Book review: Alejandro Zambra's lyrical look at how Chilean poets love

A poet himself, Alejandro Zambra pens this tribute to the unique milieu of Chile's literary circle. PHOTOS: GRANTA BOOKS, BEOWULF SHEEHAN

Chilean Poet

By Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
Fiction/Granta/Paperback/360 pages/$30.98/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5

Chilean Poet has everything but also very little to do with poetry. It is poets that populate the world its pages describe, but at the heart of it is a longing - for a father, for a conflicted lover, even for success - that no amount of poetry can fill.

In his trademark lyrical style, Alejandro Zambra, a poet himself, pens this tribute to the unique milieu of Chile's literary circle, in which poets are treated like national heroes and the opinions of one poet about another spark fights.

In this world, how established a young person is as a poet is a matter of social and sexual currency. The inability to remember the exact year when an older poet died is a source of shame.

When childhood sweethearts Gonzalo and Carla meet after years of not seeing each other, a heady night at the club ends with them tentatively picking up where they had left off - except that Carla now has a son, Vicente, who is arguably the true protagonist of the book.

Gonzalo and Vicente quickly take a liking to each other and the three of them become a tentative family unit in a country where the word for stepfather, padrastro, is also synonymous with bad father.

But Gonzalo has to leave, and young Vicente is twice abandoned. Yet their tie is not so easily severed, bound as they are by Gonzalo's guilt, Vicente's ambivalent nostalgia and, most importantly, their shared love of poetry, which Carla cannot access because she never was one for the egotistical and sabre-rattling world that caused her brief glimpse of happiness to evaporate in the first place.

In its toggling between perspectives and willingness to stretch out and examine seemingly trivial interactions, Zambra's writing is reminiscent of that of Czech writer Milan Kundera, who also makes abundant references to poetry.

In one particularly amusing episode, Gonzalo scrutinises each clause in a string of insults that he hurls at Carla about Vicente's biological father Leon, concluding that "the sentence felt a bit ungrammatical but almost all its assertions were pretty fair".

"As for the word pusillanimous, it didn't apply," he reflects on one of the words he used. "Maybe he accused Leon of being pusillanimous for the mere pleasure of saying a word that Leon would have had to look up in the dictionary. But Leon wouldn't even have bothered. There are people who, when they hear a word they don't know, simply burst out laughing."

Despite its subject matter, Zambra's writing is never insular, nor are his poet characters overly saccharine. The poet-editors, poet-journalists, poet-critics and poet-booksellers that he describes are both ridiculous and heroic, worthy of "a country where apparently poetry is the only good thing", as one character says.

Nor does he shy away from the limits of poetry. Beyond its capacity to express, soothe and entertain, the language of poetry is also deflection, in many ways hindering the development of real relationships between characters who would do better talking about how they feel in simpler terms.

"I need to talk about the things that matter. I'm learning, still. But I'm going to learn how to talk better than you," Vicente tells Gonzalo.

It is not clear whether he is referring to poetry or to talking, as non-poets do.

If you like this, read: Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera, translated by Aaron Asher (Faber & Faber, 2000, $22.42, buy here, borrow here), a semi-ironic look at a young poet growing up in tumultuous Czechoslovakia.

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