David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Sarah Krasnostein’s The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle, which James Gleick calls, “Deeply beautiful, and never simple Through six profiles of a death doula, of a geologist who believes the world is six thousand years old, of a lecturer in neurobiology who spends his weekends ghost hunting, of the fiancee of a disappeared pilot and UFO enthusiast, of a woman incarcerated for killing her husband after suffering years of domestic violence, and of Mennonite families in New York. Krasnostein takes readers on an unforgettable tour of the human condition that explores our universal need for belief to help us make sense of life, death, and everything in between.” Says Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, “If reading a book can make you more human, The Believer does just that.” The Believer is out now from Tin House. Today’s conversation with Alejandro Zambra is a dream come true for me. As a longtime lover of his work, preparing for this conversation was extra gratifying as it prompted me to discover his nonfiction, his book Not to Read from Fitzcarraldo Editions, and how much is nonfiction and fiction are in conversation, and also to find myself loving his new book, his new novel Chilean Poet, the one we focus on today, perhaps more than any other. I can’t speak for Alejandro, but for me, it felt like we had an immediate rapport, an ease at finding a place to talk about literature in a way that I normally associate with long-time friends. You definitely get the distinct sense of his lifelong love of words and writing, and the communities that emerge from this world of writers, and I’m excited to share this with you today. I’m also excited to have a guest on about a book that was not written in English because each time this happens, not as much as I would like, it gives me an opportunity to talk with their translator for the bonus audio archive. The archive in its own right is a great incentive to become a listener-supporter of Between The Covers with everything from readings to craft talks, but the translator conversations may be the greatest reason to do it because they are long-form conversations, entire episodes in and of themselves. Today’s bonus conversation is with Megan Mcdowell who not only has translated Zambra since his second book but also translates Mariana Enríquez, Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Lina Meruane who came on the show years ago now for her book Seeing Red. To learn more about the bonus audio archive and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter of Between The Covers, of which there are many, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Alejandro Zambra.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Chilean novelist, short story writer, essayist, and Poet Alejandro Zambra. Zambra studied at the Instituto Nacional General José Miguel Carrera and the University of Chile where he graduated with a degree in Hispanic Literature. On scholarship, he pursued an MA in Hispanic studies in Madrid and upon returning to Chile, a doctorate in literature from Pontifical Catholic University. For many years, he worked as a literary critic for the newspaper La Tercera and was professor at the school of literature at Diego Portales University in Santiago. He now lives in Mexico City with his partner, novelist and essayist, Jazmina Barrera, who also has a book coming out this year Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes from Two Lines Press. Zambra is the author of two books of poems, Bahía Inútil and Mudanza, and a collection of essays No Leer, which was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions as Not to Read, but Zambra is best known for his fiction. His debut novel Bonsai was awarded Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award and the National Council on Books and Reading Award, both for best novel of 2006. Two years later, it was a finalist for Best Translated Book of the year and soon, Zambra was on all the lists. He was selected as one of Granta’s best young Spanish-language novelists and as one of the Bogotá39, a list of the best Latin American writers under the age of 39. His other novels include The Private Lives of Trees and Ways of Going Home, which won the Altazor Prize, was selected by the National Book Council as the best Chilean novel published in 2012, and won an English PEN Award. He’s also the author of the unclassifiable book Multiple Choice, written in the form of a standardized test, named a best book of the year by NPR, The Guardian, and The Irish Times, as well as the equally acclaimed short story collection My Documents. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, and McSweeney’s. He’s here today to talk about his latest novel entitled Chilean Poet, and translated, like most of the books mentioned, by Megan Mcdowell. Kirkus Review calls Chilean Poet, “A playful, discursive novel about families, relationships, poetry, and how easily all three can come together or fall apart . . . A book that renders both the small moments of literary striving and the everyday difficulties of being part of, and raising, a family with an insight that’s both cleareyed and tender.” Samanta Schweblin adds, “His clever irony, his lighthearted yet powerful prose, his gift for capturing this life that passes through and yet still escapes us—everything Zambra has already put into practice in his novellas and short stories explodes with vitality in Chilean Poet. Contemporary, beautiful, brilliant.” Rivka Galchen adds, “Every beat and pattern of being alive becomes revelatory and bright when narrated by Alejandro Zambra.” Valeria Luiselli concurs by saying, “When I read Zambra I feel like someone’s shooting fireworks inside my head.” Finally, Rodrigo Fresán says, “Chilean Poet is Intelligent and funny and moving and profound. . . It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed so hard or been so moved by a novel.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Alejandro Zambra.
Alejandro Zambra: Thank you, David. Thank you for this invitation.
DN: Both you and your partner, Jazmina, have books coming out this year that engage with becoming a parent. I imagine that you were working on this book either in anticipation of becoming a father to your now four-year-old son or during the early years of fatherhood. But what I’m curious about is in doing so, in writing Chilean Poet, which among other things is very much about raising a boy, why, at the same time that you yourself were becoming a father, your character is becoming a stepfather? [laughter] I have a theory but before I give you my theory, I just want to hear what the impulse was to make the relationship one that is harder to define than father, than son.
AZ: I would like to hear your theory and I think it should be much better than mine. [laughter] But I have to say that I’ve been interested in step-parenthood for many years because of many reasons. But I think all contemporary discussions are in some way about legitimacy and belonging, and step parents deal with this problem all the time. It is such a special and challenging relationship. It’s hard to explain the position of a stepfather or of a stepmother. You just fall in love with someone who already has a child, so you find yourself in an unexpected position, an ambiguous position, then the relationship with the child will tend to grow and you start wondering what is going to happen if your relationship with their biological parent ends. I think you could explain adoptive parenthood very easily. There are abandoned childs and someone takes care of them, so that’s easy to understand, but what is in between? You are always dealing with this big question, “What is going to happen?” You don’t relate to kids to abandon them. It is true, I wrote this novel, which is about Chile while I was living in Mexico. I started living in Mexico five years ago and this novel has nothing to do with Mexico. Also, it is a novel I wrote while I was becoming a biological father. It’s about a different kind of fatherhood. I think it was good, that movement from the little room I was riding in the apartment. I used to think in a different way about things I have just written, so I think your theory is better. [laughter] Please tell me your theory.
DN: I think it might be related and maybe you can tell me whether you think it’s related or whether it’s different, and also whether it’s wrong of course. But it seems to me like one of the strong through lines that connects not only your fiction but also your fiction and your non-fiction is the notion of secondary characters. That your parents generation in Chile, whether they were torturers or whether they were tortured or whether they were the people who looked away, their story was worthy of novels and your generation were the secondary characters within your parents story. But we also see this show up in many different ways. You say that to pass literary exams in Chile, it is important to focus on learning about the secondary characters in books because there are always test questions about them. Your non-fiction literary criticism often focuses not on secondary writers necessarily, but certainly less iconic and well-known ones. You’re not writing a lot on Neruda or Mistral or Raúl Zurita but more on this overshadowed secondary world perhaps, and we definitely see these”secondary poets” a lot in your new book. But even when you write about someone well known, say Bolaño, you write mostly about his lesser known writings, his poetry. Even when you’re doing literary criticism, say when you’re writing about Natalia Ginzburg’s book, Family Lexicon, you admire how she displaces the primary story, which is the story of a Jewish anti-fascist family that lives through horror and only partly survives it with a secondary story, her love for the people, the grousing of the father, the mother’s humor, the lost language of the community. Similarly, you’ve described the writing of your first book Bonsai in this way, “I didn’t want to write a novel, but rather the summary of a novel. A bonsai of a novel. Borges’ advice is to ‘write as if summarizing a book that has already been written.’ That’s what I did or what I tried to do, summarize the secondary scenes of a non-existent book.” I guess I wonder if this position of your generation and this question of how to write literature from this position, one of secondary characters, if that might partially be behind the impulse to, in a way, make the father in Chilean Poet a secondary father, to put him in a position that questions his primacy in fatherhood.
