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Readers of the World: Chile

Written by The Reader, 3rd February 2012

We're off on a trip once more - although there's no need to pack your bags - as we resume our journey of literature around the globe and find our Readers of the World.

Two weeks ago, we found out all about Nigerian literature; this time, as the climate gets considerably chilly at home we're diverting to an altogether different kind - that is, the South American republic of Chile (please excuse the terrible pun...). Our tour guide is former Communications intern Mike Butler (who previously showed us around the literary delights of Iraq), who examines two of Chile's finest writers...

‘We were going to be perfect, we were going to be brave, we were going to be beautiful’ – Jorge Guzman

If September 11th 2001 signalled the end of the 1990s, when the end of history had been declared and we were set to live under the aegis of a prosperous and triumphant liberal democratic system, then, as Christopher Hitchens observes, September 11th 1973 could be seen as the day when the curtain fell on the optimism and idealism of the 1960s. This was the date of the Chilean military coup led by Augusto Pinochet and backed by the White House administration of Nixon and Kissinger, which saw the bombing of the Presidential palace in Santiago and led to the death of the socialist-leaning President Salvador Allende; the rule of the ensuing military dictatorship would last until 1990.

Pablo Neruda, the most famous Spanish-language poet of the twentieth century, died twelve days later in unrelated circumstances. (The celebrated theatre director and folk singer Victor Jara was imprisoned, tortured and killed in what might be called ‘related circumstances’.) Neruda is best known for his early collection Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair, a series of sensuous and melancholic poems whose imagery draws heavily on the nature and wildlife of southern Chile. He was a member of the Chilean Communist Party and was a close associate of Allende, and his political awareness is displayed in poems such as The United Fruit Co. (the identification of whose corrupting influence in Latin America presaged that company’s role in the US-sponsored anti-socialist coup in Guatemala in 1954) and They Receive Instructions against Chile (‘they decide from above, from the roll of dollars, / … / and the trunk of the tree of the country rots’). Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, joining his compatriot Gabriela Mistral, who became the first Latin American writer to win the prize in 1945.

‘Paul Celan shall rise from his ashes in the year 2113. André Breton shall return through mirrors in the year 2071. Max Jacob shall cease to be read, that is to say his last reader shall die, in the year 2059.’  If you enjoyed reading that sentence, from his 1999 novella Amulet, then you’ll probably enjoy the rest of Roberto Bolano’s oeuvre, most of which has been translated into English only since his death in 2003. He left Chile for Mexico at the age of fifteen and returned in August 1973 ‘to help build socialism’, although this ambition was soon thwarted by the circumstances outlined above. He was briefly imprisoned following the coup and left Chile for good soon after, although his work is haunted by the events of that year and the brutality of the subsequent junta and dictatorship.

Most of his stories and novels are about fictional or fictionalised poets and writers, although they express ambivalence and suspicion about literary writing: Nazi Literature in the Americas is a series of fictional biographies of Fascist or Fascist-sympathising writers; The Savage Detectives is centred on a pair of poets, including one 'Arturo Belano’, whose work is largely forgotten. Bolano’s own writing has an unmannered and inconclusive style that brilliantly captures the messiness and disorder of real life; avoiding the imposition of any kind of false order or lyrical grandiosity and disregarding conventional narrative authority and clarity, it could be described as a kind of anti-fascist aesthetic.

Neruda also had a certain distrust of literature and books: ‘I am a man of bread and fish / and you won’t find me among books’, he writes in Such is my life, following Wordsworth and Whitman in giving an apparently self-negating precedence to direct experience over words on a page. In a similar vein, he writes that ‘poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all, by scholars and by peasants, by all our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of humanity.’ Neruda and Bolano seem to offer differing views on the importance of writing: for Neruda, ‘the poet of my people’, who read his work to a stadium of 70,000 of his compatriots after collecting his Nobel Prize, poetry is a vital part of the life of a society that should transcend books and learning; for Bolano, poets are frustrated outsiders who squabble amongst themselves and leave little of value behind. Either way, it’s hard not to be swayed by Neruda when he says that ‘the poet gives us a gallery full of ghosts shaken by the fire and darkness of his time’ – and there was certainly enough fire and darkness to keep Latin American poets well occupied during the twentieth century.

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