Why you should care
Because these books are harsh, violent, powerful and passionate.
No one knows wily rulers like Chilean novelists. They lived through Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and endured its aftermath. “If you’re writing today in Chile, even if you don’t mention the dictatorship, you’re situating yourself in relation to it. It’s always there,” says Megan McDowell, a prolific translator of contemporary Chilean literature.
But dictatorship is the last thing many contemporary Chilean writers want to talk about. Lina Meruane, for example, finds Pinochet-centered lit “a little repetitive, a little commodified.” Still, it’s there in the pages of the following books as they explore what it means to live in a world ruled by a single, wildly unreasonable man, and how we rebel, inside and out.
Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra
(2006, translated from the Spanish by Carolina de Robertis, 2008)
Alejandro Zambra “marked a generation with his portrayals of growing up under dictatorship,” McDowell says. Like its namesake, Bonsai is diminutive in size but, upon closer inspection, expands into a complex and complete world of its own. In sentences that move quicksilver-fast, Zambra tells the story of two young bookish lovers, Julio and Emilia, growing up and growing apart. The protagonists charm the reader as they charm each other. There’s also some fun meta-play throughout as Julio works on his own book, also titled Bonsai.
E. Luminata, by Diamela Eltit
(1983, translated from the Spanish by Ronald Christ, 1997)
Diamela Eltit’s debut, written during the dictatorship, remains her most widely lauded novel. There is a sense throughout of being watched, with the story taking place in a public square illuminated by neon lights. The events we experience at female protagonist E. Luminata’s side — everything from a baptism to a film screening — don’t exactly come together into a story, but they are compelling enough to keep us hooked. Eltit’s appreciation for baroque theater is apparent in the novel’s pervading sense of nightmare, the urgency reminiscent of Catholic piety. Her prose, which can be cryptic in the English translation, surprises like never-before-seen special effects.
The Absent Sea, by Carlos Franz
(2005, translated from the Spanish by Leland H. Chambers, 2011)
Blending myth and history into a powerful political statement, Carlos Franz tells the story of two strong women: a young judge forced into exile during the Pinochet regime, and her daughter, who struggles to understand her mother’s choices. Lauded by Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa and Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes, The Absent Sea is a meditation on the conflicting emotions that appear in the midst of extreme political violence — and the gulf that can exist between generations. It’s a book that explores both the atrocities of the Pinochet regime and the struggles of the people growing up in its aftermath.
Seeing Red, by Lina Meruane
(2012, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2016)
In a world where the weak manipulate the strong, the narrator of Seeing Red deals with the bureaucratic challenges of (upper-class) immigration to the U.S. while also grappling with a blinding illness. Like many contemporary Chilean novels, Seeing Red is a work of autofiction (a blend of autobiography and fiction). Lina Meruane struggled with blindness after moving to New York for doctoral work, and her protagonist bears her name. In her exploration of the sociopolitical violence of both the U.S. and Chile, Meruane uses prose that is in every way red: harsh, violent, powerful and passionate.
One of the greatest challenges plaguing Chilean writers today, Meruane says, are “market obstacles” — and that’s especially true for female writers. “For a Chilean woman writer,” she says, “it’s almost a miracle to get a book translated in the U.S.” McDowell agrees, noting that “there are many great contemporary female writers in Chile [who have] to achieve a lot more in order to gain recognition.” Hope may be found abroad, where escape from the small Chilean literary scene could allow women to be taken — and to take themselves — more seriously.