AZ: I love your theory. [laughter] I agree. My writing comes from exposure to poetry basically. Even when I am put in the position of talking about this fiction, non-fiction discussion. I think this is something I haven’t thought about. Because the relationship between poetry and fiction, I wouldn’t say I know what the difference is. I was reading for example, like 20 years ago, Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson, the dramatic monologue, for example, that creates a poetry that is explicitly related to fiction. Then, I don’t know, it’s [inaudible]. Even Chilean poets, like Nicanor Parra are in that tradition and they are dealing with this idea that poetry is confessional, which is a prejudice by many critics, I think big critics, critics I love, like Bakhtin for example. Mikhail Bakhtin didn’t like poetry because he thought it was like a confession, like the first person confession. I’m obviously simplifying his ideas, but for him, the novel was the real thing because it created a dialogue, a real dialogue that was really representing the world in its complexity. But all poetry, 20th Century poetry deals with that idea. It is against the idea that a poem is like a confession. If you think about Fernando Pessoa, for example, just a literal example of this. I don’t know what I was talking about. Sorry. [laughs]
DN: Let’s take this hard to define relationship into the level of language and specifically, the Spanish language, because there’s this great scene in the book when Gonzalo, the stepfather, and Vicente, the stepson, are in the grocery store and someone inquires who they are to each other. Clearly, friend isn’t the right answer, but neither is stepfather because in Spanish, it has a different connotation than in English and French. In English, it’s neutral but in French, for instance, beau père is a beautiful father but in Spanish, it’s apparently quite, I don’t know if nasty but it seems like it has a real dark connotation to it.
AZ: It’s a bad word. It’s like an insult.
DN: Talk to us about padrastro.
AZ: I think that scene is where the novel started. I thought about that scene, something slightly similar happened to me, then I thought about not having a name, not having a role or having a role but not having a name and I thought about this word padrastro. Actually, my second novel is also about that in a way. In The Private Lives of Trees, the main character is a padrastro, it’s a stepfather. But I haven’t thought of this word that way until I thought about this complicated issue with naming. There are many families where people don’t use any words. It’s like your name, I mean he’s Pablo, she’s Marcella and that’s it. You avoid the word because in Spanish and in many languages, it is a bad word, pejorative. It’s a word that even means something bad, bad father. One of the definitions of padrastro in Spanish is bad father, but it is the only word we have, so I was like, “What does this mean, this prejudice?” As I was telling you, I think all discussions are about legitimacy. Parents are facing legitimacy, stepfathers, padrastro are facing this from the very beginning. They start the game losing it and they have to do something with this word and decide whether to use it or not or maybe to create a new word. I was like, “This is the problem of the poet. Poets are dealing with words every day and nobody seems to notice. They are dealing with the poem, they are deciding important things about each word of the poem.” This seems to be an invisible work. It’s not that people would get that. I remember this beautiful speech by Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who says, “The worst movie is a movie about a poet, a poet writing, because she might write two lines, then erase them, then would write five verses and would work many days with these five verses, and would try to get to something.” She says, “Nobody is going to watch that movie.” [laughs] In a way, that’s why the poet, the padrastro, and the stepfather became one character to me. Also, the word poet in English also happens that it’s not only a noun, it’s an adjective too. It’s like, “You’re a poet of literature.” [laughter] That means you’re good at it. “You’re a poet of soccer. You are really good. You’re inspiring.” There is something about the word poet that is also related to legitimacy. If you happen to read a bad poem, you say, “Oh, this is not a poet. The person who wrote this is not a poet.” That scene that you mentioned, it’s not the first scene of the novel but in my head was the first one.
DN: I think it’s crucial to the book that he’s also a poet struggling with language. Is it true? Because there’s a section of the book in English that’s called Step-Poet and I’m guessing that in Spanish, that must be poetastro.
AZ: We changed some of the titles. In Spanish, here, it is familiastra, which is like step-family.
DN: Or bad family.
AZ: But it’s not the same because as you said, it sounds normal in English. Familiastra is a word that doesn’t even exist. I use it in this novel a lot but that word doesn’t exist, familiastra.
DN: But it would suggest a bad family possibly.
AZ: Like a family-ish or something like that. But Megan found this great solution. What’s exactly the title she used?
DN: I think she used Step-Poet.
AZ: Oh, Step-Poet.
DN: But it’s interesting that padrastro can mean bad father, it can mean obstruction or impediment, and it can mean hangnail, which I thought was hilarious, but that the suffix you can use, like you used for familia, you can use the suffix as a negative connotation on something. But when you talk about Gonzalo, our padrastro and poet—and he’s somebody who’s an aspiring poet—he’s obviously struggling to find language to create art, and at the same time, struggling to find language to understand his relationship with his stepson. There’s the difficulty of understanding your relationship to your stepson while you’re with the mother, especially not just because there isn’t language or there isn’t friendly language but also there are no traditions, there’s no cultural tradition or lineage of padrastros to use as the way to be one. But it’s even more difficult if all of a sudden, you are no longer with the mother of the son. He’s struggling in two ways around language. But one of the ways he’s struggling around constructing a sense of self and belonging and legitimacy is being a poet within the poetry world because he has a very common name, so he decides he’s going to find a pseudonym, which has a long tradition in Chilean poetry. He wants to find a pseudonym that will give him legitimacy, place, belonging, and language to it. I was hoping maybe we could hear that part of the book, which to me is very endearing, self-deprecating, and funny in a way that really captures the tone of a lot of the book overall. We’ll have you read it in Spanish, then we’ll get Megan to read it in English.
AZ: Oh, that’s great.
[Alejandro Zambra and Megan McDowell read from Chilean Poet]
DN: We’ve been listening to Alejandro Zambra and Megan McDowell read from Chilean Poet. I love that section. I want to touch on English a little bit. Since we’re talking about pseudonyms, we’re talking about you as a person when you are speaking English, and you said that when you’ve had to read in English, the words of Megan, your translator and your friend, that reading them has felt like acting or imitating. That sometimes, you’d forget while you were reading, that it was your book and that sometimes, when you would encounter people who didn’t speak Spanish but loved your books, presumably in English or other languages, that you were really Megan’s front man, that your name was on Megan’s book. But I wanted to take this idea of this notion of secondary characters into this realm where you characterize yourself as Megan’s front man, not the reverse because you wrote this wonderful piece for a chapbook called A Table Made Again for the First Time on Kate Briggs’s This Little Art, a work by Kate Briggs, which is a meditation on translation.
AZ: A great book. I love that book.
DN: It is. I love that book too. Your piece in there is called Translating a Person, and of course, I read Megan’s translation of that piece which is in there. It’s about your history with this secondary language of yours, English. I’m presuming it’s your secondary language and maybe not your tertiary language. But we learn about the gringo in your high school, how your English teacher laughed at you when you used the word elementation but the gringo later showed you in the dictionary that the word actually exists, that your English teacher who made fun of you was actually incorrect. But you also then talk about how English is a patchwork of stolen phrases for you and often phrases that you’ve discovered in writing, so maybe you would see the word elementation, even though most English speakers wouldn’t use it commonly but you would find these phrases in poetry and prose maybe even more than spoken English. I love that your friends used the phrase speaking English as the phrase for getting drunk, which is great. [laughter] Or that you yourself tried to improve your English by translating Emily Dickinson. But what’s most interesting I guess when we come back to Gonzalo and his trying to figure out these various possibilities for pseudonyms to join the poetry community under this other name is that you said when you were living and working in New York, at The New York Public Library, that you realized that you could communicate just fine if you accepted that you could never use your favorite words, that you couldn’t play with tone with any meaningful facility, you couldn’t crack jokes in a way that felt natural, and ultimately, this was a chance to simply be a different person in English. I wondered if that was similar to how Gonzalo might feel, if these are connected, this question of what person will Gonzalo invent becoming a stepfather, which has no rules? Similarly, what name, of the many hilarious names he’s considering, is he going to put himself forward with his fellow poets as the name that will define him as this alternate persona within that world?
