Guide to Chilean literature

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Reading the local literature before you go is a good way to get a greater understanding of a destination. This excerpt from Lonely Planet’s guide to Chile takes you through the highlights.

Twentieth-century Chile has produced many of Latin America’s most celebrated writers, and two names stand head and shoulders above the rest: Nobel Prize–winning poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral are both giants of world literature.

Selected Poems of Gabriela MistralMistral (born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga; 1889–1957) was a shy young rural schoolmistress who won great acclaim for her compassionate, reflective and mystical poetry. When Mistral taught in Temuco, the young Neruda worshipped her. She became South America’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1945. Unfortunately, her work is not as easily translated as Neruda’s, but try Ursula K. Le Guin's Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.

The Heights of Macchu PicchuUnderstand the life and work of Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, better known by his adopted name Pablo Neruda (1904–73), and you’re well on the way to understanding Chile. His often combative, frequently sentimental, sometimes surreal and always provocative poetry offers a path straight into his country’s soul, while his own life story has played an intimate part in Chile’s recent history. Born in a provincial town in Maule and schooled in Temuco, he devised his famous alias fearing that his blue-collar family would mock his ambition. He was soon awarded a diplomatic post after enjoying early literary success, and his subsequent travels brought him international celebrity. Despite his leftist beliefs the poet led a flamboyant life and developed a taste for the ostentatious; he built gloriously outlandish homes in Santiago, Valparaíso and Isla Negra, each decorated with evermore quirky belongings. He named his most famous house, La Chascona, after his third wife Matilde Urrutia’s perpetually tangled shock of hair. Neruda always wore his political opinions on his sleeve. Canto GeneralHe helped political refugees flee after the Spanish Civil War and officially joined the Communist Party once back in Chile, where he was elected senator for Tarapacá and Antofagasta. After Neruda helped Gabriel González Videla secure the presidency in 1946, the capricious president promptly outlawed the Communist Party. Neruda was driven into exile, forced to escape on foot and horseback over the southern Andes to Argentina. Neruda resumed his political career once González Videla had stepped down, all the while continuing to churn out his poetry. A presidential candidate in 1969, he pulled out of the race in support of Salvador Allende. He became Allende’s ambassador to France for two years, and it was during this time that he received his Nobel Prize, becoming only the third Latin American writer to win the award. Soon afterward he returned to Chile with failing health. But he enjoyed no quiet retirement as pressure mounted on Allende’s presidency. Passions and ImpressionMere days after the 1973 coup, Neruda died of cancer and a broken heart. His will left everything to the Chilean people through a foundation. The power of Neruda’s political poems was feared by Pinochet’s regime, which set about trying to wipe out his memory. His homes were sacked and vandalized. However, his widow Matilde lovingly restored them, and they are now open to the public. Much of Neruda’s own work is available in English translation, such as Heights of Macchu Picchu, Canto General and Passions and Impressions.

AntipoemsMistral’s contemporary Vicente Huidobro (1893–1948) never achieved the same level of acclaim but is studied in Chile’s classrooms as one of the founders of modern Spanish-language poetry, represented in the works Altazor, Poemas Árticos and Ecuatorial. Nicanor Parra (b 1914), part of the famous Parra musical dynasty, drew Nobel Prize attention for his hugely influential and colloquial ‘antipoetry.’ De Hojas de Parra and Poemas y antipoemas are his most well known. Jorge Teillier (1935–96), a bohemian character quick to the bottle, wrote poetry of teenage angst and solitude, which has been translated into English. Chile’s fragile social facades were explored by José Donoso (1924–96). His celebrated novel Curfew offers a portrait of life under the dictatorship through the eyes of a returned exile, while Coronación, made into a hit film, follows the fall of a dynasty.

My Invented CountryChile’s most famous contemporary literary export is Isabel Allende (b 1942), niece of the late president Salvador Allende. She wove ‘magical realism’ into captivating – and best-selling – stories with Chilean historic reference, such as House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia. My Invented Country (2004) is also a fascinating insight not only into perceptions of Chile, but also into Allende herself.

Death and the MaidenAriel Dorfman (b 1942), who divides his time between Chile and the US, is another huge presence on the literary scene: critic, novelist, playwright, travel writer and human rights activist. His play La Negra Ester, an adaptation of a poem by Chilean musician and writer Roberto Parra Sandoval, is one of the country’s most beloved plays, while Death and the Maiden was made into an internationally successful movie, set after the fall of a South American dictator.

Novelist Antonio Skármeta (b 1940) wrote of the early postcoup years in I Dreamt the Snow Was Burning, but he has become famous for Burning Patience, inspired by Neruda and adapted into the award-winning film Il Postino (The Postman).

The Man Who Read Love StoriesLuis Sepúlveda (b 1949) is one of Chile’s most prolific writers, with such books as The Name of the Bullfighter, a tough stylish noir set in Germany and Chile with loads of political intrigue involving Nazi gold and interesting perspectives on exile; and the novella The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, a fictional account of life and society on Ecuador’s Amazonian frontier.

My Tender MatadorFor a lighter romp through Chile, Roberto Ampuero (b 1953) writes mystery novels, such as El Alemán de Atacama, whose main character is a Valparaíso-based Cuban detective. Groundbreaking authors of the last decade include Marcela Serrano (b 1951) who, alongside Allende, is considered to be one of the best Latina authors around, with works such as Antigua Vida Mia, Nosotras Que Nos Queremos Tanto and Lo Que Está en Mi Corazón, all of which focus on women’s issues. A writer who tackles homosexuality, transgender issues and other controversial subjects with top-notch shock value that has some Chileans applauding is Pedro Lemebel (b 1950). His novel Tengo Miedo Torero (My Tender Matador) was selected as Chile’s ‘novel of the year’ for 2001.

Bad VibesYounger writers developing a style far from the ‘magical realism’ that brought Latin literature to the international scene include Alberto Fuguet (b 1964), whose novella Sobredosis (Overdose) and tale of drug addiction Mala Onda (Bad Vibes) have earned acclaim and scowls; the latter has been translated to English. There are scores of other contemporary talents, but keep a special eye out for the erotic narratives of Andrea Maturana, up-and-coming novelist Carlos Franz and Gonzalo Contreras.

More cultural highlights can be found in the Lonely Planet guide to Chile