Juan Emar's Umbral

Juan Emar's Umbral


Written between 1940 and 1964 until the author’s death, Umbral was published in full in 1996, accumulating more than 4,000 pages, which are divided into five “pillars.” The present essay attempts to define the text by interpreting some of its distinctive features and structure.

At times, similarities and parallels have been established between Umbral and In Search of Lost Time. There seem to be grounds for such an ambitious comparison, beyond confirming the exhaustive length of both texts. To support this argument, it could be noted that both works center around attempts to reconstruct, through memory and oblivion, the dense plot of varied biographical threads. Both try to capture the passage of time and reconstruct the past, and in such an exercise, memory becomes a resource and a theme in the axis of the story and, at the same time, in its object. Unraveling and reproducing the operation of memory from the narrative is a recurring mechanism in both texts. Thus, rendering the passage of time comprehensible, recognizing it as a scenario where the lived, the permanent, and the changing coexist, and the clear and the diffuse turn into a theme and a mechanism.

Finally, in both Umbral and In Search of Lost Time, all these contain as a background the practice of writing and reflection on the aesthetics and nature of artistic creation, being within the narrative universe where all these resources coexist.

However, without this being minor, comparisons and similarities cannot go much further. In the end, Proust’s monumental, unparalleled masterpiece is a novel. What more needs to be said? An innovative, original, surprising, and unique novel, but (without really being a “but”) it is a novel. Juan Emar’s Umbral, however, is not.

Despite its arduous complexity and arid rhythm, In Search of Lost Time has everything we look for, expect, and appreciate in a novel, and then some. It is inhabited by characters who remain true to themselves throughout the text, although their identity, which is gradually unveiled, shows mutations, surprises, and uncertainties. Neither main nor secondary characters fit the classic molds of heroes, victims, or villains. It features a narrator who merges with its characters, himself being among them, but he is capable of keeping a distance, without judging or consenting to them and, at the same time, he is aware of its most hidden secrets. The novel also has a plot, or rather several of them. They evolve and develop against a particular social and historical contextual background. It is enhanced by the set of mirrors the narrator creates. Through it, he shows and shreds them, partially and progressively. It contains reflections and descriptions. There also exists a dramatic evolution, which eventually leads to outcomes.

We could list more elements, but due to modesty and incompetence, we stop here with Proust. Our argument does not attempt in any way to characterize his work, but only to employ it as a reference in order to show what Umbral is and what it is not by contrast.

Then, within the framework of this comparison, Umbral is not a novel. Even if we use an extremely broad and flexible definition of the novel, it is difficult to categorize it within such a literary genre, for some reasons outlined below.

Umbral has no distinguishable plot. Rather, it is composed of scenes and fragmented plot developments, where dozens of characters emerge and multiply, and which do not remind us of characters in a novel at all. They, the “biographied” subjects, as they are called in the First Pillar henceforth, are “smoke-like entities without flesh,” “semi-real entities,” which have no specific historical or social context. They are constituted rather in proper names, images that persist in the narrator’s memory, and they express or represent attitudes, thoughts, dispositions, and dilemmas before life. All this in a narrative flow, without respecting spatial or temporal canons, that does not seem to advance anywhere.

As the narrator declares, Umbral would presumably portray his friend Lorenzo Angol’s “wanderings until today without end”:

A long time ago, at the beginning of 1926, I started talking to an old friend named Lorenzo Angol. Our talk centered round literature and, in this, the difficulties of finding a subject. Lorenzo told me, in jest, as a subject, to write his biography, in addition to the biographies of others around him. I liked the idea. Since then, I had begun writing: notes and more notes, facts I considered characteristic, loose scenes, in short, how much it could serve me for a biography.

Lorenzo Angol is none other than the narrative representation of the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, who died in January 1948. After recording the death of his closest friend in his journal, and his trip to the city of Cartagena, along with the painter Luis Vargas Rosas, to attend his funeral, Emar reflects on the personality and work of Captain Angol, a text that later, in a modified form, transfers to Umbral (see, for example, page 1,053, among others).

This is Emar’s constant practice: take an entry from his private journals and other texts and reproduce them, in a modified form, in his works. On his many trips between Santiago and Paris, he accumulated and tirelessly revised not only his journals, but also numerous notes, drawings, notebooks, letters, loose papers with notes of the most varied nature, accounts of his daily work, observations, measurements, quotes, accounts, pending payments, descriptions, biographical data of his characters, reflections, etc. It was a cumulative practice that began long before the 1940s and that at some point began to appear in Umbral, consolidating the work to which he would dedicate his next twenty-four years.

This totalizing biographical ambition is already present in his childhood writings, and on many occasions such a story assumes the epistolary modality: it is a letter addressed to a recipient, Guni Pirque in the case of Umbral. In the course of the text, this recipient changes her name, but she fulfills the same function, interlocutor and recipient of the narrative, who occasionally converses with the narrator, sometimes contradicts him, and often seems to hear him.

Cristián Huneeus aptly dubbed this totalizing project Juan Emar’s “infinite attempt.” For his part, the critic Ignacio Valente categorized it as “inventory style,…the world’s inventory.” Somewhere, we have called it a “biographical delirium,” in which Emar does not attempt to reproduce in chronological order the events that happened to the characters portrayed there, but rather he intends to go much further, because, according to the narrator, “Life is for one side and for the other. They are times, accents, and huge accrues. That one of them—the one on the left—has already passed for our way of considering time is another story. But it was that. It was like this one on the right is today, although later it will be seen in the past. The important thing is that both were, rather, that both ARE.”

