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Category Archive for 'Chile'

In what appears to be a series of autobiographical episodes, Chilean author Alejandro Zambra creates eleven stories so firmly grounded in reality and filled with carefully chosen detail that they seem to be from his own life, though it is impossible to know for sure without hearing more from the author himself. Likewise, we cannot know how much may be inspired by his own life but altered for the purpose of improving the story, or how much may be created from whole cloth for the purpose of recreating a period in history or illustrating a theme. Ultimately, this collection of stories vibrantly recreates an unusual childhood from the perspective of a child, while also revealing the speaker’s early adulthood and his lack of confidence in his own maturity. In several stories, the author conveys the feelings at the heart of parent-child relationships, from the points of view of both; political revolution and trauma lurk in the background throughout all the stories. As he wrestles with his stories and how to present the personal and community values of Chile during this period in the late twentieth century, the author also contributes much to our understanding of the art of writing itself. Ultimately, these intense, compressed, clear, and unpretentious stories breathe with quiet life, focused on reality as a simple, if sometimes heart-breaking, concept.

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Though many other writers have written novels about various coups in South America, this story is unusual in that its focus is squarely on the foreign service and the role of its representatives. Not a single scene here reflects the tortures, the murders, or the disappearances which are so traumatizing, and none of the major military leaders responsible for these actions are featured here. This approach works well for people in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile (and eventually Argentina), who are well familiar with the events which have often dramatically affected their own lives, though much of the action in this book will be new to many American readers. The movement back and forth in time over the eventual course of over forty years and several countries is sometimes challenging, and the mysterious Max, a lone wolf, is not someone with whom the reader will identify. Ultimately, the author raises philosophical questions: “In the space of a generation, thousands of people…had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer…[who] would face a camera to publicly lament what had happened, as Robert McNamara had with respect to the horrors caused by the Vietnam War? What had occurred four decades earlier…remained suspended in time…on a planet deprived of memory.” The author hopes to correct that.

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A rural village schoolmaster, named Jacques, already sounds old, as this small novella begins. In actuality, he is only twenty-one, however, almost a boy, but one who has already seen too much of the sameness of rural life. He has returned to Contulmo, his rural village in southern Chile after college, to be close to his mother. His French father left them the year before to return to France, shortly after Jacques received his elementary teaching certificate from a college in Santiago. “I got off the train and he got on, boarding the very same car…I didn’t even get a chance to open my suitcase and show him my diploma.” Now Jacques sees no opportunities to broaden his view of life. He does get occasional translation jobs, translating French poetry into Spanish, but these poems are simple, “the things the people around here can understand. Poems by Rene Guy Cadou, village verses, not cathedrals of words,” like the monumental poems published in the Santiago newspapers. Though he is friendly with the local miller, who was his father’s closest friend, he himself is lonely and always sad. “Ever since Dad went away, I want to die.” His life changes when one of his students, a fifteen-year-old boy wants to have a man-to-man conversation with him, then asks outright if Jacques has been to the whorehouse in Angol, the next big town a train-ride away. The boy wants to know what it costs for a woman. Soon Jacques sets out with the miller to find the answer, a quest which produces answers to some questions he has not even thought to ask. On my Favorites list for the year.

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A great deal of fun mixes with nightmare in this surprising and complex novella about writing in general, and about all the permutations of truth vs. fiction, and reality vs. the imagination. The speaker, named Domingo, is participating in a writing experiment/game with six other journalists, named Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Jueves, Viernes, and Sabado, representing the days of the week, and they are living in a laboratory with limited access. “It’s not even top secret…Rather, to the world, it doesn’t exist. So if for some reason I were to forget my name…I’d die empirically: the possibility of anyone remembering me would die as well.” The seven participants, all among the top students in the Biology Department at the Universidad de Chile, have expressed an interest in discovering “what is beyond science,” and they have volunteered for this writing project. Each participant writes part of a story for others to complete. If the project fails, or if an individual student fails, the organization eliminates that person. At least four, possibly five, of Domingo’s fellow players, have disappeared. “There is only one way to stay alive: make it to the end.” s a “literary descendant of Roberto Bolano,” author Carlos Labbe creates a memorable and utterly absorbing story which defies genre, bringing his thematic concerns with reality, imagination, and their connections to good and evil to life in unique and absolutely unforgettable ways.

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Many readers will argue that this work is not a novel at all. Certainly it does not adhere to the traditional expectations of a novel, no matter how flexible the reader is with definitions. Begun at the end of the 1980s and still unfinished at the time of author Roberto Bolano’s death in 2003, at the age of fifty, The Woes of the True Policeman was always a work in progress, one on which the author continued to work for fifteen years. Many parts of it, including some of the characters, eventually found their way into other works by Bolano, specifically, The Savage Detectives and his monumental 2666. But though it is “an unfinished novel, [it is] not an incomplete one,” according to the author of the Prologue, “because what mattered to its author was working on it, not completing it…Reality as it was understood until the nineteenth century has been replaced as reference point [here] by a visionary, oneiric, fevered, fragmentary, and even provisional form of writing.” As one character discovers, “The Whole is impossible…Knowledge is the classification of fragments,” and Bolano leaves it to the reader – his “true policeman” of the title – to figure it all out.

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