I can’t know if I’ll ever see her again—the woman who loved my father, with varying degrees of artfulness and proficiency, for two and a half years. Before this, she’d done many other more notable, more extravagant things with her life: starring in one of Colombia’s most famous telenovelas, taking Gabriel García Márquez to the movies during one of his storied visits to New York City, remarkable things, which she revealed to us hesitantly, but with trace amounts of intention. We existed well together, at the edges of each other’s lives, loving one person in common, content to be mutually and eternally peripheral. Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, my father called things off. I imagine he broke her heart, delicately, but in the end, predictably, though I can’t know, really, if that’s true. If I did see her again, I’d be happy, eager for another moment in her brazen company—though I think it would also feel erroneous, as if the ultimate smallness of the world had somehow betrayed us.
“Maybe there’s a word to designate the opposite of mourning, what we feel not after someone dies but when they reappear; what we feel when we suddenly recover someone who had been absent even from our dreams. Words like rebirth or resurrection are so inadequate… the opposite of mourning co-exists with mourning, it’s something like an elegiac joy.” I read these sentences recently, in Alejandro Zambra’s new book, Chilean Poet. They made me think of my father’s former lover, the contradictory feelings that our reunion would, without a doubt, summon. They are sentences, like so many of Zambra’s best ones, that seem to have gracefully befriended confoundment, lines that have made some small, significant breach in the partition between what we can and can’t know. “Maybe there’s a word,” Zambra writes, offering that, just as likely, there is not. It is this latest book, perhaps even more than his other work—ten books in total, spanning fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—that commits itself to a study of our communicative inadequacies: the rituals and social performances that keep us from confronting one another, the masks we fashion together and supply most readily to those we claim to love the most, our various and uniquely human corrosions of truth.
Zambra is one of Latin America’s most celebrated contemporary writers, and one of the few current Latin American writers known in the United States. I am nervous to further designate him, since his work contends, relentlessly and often hilariously, with the fallibility of classification, deriding the very practice of reviewers stamping bloated and boilerplate celebrations onto the backs of books. I hope he wouldn’t mind me describing him as “a great novelist” or “a great Chilean novelist” or simply as “a writer,” someone at the perpetual helm, and mercy, of words. Chilean Poet follows the occasionally intersecting lives of two aspiring poets (a man and his stepson), the younger poet’s mother, and an American journalist who arrives in Chile to report on the country’s legendary and incongruous poetry scene. A series of accidental and improbable reunions between these characters (“marginal notes in the book of life,” as Fernando Pessoa might have described them) triggers a number of romantic pursuits that soon become lopsided, or else gradually turn commonplace, doomed by their ineluctable habits and cycles. In the shadow of these reunions, our four characters must interrogate themselves: their irreconcilable desires and obligations, their respective aims to document and bear the world’s weight through words.
In the beginning of the book, two teenage lovers pleasure each other under the reliable cover of a red poncho, cloaking their intimacy from their parents’ sight. It is the first deception in a book rife with deceptions: lies passed between lovers, friends, strangers; the relentless posturing that holds together a Chilean literary circle; and, most interesting, falsehoods, dispensed with striking symmetry, between parents and their children. These familiar lies—how children and their parents keep themselves from one another—are routinely and intriguingly permitted, even preserved, by their victims: a mother chooses to participate in the fiction that her daughter exclusively watches TV with her boyfriend underneath a red poncho; a child who no longer cares about Santa Claus ultimately decides “to pretend he still believes.” I remember these unordained lines by the American poet Terrance Hayes:
We lie to stay together.
We lie to make do. We lie to
break the truth
Apart. We lie to shake fruit from
Zambra writes: “He lies now to keep that memory from turning against him; he lies because he can’t bear so much irony, such bitterness.” In the firm, perplexing hold of Zambra’s language, one might come to consider deceit as a kind of social necessity, an indirect descendant, perhaps, of valor—something close to mercy or akin, almost, to love. Falsehoods are the base currency of Zambra’s protagonists. Parents and children lie to one another so as to spare one another; they are the reliable caretakers of one another’s delusions.
It seems impossible, at least to me, to review with any kind of truthfulness or accuracy the adeptness of a translation. I can’t imagine what the metrics or orientation of such an evaluation might be. I think back to a moment I remember from a Terrance Hayes lecture: he asked, “Do you think reading a poem in translation is like chewing gum while it’s in its wrapper?” When I recounted this phrase to a friend last summer, he came back with a line from the movie Paterson: “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.” I’m struck by the essential structural compatibility of these two expressions—protective coverings become impediments when they overstay, even momentarily, their welcome. I decided not to read pieces of the original Spanish book when writing this review. To do this, I felt, would be like judging someone’s character based on a conversation with their parents (maybe translations become as inevitably distant and estranged as rebellious children). I can hardly fathom the brilliance, imagination, and rigor needed to transport Zambra—his singular wit, his comic and existential departures, the impeccable curve and lift of his sentences, of his ideas—across such a gulf as the one separating English and Spanish. Any apparent stumblings, semantic or musical, in the translation should be blamed on the fundamental incapacities of the English language and not on his translator, Megan McDowell.
Let me go back, to the subject of my father’s lover: If I saw her again, I’d have to find the language—likely some hybrid of English and Spanish—to tell her of her own absence from my life, the dimensions of it, all that’s passed into being since she exited the frame of my world. To, as we describe quite mystifyingly in English, make up for lost time. When Zambra’s stepfather and stepson reunite, they also struggle to speak to each other: “Gonzalo was speaking a language made up exclusively of final phrases, a language that wounded, a dark and deleterious language, while Vicente spoke an incorrupt language of words that wavered and lived, a language of tentative sentences that began and then went on indefinitely.” I wonder what Zambra, or McDowell, intended here in their use of indefinitely; the word means both “eternally” and also “lacking definition, shape.” Maybe when our language possesses these qualities—when it is malleable and adrift, amoebic and in transit, constantly turning somewhere else—it can carry us closest to truth. The quality of language that abates our rituals of self-curation, that might pull secondary characters one or two steps closer together. Words that might return us, somehow, to ourselves.