Umbral, then, does not narrate the alleged adventures of his “biographied” subjects. Emar affirms that he recounts certain facts, although at the same time he acknowledges that “it is perfectly possible that things had happened in another way,” doubting and mocking rather the possibility that there exist univocally certain facts. The story identifies and shreds the tensions of the protagonists, the underlying to their behavior, the external and internal forces that guide and drive their transformations. They are, in the narrator’s words, the “daily lives,” the “continuous living,” or the “development of the happening,” linguistic turns with which he expresses his approach to the most classic phenomenological style.

In Umbral there exists no drama, story, nor adventure. Or rather, dozens of small inner dramas are developed, which do not have their origin in intelligible actions according to any known logic. These small dramas are almost never resolved, but they are established as moral dilemmas, creative dilemmas, life choices, tensions between the external and the internal, questions about art, looks toward society and its conventions, inquiries about forms of behavior, speculations of the narrator himself regarding these dramas and how they overlap with his biographical passing and that of his “biographied” subjects. All of this is composed in a heterodox set, whose pieces coexist in the same time horizon, and that does not form a harmonically intertwined whole, whose coherence only acquires legitimacy within the story itself.

Thus, what “happens” in Umbral does not correspond to events that take place on a recognizable level. They are not chronicles or narratives, but it is pure literature, not in the style of its time, not like what was known in its environment and that Emar despised lucidly.

In a 1969 article, Cristián Huneeus states that the author-character-reader trio “is definitely the substance of the novel as we know it.” From that trio, Emar seems to expel the reader, whose satisfaction and fidelity have no relevance, so that he constructs a narrative universe without valid external referents, beyond those legitimized only by the narrator: “. . . I pity in advance the reader who is going to read me . . . if he reads me and doesn’t throw away the book.” The recipient of the letter, also a character, is his reader. The external reader does not exist and is not considered, so the text closes on itself.

In Umbral, the story disintegrates, the characters are diluted, and then, without explanation, they return to the scene, unfold, deform, divide, and the object of what is told gets lost or becomes incoherent. The sequential and progressive temporality practically does not exist and the narrator multiplies. The “real” world arbitrarily and periodically invades the story, permanently obstructing any possible stability.

Considering Umbral as a whole, one appreciates a composition style or a narrative technique that Patricio Sullivan has called “collage,” making a reference to a visual art technique. It is an apt analogy, because Umbral gathers preexisting, fragmentary, and dissimilar elements drawn from diverse and discontinuous sources, spaces, and times, and it groups and exposes them in an apparently arbitrary and simultaneous way, displaying asymmetric contrasts so that, even so, in a more general perspective, they acquire heterogeneous features that create more than the sum and continuity of its parts.

In fact, Emar inserts his modified previous publications in the Umbral, from the 1930s, which had minimal repercussions, influencing his willingness not to publish again, taking refuge, and passing its evolution in its own universe, Umbral, and its own city, San Agustín de Tango.

By way of synthesis, we can affirm that Umbral is a monumental fictional biographical record, which, depending on the assembled genres, as Pedro Lastra points out, “. . . can be traversed in many directions, not only successive but simultaneous, opposite, contradictory, and could be labeled any number of different ways: novel, antinovel, autobiography, chronicle of real and imaginary eras and spaces, literary and art criticism, dramatic parody, exultant fantasy, lived history, tale of the grotesque or the colossal, philosophic reflection, esoteric meditation, and any number of other parallel or complementary characterizations.” Umbral flows in an extravagant overlapping of scenes, dialogues, memories, theater plays, anecdotes, without that transparent structure a preconceived innovative intent. Emar completely empties its interiority in Umbral, through forms and mechanisms that do not respond to a previous design or to an artificial or forced architecture, which is destined to surprise the reader and thus deserve the adjectives “rebellious,” “rupturist,” or “precursor.” Emar does not seek a formal key or mechanism to surprise, innovate, and be irreverent. It is just that.

It is also necessary to state that at its beginning Umbral has a certain structure that is more “fixed” or identifiable, which is already drawn in the introduction to Primer pilar, El globo de cristal, called “Two Words to Guni,” dated on March 2, 1941, at the La Torcaza estate. That letter, “real” otherwise (in the sense that it was actually written on that date on its estate and delivered to its recipient), anticipates the entirety of the work, which consists of “only” three pillars.

The style and structure inaugurated in the First Pillar, in a very precise way, even rigorously, progressively blurs in the following volumes, especially the Fourth Pillar. As Umbral advances, the project of “biographing” a group of friends-characters faces severe limitations, difficulties, and questions, more logical than empirical. As the project changes focus or redefines itself, Umbral’s structure also becomes increasingly blurred.

This progressive rupture of continuity, which begins in the Third Pillar and is accentuated from there onward, does not really imply a fundamental change in the logic and format of Umbral, but, rather, an accentuation and acceleration of that style or genre so difficult to define that, in the absence of a better category, we have called “fictional biographical record.” A totalizing, implausible, at times erratic, and indecipherable record, an impossible desire by definition, has given rise to one of the most peculiar, creative, and transcendent works of twentieth-century literature, as in his own school and style in In Search of Lost Time.

Carlos Piña

Translated by Toshiya Kamei


Mario Bellatin
Number 13

In our thirteenth issue, we feature two innovative, hard-to-define figures of Latin American letters: from the present, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, and from the past, Chilean writer Juan Emar. Together with these authors, we highlight Latin American theatre for the first time with a script by Ramón Griffero, Nahuatl-language poetry by Martín Tonalmeyotl, plus interviews, book reviews, exclusive previews, and more from writers including Rosario Castellanos, César Aira, and Salgado Maranhão.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Mario Bellatin

Dossier: Juan Emar



Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature



Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene