Poeta chileno by Alejandro Zambra

Poeta chileno. Alejandro Zambra. Barcelona: Anagrama. 2020. 224 pages.

Poeta chileno [Chilean poet] (2020) by Alejandro Zambra is the impressive result of a narrative incursion into the world of poetry and, by extension, of poets. Ingeniously, it finds in Zambra’s own surroundings, life and context not only inspiration but a literary subject matter all its own. It could be said that the author had already ventured into the world of metaliterature in previous works such as Bonsái (2006), albeit not with the strength and depth of this new work. However, his individuality lies not only in this area, but in the panoramic approach he takes to portraying the poets of Chile. This is thanks to the fact that, from Gonzalo Roja’s adolescence onward, the narration becomes a daily social and poetic tangle between characters, problems and poets, resulting in several independent lines of narration, nevertheless connected in one way or another throughout the story. The word “tangle” is perhaps the best way to describe the narrative method that Zambra adopts in this work, which relies on multiple points of view and temporal variations, giving it twists and turns understood solely when the reader takes an active role. In a sense, it presents several yarns, interconnected by intricate knots at various points in each, but whose ends are neatly and elegantly tied off.

The book’s context develops in a similar fashion to how its plot unfolds. The author sets it in Chile at the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. The social picture the book presents faithfully mirrors the wider national reality, with particular emphasis on the Santiago area, where the majority of the events take place. Between all the familiar references to pop culture and the context, one implicit aspect of the novel stands out: the dysfunctionality of the familial relationships. In other words, Zambra distinctly manages to develop the fractured nature of the idea of family as a reality for a great many Chileans. Beyond its individual components, the plot strives to show the broken ties between them and how they deal with them.

This complex narrative idea coalesces into the literary master stroke of portraying the experiences lived under the erratic and grandiose banner of poetry, and by all its devotees, in this long strip of land we call Chile. Therefore, within the vicissitudes and conflicts of the characters, they and the speaker juxtapose and weave in the image of Chilean poets. It is a lively, unique and overwhelming image. To define it without resorting to the narrative device of accumulation would be to liken it to the tea party attended by the March Hare, the Hatter, Alice and the Dormouse, prepared with erudite and comical mastery of the meager lexicon of Don Quijote. It would be to describe conversations and situations that waver to and from absurdity in their discussions of life, politics, ideals and, mostly importantly, poetry. All of this happens while, in the background, the book’s narrators and the characters that accompany them hoard and frequently mention books and authors left and right. The result is a vast, polyphonic account of the idiosyncrasy of the poeta chileno, stamped in red letters reading indescribable.

Regarding the structure, the work is divided into four long chapters: “Obra temprana” [Early work], “Familiastra” [Quasi-family], “Poetry in motion,” and “Parque del recuerdo” [Park of remembrance]. Although the plot flows in a linear fashion, the shifts in perspective between the various characters contribute to the novel’s entanglement. Nevertheless, this convoluted, many-sided type of narration lends a richness to the events recounted over the course of the story.

Turning to the novel’s style, Zambra assuredly employs Chilean speech in all its grace and absurdity. This raw material is nevertheless processed, perfected and polished by the author. The essence of the language is therefore preserved and offered a further poetic cadence that could only come naturally to the pen of an established storyteller and poet from Chile.

In short, Poeta chileno presents itself as a novel that can be enjoyed in many ways: from situations tinged with anecdote that elicit roaring laughter, through the social depths of the various circles or groups of people, to the worldviews of poets and the ever-changing notion of poetry.

José Manuel Tagle Vargas
Instituto de Literatura
Universidad de los Andes, Chile

Translated by Jem Walker


José Manuel Tagle Vargas was born in Santiago de Chile in 1998. He currently lives in the same city, where he is working toward a degree in Literature at the Universidad de los Andes and a certificate in Italian Literature at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. He previously earned a certificate in Medieval Civilization and Culture at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. His main interests are medieval literature, modern poetry, and text editing.

Jem Walker is a current student of translation and interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and the winner of the student prize into English at the 15th United Nations St. Jerome Translation Contest.

Other Reviews in this Issue

Cerca del corazón salvaje
La carretera será un final terrible
Los caídos
Nuestra piel muerta


Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism





Brazilian Literature


Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Nota Bene