AZ: There are many things you just said that I would like to comment on but I don’t want to forget to mention how grateful and happy I am due to this campaign, like translators on the cover. The translator’s name is now in the right place, I think. I’m very happy because this book has Megan’s name for the first time. It’s really the way it has to be, I think. Yes, when I was living in New York, sometimes, I got invited to readings and they expected me to read in English obviously. I called Megan who was in Chile and asked her, “Please, would you read this, would you record this?” Then I was listening to it and imitating her directly because it’s not really the same, obviously, speaking, talking, then reading aloud a piece that does have its sound sense of rhythm. When you read aloud, obviously, you have to control or have an idea about the vowels that are really different, and there are many mistakes that you don’t want to happen, but at the same time, it was more Megan, when she translates, she gets a sense of rhythm that I get and that I love. I wouldn’t say that is different from my sense of rhythm, I mean it’s really similar but I don’t know how to say it, but that she’s playing her own music and it was amazing hearing, listening to this. It flows in a very, very beautiful way. I was imitating it. [laughter] I was supposed to be the one who wrote that but I was directly imitating the way she read her own writing, I think. It’s really interesting. Things related to translation are really interesting. That essay was a lot about speaking a language you don’t really know, I mean I know Spanish. [laughter] I think we have this amazing language that is spoken in many ways, in many different ways but we get to understand each other the whole time. The way we speak in Chile is different from the way they speak in Argentina or in Peru. You can find small, beautiful, meaningful differences between the way we speak, so you are learning a lot inside a language, the same language. If you go to Spain, there are many differences and you feel them stronger, and maybe you deal with communication a little bit but you still get to understand the other person. We use many words that have different meanings but you only get to understand those meanings when some little crisis or when some problem comes up. It’s really funny. At the same time, we read each other and we see those differences written in a short story, in the novel. We are always translating ourselves, I really love that about the Spanish. With English, I’ve been reading English for a long time but it’s really different when I have to talk, when I have to speak in front of an audience, when I have to speak like now and I know I am being recorded. Many, many, many people in Chile, and I think in Latin America, never really studied English but we got it by listening to music, and movies, but basically music. Sometimes, we were really enjoying songs that we didn’t know what they were about. [laughs] I like the Billie Jean example. It’s a really terrible song if you pay attention to the lyrics, it’s a very stupid song too, but we were dancing it and we were enjoying it. I think this novel is also a little bit about translation. There is this character who goes to Chile and there is a big mistake, so she doesn’t get to the place she’s supposed to get, then she comes across these poets and randomly, she happens to be writing an article about Chilean poetry but she’s not really into poetry and she’s not really into Chilean poetry. She speaks Spanish, she does speak Spanish but not the Spanish she would have to speak to understand, to get to read a poem, which is obviously one of the most hard things. When you mentioned translating Emily Dickinson in order to improve my English, I think people would say, “What’s this about? It’s really stupid.” [laughter] It’s really hard to read Emily Dickinson. But the thing is that we were reading Emily Dickinson in the bilingual editions that were printed in Spain. Those translations were done thinking of Spanish readers, Spaniards, but those were the same books we were reading in Chile. We had the poem in English and the poem in Spanish. We didn’t really like those translations, or we did like them but they were different from the way we would face them. This is really stupid but we started correcting them without really knowing English. But we started correcting them using the language of poetry, I would say, like trying to imagine what Emily Dickinson would have liked, would have felt. That’s how we improved our English. [laughs] I think this is a very good example of failure because I’m speaking this terrible English. This is why sometimes, I used certain words that were not common and sometimes, I ignored very usual words. My English was weird. [laughter]
DN: Let’s stay with failure, translation, and language a little longer because when you spoke in Belgium, I learned from your interviewer there that the Dutch translation of the book is almost a father and that interviewer was suggesting that maybe that was a better title, almost a father, and you said, “Definitely not a better title.” I want to go into the title that you do have but for now, I want to talk about a secondary title that you considered, which I think connects us to what we are talking about. You said that one of the titles you had in mind was, in English, the repeaters, which is a reference to repeating a grade when you have failed academically. But repeating feels like something very important in your work, to me, both formally and thematically as a whole. Also, I think the repeaters could be something about translation too, the repeated book. For one, Carla and Gonzalo, the couple, they’re together when they’re young and they’re apart for many years, then they’re together again, now, she has a child, so Gonzalo is confronted with becoming a padrastro. But then Gonzalo and Vicente, his stepson, they’re together, then when that relationship with Carla falls apart, they’re apart. Then later on in the book, they repeat, they come back together. Even more probably strikingly, I think formally speaking, we see this in Ways of Going Home, this narrative doubling, leaving, and returning or how, in the The Private Lives of Trees, a writer tells his stepdaughter a bedtime story that itself is called The Private Life of Trees and the writer is writing a book about bonsai trees, just like you had just written and published. You were on this panel for the National Book Foundation that was supposed to be about Juan Rulfo but because his family had trademarked his name, [laughs] I thought this was so strange because his family had trademarked his name, it had to be about something else, so they changed the name even though you had all agreed to come together to talk about Rulfo’s work and it became about the role of time. Cristina Rivera Garza talked about not wanting to bring readers back to the past but instead, to bring the past forward, which feels to her like what Rulfo does in Pedro Paramo. You talked about how the word for time and the word for weather, tiempo, are the same word in Spanish. For me, this idea of repetition, of this doubling back of time or the repeaters, it feels like it’s the weather of your work somehow, this way you have with repetition. I guess I want to hear more about leaving and returning or double narratives, or maybe an argument for why the repeaters is a good title or a bad title for Chilean Poet.
AZ: Can you repeat your question? [laughter] But I really like your theories. I think repetition is a way of feeling a life. When you make the same mistake again, I think you learn. It’s important. Things happen twice or three times. When they try to make a movie out of a novel, they are always simplifying. I remember this very good example with Madame Bovary. Okay, If you want to make a movie, Charles Bovary gets married twice and they live in two small cities. You might simplify and you might lose what repetition creates inside you that may be strong but at the same time, I don’t know how to say this because it’s really complicated, even in Spanish, but how you deal with the idea of having an identity. I don’t think identities should be defined but at the same time, I really like identity to be discussed over and over. I think when you say something like, “I’m here. I’m this person and I belong to these people,” okay, that’s beautiful, I love that, but you cannot stop there. You should go beyond that and you should really think about what it means to have that certainty. Maybe that would make you feel even more happy and that would make you feel that you can struggle, that you can fight, and that everything’s going to be alright. I’m not saying that this dealing with identity would mean a perpetual crisis. It’s not about that. Self-criticism is so important on many levels, and obviously, self-criticism could be a problem too and could make you feel stuck or feel bad but in a way, it is always an opportunity, I really believe that, I mean not in literature, in life. It’s important to have that window where you can really see yourself from a certain distance and to make that distance a sign of love. I’m not saying it really well but it’s a good idea.
DN: No, I do, I feel like the moments of self-criticism within your books are often also the moments of humor and the moments of love. But I want to stay with this question of distance because you mentioned you wrote this book in Mexico and it takes place in Chile, and very much is about, you could call it a critically loving and humorous homage to the Chilean poetry scene and other things, but I suspect being in Mexico, imagining that you’re raising a child who primarily speaks Mexican-Spanish—though I’m guessing he also speaks Chilean-Spanish also of course—but within an ecosystem of Mexican-Spanish, I think about something that you wrote about Chilean Poet Enrique Lihn where you talk about his life, which was spent mostly abroad in Mexico and Spain, or at least, largely abroad in Mexico and Spain, and you say his poetry does not have the accent of those places. You say, “He makes one think of an imaginary country called Chile, one that rather than stripping away nationality, produces negatives of Chileans, absences of Chileans.” I was curious what the effect of writing from a distance has had on your writing. If it doesn’t have the accent of Mexico on it, has it allowed you to see certain things about Chile that maybe you wouldn’t have seen if you wrote it in Santiago?
AZ: Yeah, I think so. I have to say that I always hated the cliche of you have to go somewhere else to really see your country. I always hated it, maybe because it was like a snob position. You have to go somewhere else, maybe New York. It’s not that you have to get a physical distance in order to write about something. But there is something related to language that I really care about, maybe this is a contradiction but when I was living in New York, for example, my Chilean speech stayed the same because I was always switching. I didn’t feel like I was mixing those languages. It was not really related to the kind of experience I was going through. I was talking to native speakers the whole day and I went home and I was feeling my Spanish language and I was enjoying it while talking to friends, but there wasn’t really a conflict there. But living in Mexico is totally different because I married a Mexican woman and my kid does speak Mexican, I think really, he speaks Mexican although he sometimes translates himself for me like having a toast. [laughter] “Oh, I really like this aguacate,” then he looks at me and he says, “Palta. That, Palta.” [laughter] He knows I know but he plays with words a lot. But his accent is totally Mexican. I would say he sounds more Mexican than any other Mexican I have ever heard. [laughter] At the same time, every day, there are some little problems related to communication and some of them are really specific. I don’t know if I’m able to put an example but I can try. For example, if you ask about using the toilet, in Chilean-Spanish, you would say, “Ocupar un baño.” You would use the verb occupy. But in other places, that sounds weird. It sounds like you want to go to the bathroom and put on your Chilean flag, and stay there forever. [laughs]
DN: In English, it would sound weird too, “I occupy the bathroom.” It’s strange.
