vater - Deutschland
Poeta cileno - Italia
Poeta chileno - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Spanish title: Poeta chileno
  • Translated by Megan McDowell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an appealing meander

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 17/3/2022 Houman Barekat
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/2/2022 Jennifer Wilson
El País . 24/4/2020 Carlos Pardo
TLS . 6/5/2022 Hal Jensen
Wall St. Journal . 18/2/2022 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today A+ Spring/2021 Will H. Corral

  From the Reviews:
  • "The satire is affectionate. Zambra is no cynic; on the contrary, his depiction of the fledgling poet is unabashedly romantic -- evoking, with wistful sincerity, the zeal of that first flush of intellectual discovery. (...) Chilean Poet is told in an elegantly simple third-person narration that is well served by Megan McDowell's clean and crisp translation from the Spanish. Unlike many a brooding literary anti-hero, its protagonist is notable for his phlegmatic agreeableness. (...) Chilean Poet is sentimental but not saccharine, retaining just enough ironic distance to militate against tweeness. Crucially, Zambra never lays it on too thick." - Houman Barekat, Financial Times

  • "How much you enjoy Chilean Poet will depend on the amount of patience you have for the trend of writer-protagonists, a symptom of the autofictional turn. The stream of poets, journalists and literary types in the novel had me wishing the veterinarian Vicente’s cat is taken to had a bigger story arc. Chilean Poet is most compelling when it situates the minor dramas of the Latin American literati within the broader politics of how that identity has been constructed in the first place. (...) Chilean Poet treats the thorny topic of collective identity not as tragedy, but as a familial comedy. Its laughs are forged across languages, in sibling-esque back-and-forth, so mutually constituted by both English and Spanish that one happily loses track of any original." - Jennifer Wilson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Poeta chileno es una indagación de las relaciones afectivas: de la vulnerabilidad y del orgullo, de los malentendidos de la convivencia y de la generosidad como una forma mayor de amor. Las mejores páginas tienen a “padrastro” e “hijastro” como protagonistas y modulan, sin entrar en complejidades psicológicas ni salirse del patrón heterosexual, nuevas formas de masculinidad. Zambra se mantiene en una respetuosa y algo burlesca distancia respecto a sus personajes, que no pierden encanto por ello. (...) A pesar del afán didáctico de muchas páginas, Zambra evita la tentación de la “novela en clave” para entendidos. (...) Poeta chileno es una novela que se hace fuerte en sus limitaciones, tramada con ejemplaridad, humorística y emocionante." - Carlos Pardo, El País

  • "(A)lthough the novel has a central story -- that of the making of a young Chilean poet -- and is largely told in the third person, you won't find much of a plot. This is a novel from the poet's side. Zambra's portrayal of the society of Chilean poets is predominantly comic. (...) Less overtly entertaining, but more touching, is the story of Vicente. Typically, Zambra comes at it sideways." - Hal Jensen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) brilliant poetical novel that is not strictly “Latin American.” (...) A topsy-turvy blend of bildungsroman and roman à clef, Poeta chileno, a title heaving with allusions and semantic charges, amends the poetics of contemporary “autobiographictions,” verifying the need to renovate their validity. Zambra does so by brilliantly coaxing his readers in each of the novel’s four parts to believe his frequently hilarious tales" - Will H. Corral, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Alejandro Zambra's four-part novel, Chilean Poet, spans decades. It begins in 1991, with Gonzalo and Carla fumbling around together as teenage boyfriend and girlfriend, a relationship that then falls apart. Gonzalo has some poetic aspirations, and he continues to send Carla letters for a while, but they soon lose touch.
       Nine years later, they run into each other again -- and resume their relationship. Carla has had a son in the meantime, Vicente, but the father isn't much in the picture, and Gonzalo becomes a quasi stepfather to the boy (despite his intense dislike of the (Spanish) term). The relationship eventually crashes and burns when Gonzalo -- still harboring his literary ambitions -- gets a government grant to finance doctoral studies in New York. He had not shared with Carla that he was applying for grants, and to study abroad, and he springs it all on her rather late in the day. Gonzalo does go to New York -- alone. He tries to stay in some touch with Vicente, but that only goes so far as well.
       The story then jumps ahead to when Vicente is eighteen, set to graduate from high school but unwilling to do as his parents expect of him and go to college. He wants to become a poet, and is determined to follow that path -- which eventually then crosses again with Gonzalo's, who is teaching a a local university.
       The poetic life, and the poetic scene in Chile figure prominently in the book. The main characters do read novels -- quite a few novelists and titles are mentioned along the way, from Carla reading Amélie Nothomb to Gonzalo giving Vicente a copy of Mann's The Magic Mountain -- but it is poetry that dominates. Chile's two Nobel Prize-winning poets, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, are just the foundations of a rich poetic tradition continuing to the present-day, and Zambra populates his book with poets galore, and peppers much of the narrative with poetic references (and some poetry as well). Leading poet Nicanor Parra has a cameo, and a significant storyline features visiting American Pru who interviews dozens of local poets for an article that she then publishes. Practically none of the poets who appear live off their craft, but it remains of outsize importance to them.
       A nice example of the general attitude comes in an exchange Pru has with a woman she meets at a large gathering of poets:

