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Winter Reading: 4 Essential Chilean Novels

Winter has arrived in Santiago and the freezing temperatures are making us more inclined to stay in bed under a thick duvet with a good book rather than head into the Andes for a trek. To get you started, we’ve assembled a list of the essential works in the history of Chilean literature. From a short, light-hearted comedy to the dark depths of the mind of a tormented author, there’s something here for every taste, and enough pages to get through the lethargic winter days.

Antonio Skármeta, The Postman (El cartero de Neruda)
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Mention Chilean literature and the first thing you’ll think of is probably Neruda. While we’ve restricted ourselves to novels and therefore had to exclude Neruda’s wonderful poetry from this list, we can’t escape the long shadow Neruda casts on the Chilean literary landscape, as many writers take inspiration from their native country’s most beloved poet, and incorporate him more or less explicitly into their own work. Witness, for example, Ampuero’s The Neruda Case (El Caso Neruda) and Donoso’s La desesperanza, but none of the novels that Neruda’s near-legendary character has spawned is more popular and enduring than Skármeta’s The Postman.

This short novel relates the friendship between Neruda and Mario, a young, simple postman who delivers letters to Neruda’s residence at Isla Negra. Mario falls in love with Beatriz, and with the help of Neruda, seduces her with the formidable weapon that is “the metaphor”. Although the characters live in a peaceful and remote bay that seems to be scarcely touched by time, their fortunes are increasingly bound up with the polarizing politics of 70s that threatens to engulf the entire country, and destroy Mario’s love and friendship.

The book was made into a film in 1994, Il Postino, but here the setting is transported to Italy and the characters speak Italian. Il Postino proved to be a success and was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and won one for Best Original Score. A celebration of the power of poetry as a voice of our deepest desires, a book itself is a quick, easy read with plenty of laughs in between, though events take a darker turn towards the end, as a result of the military coup, which is a recurring theme in Chilean literature in both the Pinochet and post-Pinochet era.

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus)
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Allende ranks as one of the most internationally read and acclaimed living Latin American writers, whose work has helped cement, for better or for worse, a brand of magical realism often associated with South American writing. A relative of Salvador Allende, she was profoundly affected by the 1973 military coup, and as one would expect, her first and most important novel, The House of the Spirits, was an exploration of the history of 20th-century Chile.

Allende’s novel is in many ways a feminine answer to that other great Latin American novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is an epic that traces the history of a family which parallels the upheavals experienced by their country, and its use of magical realist elements strongly echoes García Márquez’s classic. The family that takes centre stage here is the Truebas, members of the land-owning elite that has long made up the Chilean political establishment. The patriarch Esteban, however, contrasts with his wife Clara and his daughter Blanca, who, in their own ways, pose challenges to the traditional order. Clara believes that she has supernatural powers, while Blanca falls in love with a communist. The tensions within the family are at once clashes between universal forces such as anger and forgiveness, as well as confrontations between social forces historically at work in Chile. The novel thus provides a window onto the turbulent history of Chile while it explores the timeless themes of literature that underlie these events, which explains the universal appeal that it has had for readers worldwide.

José Donoso, The Obscene Bird of Night (El obsceno pájaro de la noche)
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The fate of this brilliant novel by perhaps the most accomplished of all Chilean novelists is a case study in the arbitrariness of fame. Published in 1970, when the so-called Latin American ‘Boom’ - a term coined by Donoso himself - in literature is at its climax, The Obscene Bird of Night is largely overlooked internationally, in comparison to the works of Mario Vargas Llosa and García Marquez, because it didn't receive the Premio Biblioteca Breve - the most prestigious literary award in the Hispanic world - due to the breakup of the Seix Barral publishing house that year. But such neglect is unjustified. This dark, twisted masterpiece deserves your attention as one of the best novels to have come out of the Boom.

Borrowing and reworking the Chilote myth of the Imbunche, Donoso creates multiple highly unstable worlds within the pages of this sprawling novel. Humberto Peñaloza is a deaf-mute assistant in a home for old women, but neither he nor the frail octogenarians are as innocent as they seem. Humberto used to be the manager of a vast precinct inhabited by deformed people. Boy, the deformed son of a billionaire, grows up imprisoned in this artificial environment and is made to believe that he is normal, since he never sees a non-deformed person. But what has caused Humberto’s banishment from one enclosed world to the next? Should we even trust what Humberto, a failed writer, tells us? Nothing in the novel is what it seems, everything hides a more sinister side that subverts our understanding of the novel’s reality at every turn. Full of claustrophobic, nightmarish spaces populated by maimed dolls and grotesque mummies, it is the magnum opus of a tormented imagination, so as mind-blowing and original as it is, be warned before you pick it up.

Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives (Los detectives salvajes)
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Bolaño is the most venerated writer in Chile of the present generation. The writer himself, however, died at the age of 50 in 2003 and his posthumous fame has largely passed him by. He was a prolific writer but a lot of his writings were published only after they were discovered in the notes he left behind, including the mammoth 2066. As the final, and perhaps the most difficult, book of this list, we selected The Savage Detectives, the novel that made Bolaño’s name.

In a sense, The Savage Detectives is the least Chilean of the four novels presented here. Indeed, none of the events take place in Chile, with much of the action centering around Mexico City, Europe and even Africa. However, this apparent detachment from Chile reflects a deeply painful Chilean experience - the exile of many Chilean intellectuals during Pinochet’s dictatorship. In the novel, we follow the exploits of Arturo Belano, the thinly veiled alter-ego of Bolaño himself, who leads a precarious life in Mexico City, accompanied by fellow bohemian Ulises Lima, the two arguing endleslly over literature and ideologies. Subsequently, Arturo becomes an exile of the country to which he has been exiled, wandering without aim or hope through cities of Europe and Africa, his literary ambitions in tatters and the literary movement he has founded all but disbanded. His life crisscrosses with those of a large cast of characters, who, through their narrations, obliquely throw light on the failure of Arturo and Ulises. All the while, we are nagged by the secret of Cesárea Tinajero, an obscure poet whom Arturo and Ulises are set on trying to unearth. What has Tinajero written that so attracted these two savage detectives? Did they succeed in finding her in the deserts of northern Mexico in 1976? And did this quest push them into their thirty years of wandering? Bolaño withholds the answer until almost the end, but when the key to the riddle is revealed, a question that haunts the entire generation of Chilean intellectuals is put in its place: has all this been all one meaningless exercise?

Chilean literature is rich and varied, and we cannot do justice to it with such a short list. Especially distingushed are the Chilean poets of the 20th century: Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Nicanor Parra etc. Who are your favourite Chilean writers? Which novels do you think we should have included in this list? Tell us by leaving a comment below!