AZ: Only when you are in a foreign country and you use your normal words, you realize that there’s something blurred or some sort of different reaction, you would get those kinds of differences. I mean, there are many examples. These kinds of problems, I mean every day, I have a new one and I love that because I’m 46 years old and I really like having new problems. [laughter] It’s like dealing with language. Obviously, with my Spanish accent, I think it sounds really Chilean for a Spanish reader. Everywhere, it sounds Chilean. There are things about the Chilean speech I love a lot. Now, I think I’m getting not a Mexican accent but a different position towards certain words and certain rhythms that are really interesting to me because they became natural. It’s not that I’m speaking in a different way exactly but I don’t know if this is a lot about words, about loving words and dealing with them, hating them, and discovering them. This has been really amazing. About this novel, are we talking about this novel? I think there was some homesickness. When I started living here, it was really a decision. I met Jazmina in New York. She was starting there, I was working in the Cullman Center and we had to come back to our countries, and we discussed where to live. We wanted to have a kid and we discussed that in a very practical way, “There’s no professional reason for being here, for staying in Mexico City.” In that sense, writers sometimes are really portable. I could be here, I could be there. I was lucky to have those opportunities. We decided to be here for many reasons. But when that really happened, when we started living here, I started feeling homesick. I thought, “What kind of Chilean am I going to become? What kind of Chilean, not living in Chile, am I going to become?” There are some kinds of Chileans living outside Chile that I hated. I felt the danger of becoming someone I hate. [laughter] I think that works for everything, like for teaching, for writing. There is a moment when you realize that you are about to become the writer you hate, the teacher you hate, the person you hate. [laughter] I was like, “I really need to make something good out of this, to stay with homesickness but to put it a different sign.” I think my way of doing that was writing this novel. I had a great time writing this novel. Obviously, this is related to becoming a father. I was just doing those two things, like being a writer and being a father. I think in the first place, I was being a father, then I was being a writer. I wasn’t writing articles. I wasn’t teaching. I was fully dedicated to my kid and my novel. I did want this to be like music, I was able to hear and dance at the same time. It was really a beautiful and joyful experience. Writing is always joyful I think but sometimes, as we deal with things, I mean this is a sad novel, but also I think it contains in a way this happiness of flowing, of speaking and hearing Chilean speech alive. I would say that I wanted this homesickness to become playful and interesting. It’s not interesting to be just there, feeling that your country is away and that you miss people. I obviously miss many people but this was my way of dealing with it. Then the pandemic happened, that’s another chapter, because I published this novel in Spanish right when the pandemic started. The book was on bookstores exactly the day bookstores were closed. [laughter]
DN: Let me ask you one more question about just distance before we go more deeply into the novel again.
AZ: Even deeper.
DN: Oh, wow. I want to go deeper, perhaps talking about my favorite scene in the book. But before we do, there’s a multiple choice question in Multiple Choice where the options are, “(1) A curfew is a regulation prohibiting free circulation in public within a determined area. (2) It tends to be decreed in times of war or popular uprising. (3) The dictatorship imposed one in Santiago, Chile, from September 11, 1973, until January 2, 1987. (4) One summer evening my father went out walking with no destination in mind. It grew late, and he had to sleep at a friend’s house. (5) They made love, she got pregnant, I was born.” Whether this is literally true or not, your writing definitely operates in the shadow of the dictatorship and also how your generation came of age during its fall but how the freedom that was triumphed in its wake felt to you like a fake freedom, that many of the mechanisms of the fascist state were still operating after the so-called dictatorship had ended. It just made me wonder how it felt watching the election of Boric from Mexico, the election of a genuine left-wing young candidate in Chile was like, how are you feeling about it, pro or con, but it seems like perhaps a bigger shift politically in Chile than what you’ve had in your life up until now.
AZ: Definitely. I’m so happy about this for many, many, many reasons. This novel ends in 2014, March 2014 and by then, there was this hope that was growing but, at the same time, many people were discussing whether this hope was true or not, and that hope was related to what happened three years before with the students, and these new leaders, and Gabriel Boric was one of those leaders. I think his name is printed in this novel because I captured that discussion about these new leaders. Vicente’s father obviously thinks that they are the same and nothing is going to change. He’s not interested in what’s going on. Vicente wants this to happen, and at the same time, he distrusts. He’s not believing and at the same time, he’s believing in what he wants to believe in. He doesn’t trust the system but he trusts these new leaders that are a little older than he is. I really liked that moment because hope was there but not in a naive way. It was true hope because it dealt with its own legitimacy. Obviously, there are many discussions about trust. What can I say? I am really happy about what’s going on in my country. It’s a new generation. I just wrote a piece about this, like a brother, like your younger brother, a younger brother, I think I feel that. This generation is like a younger brother who really killed the father, but at the same time, they are trying to, I wouldn’t say resuscitating them, the generation of fathers, but it is like that. It is an opportunity to really get a dialogue and get something valuable, important. I’m really happy about what’s going on in my country because of the election of Gabriel Boric and also because a new constitution is being discussed. Many causes that seemed very, very invisible when I was 18 years old, for example, are now becoming real. That’s so beautiful. It’s such a big challenge. Obviously, this is going to be really hard. But I personally like Gabriel Boric because he is always speaking with a plural first person. I know I’m not saying it well.
DN: No. That’s great.
AZ: It’s always with the “us,” not with a “me.” A president seems to be like one person and the authority he’s supposed to construct is imminent, but he’s sharing that. I think he’s going to do that, I mean to create a more plural sense of power, to reformulate power. I’m really, really, really looking forward to this new government. Also, he’s a poet.
DN: I didn’t know that.
AZ: He’s a poet. He said, what’s the word you use in English, frustrated? Would you say frustrated?
DN: You could say he’s a frustrated poet.
AZ: He’s a frustrated poet. I said, “Okay, that’s fine because we are all frustrated presidents.” [laughter] But he writes poetry. He’s a very good reader. He reads novels and poetry. He understands what our job consists of.
DN: I also feel like the way you’re speaking about him around the first person plural, it connects to something about your writing too, like the way Gonzalo and Vicente, the way they construct their own senses of self are dependent on the other, or the way he or the way Gonzalo in the poetry community is only able to construct who he is through his engagement with the others within it, like there is a very much a sense of a self coming through conversation. I want to take this and I want to bring this back to one of my favorite parts of Chilean Poet, but first, I want to just speak to the very last piece in your non-fiction collection No Leer. It’s a speech you gave in 2016, which you framed as a return, so we could say it’s another example of repeating because it was a homecoming, because you were invited to give a speech at the department of the university where you had taught for many years. The final paragraph of this speech, which is also the final paragraph of this entire book goes, “They say that there are only three or four or five topics for literature, but maybe there’s only one: belonging. Perhaps all books can be read as a function of the desire to belong, or the negation of that desire. To be a part of or stop being part of a family, of a community, a country, of Chilean literature, a football team, a political party, a rock band, or atleast a group of scouts. That’s what we write about when we’re given a free topic, and also when we are writing about love, death, travel, telegrams, or suitcases with swivel wheels. That’s what we always talk about, seriously and in jest, in verse and in prose: belonging.” I love this but I also love that you don’t just suggest that belonging or not belonging is the topic of literature, but you also write a lot about books as objects that become part of our creation of self or of self belonging. You have essays about the impulse to collect books, about the disappointments when you go to a new friend’s house and you see the books that are on their bookshelf, about the rituals that you’ve developed about traveling with books and which books you’re going to travel with, and how that looks. I bring this all up, your thoughts on belonging, as literature’s singular theme and books as almost amulets or talisman themselves in the question to belong or the question of how to define oneself against. Because one of my favorite parts of Chilean Poet occurs in the middle and it serves as a hinge I think. It’s when Carla and Gonzalo split up, and all of a sudden, Gonzalo, who one day to the next, has suddenly disappeared from his stepson’s life, so he’s not going to have the same access to the inner workings of the relationship of his mother, so it appears much more suddenly to him. The way that he grapples with who Gonzalo was to him, and what his absence means is by grappling with his empty bookshelves, so he tries many things. He removes them entirely from the walls, he then reinstalls them and fills them randomly with books that have no special significance to Vicente as one way to perhaps exercise Gonzalo, then he fills the bookshelves with books that he loves. Then he also meditates on the few books that Gonzalo has left behind. What are those books? Why are those the books that didn’t go with him? You’ve quoted Adam Phillips before who said, “To translate a person is ‘to translate a text that doesn’t exist,’” and in this spirit, I’d love to hear you talk about the way Vicente grieves or expresses anger or expresses love, and the way he defines himself against Gonzalo or with Gonzalo through bookshelves, through books as objects that surround you when you’re in a room.