     "So your older son is Catholic ?" Pru is thinking about the crucifix again.
     "The thing is that almost everyone in Chile is pretty Catholic, in a way," says Rita. "Not me. Or I am, but I hide it well. My oldest son doesn't hide it. That's why I like poets."
     "Because poets aren't Catholic ?"
     "No," says Rita, emphatic. "I mean, poets are poets. They're believers, but they believe in other shit."
       For all Gonzalo and Vicente's poetic ambitions, neither has much to show for it -- though of course even by the end of the novel, Vicente is still a youth, just starting out. Gonzalo did publish a volume of his poetry before leaving for New York; the print run was only two hundred copies ("with no bookstore distribution"), and Gonzalo had to pay forty per cent of the publication cost, but it's still something of an achievement, and Zambra nicely presents how even such a small book which practically no one has read can be of at least some significance. Beyond that, however, Gonzalo largely stepped away from trying to write poetry, turning more to the academic.
       Gonzalo published his book after several years of being together with Carla, but typically when he tells her that he has a book that might be getting published she is surprised:
     "I had no idea you'd finished a book."
     "I didn't think you'd be interested."
       Their on and off relationship is characterized by this loose sort of connection, Gonzalo, in particular, not apprising her of significant aspects of his life (such as also his grant-applications). When the brief possibility of something tying them closer together, making them even more of a family, falls tragically short, Carla tells Gonzalo that, for the decisive moments: "I want to be alone"; as much as they do share, they never really manage to be a full-fledged couple. So then, also, their separation is relatively straightforward, easy and final -- though complicated by Vicente, and Gonzalo's paternal feelings towards the boy.
       Early on already, Zambra compares Carla and Gonzalo's relationship to writing a book:
Although Gonzalo was the more enthusiastic of the two, they both behaved like the kind of writer who, rather than getting tangled up in paralyzing disquisitions, just keeps barreling ahead, trusting that abundance of material will translate, down the line, into some reasonably good pages. There was no need to reread or revise or print or change the font size, because they had a good time and laughed a lot, which was all they wanted, especially Carla, who'd been around the block and back again
       So also, Chilean Poet meanders along -- agreeably enough across its stretches, with the various scenes-from-lives, neatly sketching, variously, Gonzalo, Vicente, and Pru at different stages in their lives. Characters do fade from the fore, or pop up all too briefly -- Vicente's father, for example -- but it accurately reflects how people can be significant parts of one's life and then just disappear as circumstances change (and Chilean Poet does cover a quite large stretch of time). The poetry-background is nicely handled, helped by the fact that neither Gonzalo not Vicente is really much of a poet at any point here -- even as poetry clearly means a lot to them. (The poet-figures that do pop up also make for an amusing backdrop -- "You guys are like Bolaño figures", Pru suggests to some at one point --, down to the ambidextrous poet seen: "writing two completely different and simultaneous poems", one with each hand ("maybe her left hand is just slightly slower than the right").)
       It all makes for an agreeable, easy-going read -- though much of it can seem much more surface than depth. Zambra does convey some sense of the emotions at play here, and one welcomes that he doesn't get too sentimental, but there's also an oddly distanced feel to much of it (which the leaps in time across the novel, leaving so much absent space, amplify). Chilean Poet is an appealing story, even if it feels Zambra never commits quite enough to one character or another -- while also never quite making a full ensemble-piece out of it. It's an enjoyable ride, if not entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 February 2022

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Chilean Poet: Reviews: Other books by Alejandro Zambra under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Alejandro Zambra was born in 1975.

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© 2022 the complete review

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