AZ: You touched the center of the novel in my view, which is not important. It’s not important when I think about the novel. [laughter] But I am pleased that you chose that part because in a way, that’s the real question. We could talk about this and think about the stepfather, the stepfather, the padrastro, but it is even more important what is happening inside the boy because maybe the stepfather, in a way, knew that something like this could happen. But the kid, maybe he also suspects that this painful thing could happen but his position is really difficult because in a way, he gets that if Carla and Gonzalo split up, his mother might be sad. The mother is the main character there and he’s again, the secondary character of that story, but at the same time, he has feelings. He was raised by Gonzalo and not by his father who is an assh*le. He’s there but he’s not there. Gonzalo was there. Gonzalo was a good father, even though it’s hard to know what it means to be a good father, but he was raising him. He has this idea of Gonzalo writing and reading a lot but that wasn’t really important to Vicente. In this sense, I think the whole novel is obviously about poets but it’s not clear that they are really poets. I think I was more interested in the way poets deal with everyday life and with problems that are there for everyone. It’s not that special being a poet. Part of its energy is related to that. Poets who are not in a different place are sharing life. They are dealing with communities and maybe they have a different job, a job that they don’t necessarily like, or maybe they do like those jobs but they are poets, but that they have to be something else because the world doesn’t seem to like poets or respect them. I was a lot interested in trying to define, I know this is really ambitious, but trying to define a literary vocation. At this moment, Vicente is dealing with this empty place and he misses those books, even though he didn’t like those books. He gets, “Okay, he left, so the bookshelves are now empty because all books were his books, so it’s natural.” In a way, he gets that but it is disappointing to get in that room and to see this emptiness. As you mentioned, he tries things and he deals with pain but he’s not necessarily aware of that pain the whole time. Or maybe he feels that pain, it’s more his mom’s pain and not his. I really like the moment where he discovers these two books, one book by Gonzalo Millán, another book by Emily Dickinson. He opens them and reads them, and doesn’t like them. He doesn’t understand what that book is about. A little later, some years later, he opens the book again and finds something. It’s not that he really thinks, “I got this.” He doesn’t understand but he likes that disconcert. He specifically reads a poem by Gonzalo Millán about the pea, alverja. It’s in Spanish or in Mexico, it’s like chícharo, a little pea in the refrigerator, a lonely pea in the refrigerator. The poem is about that, the poem by Gonzalo Millán is about that. It’s a real poem about a pea, a lonely pea in the refrigerator. He’s like, “I’ve seen that pea.” It’s incredible that the job of this person consists in finding those images I have seen and nobody gives a sh*t about. I like this idea of someone that focuses on supposedly unimportant things and he or she collects them and writes poems. That’s how he enters poetry. I think in the life of every poet, there is a moment where you’re around misunderstanding and find some beauty in the position, and at the same time, I think this is obviously easier to explain when you think about music because I think poetry is basically badly taught. Obviously, it’s hard to teach poetry but even from the very beginning, you get a sense of music. When you’re born, you feel music and music is around. There are different kinds of music and styles, and you enjoy some of it. Your mother is singing and your father is also singing, and playing guitar. They like different kinds of music. You get a whole sense of what music is without needing music to be defined. That’s so beautiful, that you really position yourself and you know a lot about music but that was never explained to you. I would like the same thing to happen with poetry. That you would feel those poems and many kinds of poems, and you would decide whether you like this or that. But it seems that the system is more trying to define and control taste. That’s really, can I say bad words?
DN: Oh yeah.
AZ: That’s really f*cked up. [laughter] Like when you are seven years old, I know there are many exceptions, but I’m thinking about those moments where you are told like, “This is poetry.” I know it sounds a lot like Dead Poets Society but I hated that movie but I think I really like it. I hated myself liking it. [laughter]
DN: That’s very well said.
AZ: But there is something about even jokes for example. When a kid learns to tell jokes, he learns everything he needs to know. It’s really hard to tell a joke. It is a story. It is fiction. You can analyze it. You have many different kinds of jokes. It’s really a beautiful process but at first, you just like the situation of someone telling a story and the reaction to that story, which is laughing. As a kid, you feel, “Okay, this is great. I’m going to say something, I’m going to tell the story and people will laugh.” Kids imitate that but they don’t really tell a joke. They tell a story and they expect a result, and people laugh about that effort. It’s really interesting, I mean stupid parents would say, “This is not a joke, this is not the proper way of telling a joke,” but normal people would react to that, so you told the story and people reacted laughing but it’s not a legitimate laugh. You get to understand that later, “They are not laughing the same way they laugh when my dad tells a joke.” There is a difference, so they start practicing and creating their own sense of humor. It’s so beautiful. There is this terrible moment when you learn that you cannot tell the same joke over and over to the same person, so you start playing with that form and maybe you create another joke or you work with style. It’s so many sophisticated things you learn by telling a joke, then you go to school and the teacher tells you, “Okay, you’re good at telling jokes. This is not important. We are going to study literature and poetry. Everything you know, it’s not important now because you’re going to start learning right now.” It’s terrible because by then, you really know many things and school is rejecting that knowledge, “This knowledge, what do I do with this?”.
DN: Let me connect this to something that I don’t think would be lost in translation but I think it’s different between Chile and the United States. For instance, I was just listening to a talk by Daniel Mendelsohn, the memoirist classicist in the United States who says that he thinks that the novel is still considered the pinnacle of literary achievement in the United States. It’s something he’s trying to dethrone, the novel, but he feels like that’s the form that gets the most respect in the US. But that’s not the case in Chile. I wanted to talk about that, maybe in relationship to humor but also overall too, because in your conversation with Daniel Alarcón, you said the following, “There’s a paradox. When I started writing prose, it was like a game; my poetry was very serious. Chile has a great tradition of poetry. Maybe I felt like I needed to write something transcendent. I enjoyed myself more when writing fiction, in part because I had less respect for it than for poetry,” and one of the great things that I love about your prose is the way you lovingly poke fun at your characters, and by extension, it feels like you’re poking fun at yourself and also the way you poke fun at the poetry community, and there’s just so much comedy and the many sex scenes in this book are incredibly funny, and also emotionally moving and they really deepen our sense of the characters. I guess I’m wondering, does that mean that we wouldn’t find comedy and sex in your poetry? [laughter] Because unlike the United States, poetry is the place of true writing in Chile?
AZ: That is the world I belong to. I write novels but many of my friends are poets and many of the most exciting, and meaningful experiences as a reader I have had are related to poetry, specifically to Chilean poetry. I feel that the community is related to me every time, I mean it’s not something I think. I’m always reading the poems my friends are writing. Even though I’ve been away from publishing poetry for a long while, they are generous enough to consider me a poet still. Even though I did this stupid thing of writing those. [laughter] I’m playing with that idea in the whole novel, Chilean Poet is a novel I think with characters that wouldn’t read that book. My characters don’t read novels, so they’re not going to read the book I wrote about them. This discussion between poetry and prose is interesting because it’s interesting to talk about soccer or music. It’s not that serious I think, although I do think there is a difference between poetry and novels or short stories. Related to time to use, the way you use poetry, it’s different than the way you use a novel. Long novels, longer than mine, the idea of reading a long novel, period, it’s like two weeks, like a whole month reading a novel, I love that experience. Maybe you are not going to reread that novel again but I really like that. I also like reading a novella, a short book that is a novel, it is longer than a short story. You know that you are going to go through it in one sitting, in one afternoon. It’s really a joyful feeling that you’re going to be there reading that book and you’re going to finish it. Poetry is more related to me to the sacred. I don’t know how to say but it’s related to religion in a very unreligious way. I don’t know how to say it. Maybe I can say it this way, for the last 25 years, there has been a book by Emily Dickinson and a book by César Vallejo and a book by Gonzalo Millán on one night stand. I know that I will never get to the sensation, I’m over it. I would never get to the sensation, “I read this.” I’m just reading them the same way other people are praying.
DN: It goes back to music and also to repeating because with a good song, you’re always returning to the song.
AZ: I’m not against the idea of defining literary genres, but it’s a game. Maybe we can get into that game if we focus on the idea of repetition, for example. A long novel probably doesn’t relates to repetition the same way a poem does, and the parallel with music is obviously very accurate because if you listen the new song by Caetano Veloso for the first time, this new song in the middle of it, in the middle of the first time you’re listening to it, you feel like, “I like this.” That means, “I’m going to listen to this over and over.” That sense of future repetition, it’s related to pleasure. It would be really stupid that someone would say, “Ah, I really like this song. I will never listen to it again because I already know I like this song, so I don’t need to.” [laughter] Music is related to repetition and you would get a sense of the lyrics and you would put on your headphones and you would experience it in a different way and you would obviously play with the drums and dance. This is really a good parallel I think, because the same thing happens with poetry. You read the poem by Emily Dickinson and you don’t really get to the sense that experience is going to be over. It’s there. For many people, literature is related to religion. Maybe we are atheists or we don’t really believe the way other people believe but there is something about poetry that is related to some idea of the sacred. I don’t really remember but do ask me something.
DN: Let me complicate it further because I love how you I think very provocatively confuse and break down the boundaries between genres. There are only a couple rare points in Chilean Poet when a first-person narrator appears. One of the times it goes, “Vicente is a Chilean poet and I am a Chilean novelist, and we Chilean novelists write novels about Chilean poets.” I wanted to take this into just some of the wonderful things you’ve written with regards to the novel and poetry. With Alarcón, you said that your community, as you’ve said, is largely the poetry community, that your friends, like your characters in this book, rarely read fiction and they see novels as an exaggeration. You quoted Chico Molina who said, “La novela es la poesía de los tontos.” “Novels are like poetry for idiots.” But in No Leer you say in contrast that good novels are closer to poetry than bad poems. I love that good novels are closer to poetry than bad poems. I also love from your essay on Bolaño’s poetry this following quote, which you start with talking about one of his characters from 2666, “Benno von Archimboldi thought that all poetry was or could be contained in a novel. Roberto Bolaño thought that the best poetry of the 20th Century had been written in the form of a novel. James Joyce’s Ulysses contains Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ulysses is better than Eliot’s The Waste Land, he said in an interview. In 2002, he published Antwerp, a book of poetry or something like a script for a book of poetry, or a script written after reading a book of poetry. In any case, he took the liberty of presenting it as a novel, or as he put it, ‘The only novel I’m not ashamed of maybe because it’s unintelligible.’” Later you say, “Bolaño’s work tells the story of a poet resigned to being a novelist. A poet who descends to prose in order to write poetry.” I just love that. I also am curious, I guess in light of that, about the actual poems that are in Chilean Poet. Are you simply dropping poems that you’ve written, Zambra-esque poems, or are you writing poems as Gonzalo and then putting them into the book? How does the poetry that we find in Chilean Poet, purportedly written by your characters but also written by a novelist who is a poet, is there the persona of character in the writing of these poems?
AZ: Writing those poems was my way of understanding those characters. It was more like, “Oh, I have to write his poems,” like an assignment. I wrote many poems. It was really interesting because it wasn’t my sense of poetry, and some of them are bad poems, well, that’s the risk. Some people would find that supposedly bad poems are good poems and supposedly good poems are bad poems, it’s part of the risk. It was like two weeks where I stopped writing the novel and I was like, “I want to write their poems, Vicente’s and Gonzalo’s poems, in order to get to know them.” There is this beautiful moment where characters are really beginning to be different than you and that distance is related to, I don’t know how to call it, let’s call it love, there is something about that distance that allows proximity. Obviously, every character, in the beginning has the hair of that person and the nose of the other person and says sentences that some of your friends used to say and you are always mixing and creating by mixing. But I thought that opportunity as very useful to get to know them. I wrote their poems and then I decided what poems I might use. It was obviously easier to play with the rhymes and in the beginning, the first poems Gonzalo writes are not good. I think they are not good, but readers have the right to like them. [laughs]
DN: But some of the poems, you’re writing with the intention of them being from a writer who isn’t writing good poetry.
AZ: Yeah. In Bolaño, you never get to read the poems they write, and I love that. But it was more like the Nabokov way. He does the opposite. You get to read the poem and get to interpretations and greetings. It’s another kind that gets into their minds. But something really weird happened because this poem, Garfield, the poem written by Gonzalo, which is supposedly the only poem he wrote that might be considered a good poem, but it’s a poem about cemeteries. It’s about the new cemeteries. I call them new cemeteries to those cemeteries that all of a sudden appeared in my country early in the 90s, Parque del Recuerdo, Parque del Sendero, all those cemeteries arrived in a way to Chile and they were different because as many cemeteries now in the world, they are more like golf courses and pain was like obliterated, pain wasn’t visible. Pain is obviously around, but kids are always happy to go to those places because they are like parks. Twenty-five years ago, I went to one of those cemeteries. I saw these graves with the toys. It’s like the most heartbreaking image, graves of kids. I was there and I went through the whole cemetery and I was looking at those graves and the toys and the teddy bears. It was really overwhelming and sad. I tried to write about that for a long time. That was an idea, an image that came to my mind and I was trying to write a poem about it and trying to get to something starting with that painful image. I was never able to. When I was writing this novel and I was trying to write Gonzalo’s poem, I remembered that same experience and I wrote the poem in four minutes.
AZ: I needed to be someone else in order to write that poem or maybe I needed Gonzalo for writing that poem. I wouldn’t say that poem is mine.
DN: Yeah, I love that.
AZ: I was living with him for a long while. I know this is a cliche but when you write a novel, you are living with those characters for a long time and you love them and you hate them and you understand them. Right in this poem, maybe it was too much, too much proximity. But I liked that idea, they would have visible work. Then I used this image, and obviously, I didn’t think about it that much, if I would have thought about it, maybe I wouldn’t have written it because I would have started dealing with the same feeling that stopped me when I was trying to write the poem directly. But with this character in between, I got to write it.
DN: That’s a great story. I want to spend a little bit of time with the American journalist Pru who you mentioned who comes and accidentally is writing a feature on the contemporary Chilean poetry scene, but like your own journalism, she’s not focusing on the most obvious people but the Grassroots Poetry community, the secondary characters, had all of their passions, insecurities, divisions, and successes, often these gatherings and parties of poets that have a lot of drama and a lot of comedy. It reminded me a lot of Bolaño’s characters who are philosophers and poets who are having these conversations within their own fields. Pru even says that some of the people she’s meeting are reminding her of Bolaño characters herself. But because I don’t know the poetry scene in Chile, I don’t know how many of these characters are based on real people that might be recognizable to a Chilean reader or how completely invented they are, but I feel a lot of love in the way you’re portraying them even when you’re making fun of them. Or maybe even sometimes when you’re making fun of them, I feel the love the most. I don’t know how you do this as a writer, but it somehow makes me feel like you somehow find a way to include yourself in the things you’re making fun of. Again, when you were writing about Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, you say, “Family Lexicon is in fact a family autobiography, a self-portrait in the corner of the painting with the small crowd of parents and siblings and friends and neighbors in the fore. The self that appears is never alone and always, rather than describing herself, wants to talk about others.” I felt that somehow there was some way in which you were performing a self-portrait in the corner of this family autobiography of Chilean poets. But one of the more pleasurable things about your writing overall is the way you create an art ecosystem in your books that’s generational through the way that you name music, which you do a lot, and you name books that characters are reading or debating. There’s this sense that we’re getting a biography of the generation and the characters at the same time. In this book, we get poets who write 1000-page books of poetry, poets who notice that there’s no right wing poets in Chile so they write poetic monologues in the voice of torturers, and then real poets who refused to publish during the 17 years of the dictatorship. Though, again, I’m not sure, maybe they’re all real poets. That’s what I don’t know and it’s interesting.
AZ: In a way they are real, but it’s like we said before, I’m mixing them up. It was really funny and at the same time interesting to me to create a sense of community. Almost all of them are invented, but some of them I thought it was stupid to invent them, like Nicanor Parra or Rosabetty Muñoz. I got to know them and I loved them. They were really generous. They are really generous with me. It wasn’t kind of how much, but at the same time, I didn’t want to create a character named Nicolas Parra instead of Nicanor Parra. Most of the poets are like two, three, four, or five poets into one character. I don’t know what a Chilean reader would exactly recognize. I can imagine that my fellows, well, most of the readers that read the manuscript were aware of this possibly, but it’s not a [inaudible], is that the word in English, that expression?
AZ: It’s not like hiding or playing with that exactly, it’s more like a community that I think it is very Chilean but I have been told that the same thing happens in other countries. This novel is a lot about national myths. One of the most important national myths we have in Chile is poetry. It’s hard to live really far away from a street called Pablo Neruda or Gabriela Mistral. You would ask people in Chile whether we have good poetry or not, I’m absolutely sure everyone would answer, “We have a great poetry,” even though they don’t like poetry and they don’t relate to poetry. They don’t even know what poetry is about. We all know that we have good poets and it’s a paradox, obviously. But it’s the only thing that we know that we won the World Cup prize, because of this Nobel Prize, and this whole culture of award-winning people. People would know that we are maybe good poets and you can feel proud about that even though you don’t get a sh*t about poetry. Many friends had this same stupid discussion with Argentinians. They’re not having Nobel Prizes. [laughter] After they beat us in soccer and they got drunk and they start talking about and making fun of the Chileans, “We won two Nobel Prizes and you don’t.” [laughter]
DN: I love that.
AZ: But it’s about national myths and how do you deal with them? In a way, when I was 14 years old or 15 years old and I wanted to become a poet, it was crazy but it didn’t seem that crazy to me because poets were around, and we heard about them and it was a world that wasn’t hidden. It was free. You had to pay for books. You have to go to a bookstore and if you want to read a novel, you have to pay for it. Books were and are very expensive in Chile. But poetry was more related to photocopies and to sharing and old books you would find and you would go to a library and get some books. You get to know people who also liked poetry and then a community started. That’s really beautiful about The Savage Detectives, the novel by Roberto Bolaño. I think when we read that novel, many of us were not reading novels and contemporary novels. I was reading classics and all poetry that interested me. I was interested in all poetry. The poem you just wrote in classics. But with prose, I was only interested in classics, but there was this exception with Roberto Bolaño, specifically with that novel that was so fun and that we felt so close to it. We shared the book and we hated our country. The only thing we liked about our country was poetry and we thought we were alone. There was this book that talked about people that we recognized even though we didn’t hear of them, we felt them really close. That created not a sense of a community, because the community already existed, I was like 23 or 24 years old when I read the novel in 1999. But I think it made us love our community, made us proud for belonging to that community. It is a special position, the position of the poet in Chilean society, that is weird. Now we have two newspapers in Chile, only two or maybe three, or maybe one and a half, I don’t know, but they don’t really have a cultural section, or maybe they do but it’s not like it was 10 years before. For example, three years ago, they stopped reviewing books. There were no literary critics anymore. From then on, they don’t review books. They have a cultural section but books are not included. But they could easily get to interview a poet. [laughs] They are not reviewing the book but they can interview the poet, and not about his or her books, it’s about the way they see life. It’s really interesting. Obviously, this is not something I have studied but I think like four times a year, you would find big interviews with different Chilean poets.
DN: I wonder if this goes back to religion, that these poets are like oracles.
AZ: Yeah. There’s something about that. I don’t know if this word exists in English, free thinker. It’s like a guy who sees the world from his own perspective. He is free to mix things up. His/her vision is not obvious. That is the idea of a poet in Chile. It’s related obviously to the cult of personality, which is something we’ve been dealing with for a long time with the idea that we have this superstar, Neruda was so famous and so important worldwide when he was young. Even when he was young, he was so important. There is this idea of this superstar. But we have the Nicanor Parra immediately like deconstructing Neruda’s way of being a poet and there was a way of writing poetry. It was like the yin and the yang. They created a system where everything was allowed. The formal limits of Chilean poetry do not exist. Obviously, there are good poems and bad poems, good poets and bad poets, but what do you understand by the word poem, it’s really avant-garde. Juan Luis Martínez, who is a great poet, you would read his books and you would ask yourself, “Why is this even considered poetry?” because it’s more like visual arts and obviously we accept that and we include that into poetry because what anti-poetry did was expand the limits, and obviously created long discussions, sometimes very hard discussions about the definition of poetry.
DN: You knew Nicanor Parra in real life and he’s a character in this book. Your invented poets spend time in his house at various points in the book. What was it like taking this iconic anti-poet who, in real life, you knew and putting him in this fictional world? What were your considerations around that?
AZ: With Nicanor Parra, it’s not that I wanted to put him in the novel. It was more like something that Pru would like to get to know him because of very professional reasons I would say. She had to know the new poets, not the old ones. But in a way, he was there, and why not? It’s obviously something journalists would want to go there and see what happens. Every journalist would know that it’s really hard to get to an interview with Nicanor that was always refusing interviews and sometimes playing the game that is played in the novel; accepting the interview but when you got there, he was reluctant and he was like, “Oh, please no recording.” That is a situation I witnessed many times because I used to work with him. I was really lucky. Long ago he translated King Lear into Chilean-Spanish, it’s a very, very good translation because he plays with the different levels of the language in King Lear. This writing for the scene, this writing that ideally would entertain all sorts of sensibilities and that would have many, many layers. Nicanor Parra translated it long ago. I think it was 1990, 1991. Then he refused to publish that translation. He had many offers but he didn’t want to publish it. He was like, “I will never publish this.” But there was this publisher who insisted and he accepted to finally, many years later, publish his translation. This editor, Matías Rivas, this publisher, and Nicanor decided that they needed an editor, and I don’t know the word in English, it’s not the same word but he needed someone to work with him with this manuscript and to make final decisions and it was a long work. I was lucky enough to be around. Nicanor wanted someone like me and we started working together. It was a long work and I learned many things. I don’t know whether they were related to literature. I think it was more like learning about life. He was one of my idols and one of my favorite poets. I was just discussing his poetry too. It’s not that I was obedient because it’s really impressive what Nicanor Parra does. I’m afraid he’s not really very well edited now in the USA because translations were published long ago. I hope that they will be reprinted, they will reprint them soon because it’s really amazing what happens when you read Nicanor Parra for the first time and you like poetry and you have the Nerudian imaginary or any other, like writing poems for your boyfriend or your girlfriend and you realize it’s also considered poetry even though it is called antipoetry, it impresses you. I think that still happens. When I was a teacher, for example, I had these classes where nobody would really have chosen to be there. You started like economics or administration. You are not related to poetry but you have to. You have to fill the credit so you take this class and I was the teacher. It was like for people who work the whole day so it was like 8:30 PM and I was there talking to them about poetry. [laughter] It wasn’t the best situation for a learning process but it was really interesting to get their reactions about Nicanor Parra’s poetry, and they didn’t like poetry but some of them were even amazed, some of them really hated that and they were really mad at that, the mere idea that was considered something we should study. Like, “This is not poetry.” I thought, “Well, 50 years later, this is still–” The artifacts that Nicanor Parra wrote and the way he chose to distract poetry was creating this one or two line poems that we would read now and we would identify easily as tweets, or these artifacts that work like memes, but this was done early in the 70s. It’s their artifacts which is a book of postcards. Formally, they are memes written 40 years earlier. He was thinking about poetry and dealing with the idea of poetry and with the position of poetry, which is something really important and interesting because he wasn’t like, I don’t know how to say this, but he wanted to speak to everyone. The minority, the idea of poetry as something that people reject and ignore, he was fighting against that idea. It’s really interesting the way he managed to create poetry that could imply you and that could change you. When I was a teenager, I was laughing. Maybe you don’t expect to laugh when you read a poem. Maybe you are looking for something else, so you liked it and at the same time, you distrust it and there’s this debate that is still going on about seriousness and poetry. Many people would still say that this is not poetry. I think that is a way of winning the people. People are still discussing your work, that means a lot.
DN: I feel like we can’t end this conversation until we talk about the cat, which of course is taking this off in a very random different direction, but who knows? Maybe not. But there’s a cat on the cover. A cat with fangs who reminds me of Bulgakov’s character in The Master and Margarita.
AZ: What was the name of the cat?
DN: I think it was Behemoth, wasn’t it? Was it? Or maybe. I think in English it’s Behemoth.
AZ: Behemoth in English, yeah. I wonder what’s his name in Spanish.
DN: Maybe it is what you remember. In a way I feel like it’s the opportunity for Vicente the stepson to be a father himself. Maybe he’s the stepfather to the cat. But there’s this theme of lying in the book that I’m curious about, I guess, around the cat too, because both Carla and Gonzalo are not really telling Vicente what’s true about the cat’s health partially because of economics. But Vicente is distrustful in a larger way. There’s this question around Santa Claus and how Vicente is concerned that all the adults have gotten together to agree to lie to children about Santa Claus and he’s been reassured that that’s not the case. Then there’s Gonzalo who’s lying to Carla about which poems are his. He hands her poems written by other people which she really likes. [laughs] She’s not a big poetry fan but she’s particularly not a big fan of most of Gonzalo’s poetry. But I’m curious about the cat who’s not really a secondary character, maybe a tertiary character. Why does the cat end up on the cover? What is the cat? The cat means something. I’m not asking you to reduce it to a meaning, but I guess speak to us about the cat a little bit.
AZ: I have a short answer that maybe should be the only answer. The cat is really cute. [laughter] The only 100% autobiographical thing of this novel is this cat named Oscuridad in Spanish, darkness in English. I am really into cats. I obviously cannot explain exactly why, but maybe it’s what we all have seen, like these domestic animals that are not fully domesticated, that are really different. Each of them is a whole world and you don’t get to know whether they trust you or not. As Borges said in this beautiful poem, it’s like you curse them, they are accepting that and making you a favor. They are sophisticated and wild and at the same time are there. Sometimes they seem to love you and sometimes they seem to hate you. It’s really like dealing with life. You can learn a lot by watching them. The same with kids, with toddlers, and newborns. It’s like they are teaching you many things when you are supposed to be taking care of them. Parents always like their kids to be dogs but they are cats. [laughter] They are wild and passionate and inscrutable as we all are. We all are inscrutable. When you see yourself this close, you know that you are really complex and really stupid at the same time. [laughter] I think it’s related to cat because I was a teacher of a very, very interesting class about literature and cats. It was really, really a great experience because they are like, obviously, natural characters for mystery but also for tenderness. There are many, many, many great little to great poetry, great novels and great short stories about cats. It was really something I would like to do again and I would like people to do because it’s liberating. You can talk about many kinds of literature and at the same time, it seems like you’re always talking about cats, everybody has experiences. [laughter] I loved that class because I had these three students that were cat haters. That was really interesting. It’s like 20 people, 17 were cat lovers and 3 of them were dog lovers and cat haters. The discussions were really, really sophisticated and interesting. [laughs]
DN: I want to take the class the next time you teach it. Did you teach Colette’s book The Cat?
DN: You did?
AZ: It’s amazing. Yeah. I distrust the idea of topics in literature and that’s what that piece you just read free topic is about. But having said that, it’s really good to use the idea of the topic to teach literature. In that way, that class about cats was great because I had this excuse, but we got to really talk about what writing and reading is about. We really enjoyed it. The other day I was talking with my wife who was a big fan of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the book by T. S. Eliot because she came across the Cats musical. She liked it and she got the book in English. She was really, I don’t know, 11 years old or something. I love the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and learned some poems by heart. She said to herself, “I really like this guy, T.S. Eliot. I’m going to order another book by him,” and it was the Four Quartets, The Waste Land. [laughter] Maybe that’s why she became a writer, who knows?
DN: Yeah, I love that. [laughter] To end where we began, I want to return to Kate Briggs who said in the Believer, “What continues for me is this desire for the novel—what Barthes calls the long form, the longest form. There is something about the length, and so therefore also about the duration of engagement, and the way this reading time has to be interrupted with, and kind of extended by, life—because a long form can’t be read all at once—which fascinates me. It has always fascinated me, I think. In Not to Read Alejandro Zambra has a piece called ‘Festival of the Long Novel’, describing a project for a literary festival which never happened. But I wish it would—I would love more than anything to sit with other readers and practitioners of the longest form and try to work this fascination out…” I guess thinking of your attempt to create a festival of the long novel, especially as a novelist who himself is known for your short, even sometimes miniature novels; and also thinking how this novel—I don’t think this novel could be called a long novel by most standards but it’s long for you, it’s definitely your longest novel—is that what we can expect from you in the future? Your, as of yet, fantastical long novel, is that what’s coming next?
AZ: [laughs] Actually, I’m writing a novel about that but I don’t know whether it is a short novel or a long novel. I don’t care about that, but I get what it means as a reader to face, to know a long novel. That’s what I’m writing about. It’s a novel I wrote in English. You can imagine how bad it is, the original, because I was living in New York and I came across this idea and I decided to write in English for the same reasons that if you would go to a place, you can start a diary in that language and you would really get to something but not necessarily what I was supposed to get, it was bad writing. It was so funny. As an exercise, it’s very good in workshops to write something in a language you don’t really know or to use 10 words for creating something, and the only thing allowed is to combine those words. I loved all those exercises all my life. But in this case, I was living in New York and I decided to write in English and to write. Obviously, the result was going to be bad but my idea was to try to make it good. [laughter] It was like a contradiction. But at the same time, I decided not to use the dictionary. That was a rule I was playing with. Sometimes, if I didn’t know the word door, the character should get out using the window. [laughter] Some parts of those movements stayed in the original, which is something nobody is going to read ever. It’s really bad writing, but I did write. But what I’m doing now is translating it into Spanish and it’s really funny because sometimes, one page in English is 10 pages in Spanish. Sometimes, two pages in English is one sentence in Spanish because I was dealing with it like it was a game, but obviously I like that. Writing and publishing, to me, are two totally different things. I would always want writing to be a game. I don’t want to be a professional. I’m supposed to be one but I would never publish a book I feel obligated to. A lot of my writing is about failing and drafting. I really like that and I think this is the way you get to something that later you can turn into a book and publish it. Obviously, that is a decision. But with this book, I think I’m right in the moment where I can say that I’m going to publish it someday or I want it to be related to readers. I don’t know whether this is going to be longer or not, and it’s not going to be a long novel but it is about a long novel, the book itself.
DN: You’ve said that publishing a book contrary to what most people say is not like giving birth to a baby, but more like when your kid leaves home.
AZ: Yeah, I think so.
DN: I feel like I can speak for a lot of people, that we’re grateful that your kid has arrived in the United States. I also think it’s your best book child yet.
AZ: Thank you.
DN: I wanted to thank you for being on the show, Alejandro.
AZ: Thank you for having me. I had to say that I have never given birth, so I was just using the metaphor. [laughter] But I do think that you stay with a kid for years and then they leave and you want them to be fine and to have generous readers like you, so I’m grateful. Thank you for this conversation. Sorry for my English. You can be sure I’m smarter or less stupid in Spanish. [laughter] But thank you. It’s been really nice and great talking to you. Some of the things you said are going to stay with me because I really felt that something was going on when you [inaudible] What I mean is that it’s been a pleasure.
DN: For me as well. We’ve been talking today to Alejandro Zambra about his latest book, Chilean Poet, translated by Megan McDowell. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations just like this by joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters. You can find out more about all the potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter, from rare collectibles to bonus audio, to the Tin House early readership program at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. For today’s bonus audio, we have a long form interview with Zambra’s career spanning translator, Megan McDowell, which joins conversations with Jenny Erpenbeck’s translator Kurt Beals, with Fernanda Melchor’s translator, Sophie Hughes, with Abdellah Taïa’s translator Emma Ramadan, and Dubravka Ugrešić’s translator Ellen Elias-Bursać among many others. Again, you can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.