A country is often best known through the works of its writers, since they are the ones who have watched it most closely, know how it ticks, and can see both its victories and its shortcomings in equal measure. Writers tend to be at a remove, one step to the side, and it’s from there that you get the most incisive observations. They’re also pretty handy with descriptions, by and large.
What follows is not a definitive list of those who have most acutely given Chile a voice, it’s not a countdown or a best of. Today being what it is, following are some books that have been known to open a door to this country, or hold up a mirror to it, or lay all its meat out on the table, as it were, and have us come inspect it. They’re in conversation with each other, not in competition.
Libro de Preguntas (The Book of Questions) – Pablo Neruda
To include him is maybe a little trite, but not to would be a far bigger sin. Arguably Chile’s most famous son, he was also one of its most prolific. His love poems – both to the country itself and several of its daughters – are grand, solemn things, and to read his Odes to Common Things is nothing less than to watch a master at work, utterly in control. But let’s go with The Book of Questions, which is the kind of work that makes other writers jealous. Fed by the landscape of Chile, its infiniteness, its possibilities, it is the work of a singular imagination, one that nonetheless couldn’t have come from anywhere else. Why did I decide to migrate / if my bones live in Chile? Why indeed, Pablo.
Adiós, Mariquita Linda (Goodbye, Pretty Mariquita) – Pedro Lemebel
Queer artist and writer Pedro Lemebel spoke from the margins of society in many ways himself, but perhaps one of his most significant achievements was allowing his characters – some fictional, some real, some a mixture of the two – to speak to and of their country too. In Adios, Mariquita Linda, Lemebel’s chronicles encounters with such outcasts, be they socially, sexually, or politically so. The writing is often baroque and poetic, and so much the better for it; even so, the author includes a handy glossary of chilenismos at the back to lighten the reader’s load.
Sangre en el Ojo (Seeing Red) – Lina Meruane
Quite rightly afforded considerable international attention, it is the cosmopolitan nature of the book that sets this apart from so much Chilean fiction: here is a character who is losing her sight, but this is not an exclusively inward-looking book. It is the work of a woman and of a character determined to confront the world, not be hemmed in by it. There is a similar rebellion in its style – Meruane knows how to make space, dangling sentence fragments like overt challenges to the intellect of her readers. It’s up to us to rise to the occasion.
Formas de Volver a Casa (Ways of Going Home) – Alejandro Zambra
If you must read a novel about the dictatorship (and yes, you must), let this at least make your shortlist. It is both an easy and a difficult read – minimalist in style but most certainly not a cakewalk: it is meta-fictional, an author telling a story about an author telling a story. Don’t let this be off-putting. Zambra is a graceful writer, and the broader questions of memory, reliability, and truth are given a treatment that does not exclude the non-literary of us. The novel as a modern form has taken something of a bashing of late; here is Exhibit A for the defense.
Poesia de la Tierra (Poetry of the Earth), a Trilingual Anthology – ed. Jaime Luís Huenún Villa
A doubly rare thing, this: a book of poetry originally in Mapudungun, and a book of poetry originally in Mapudungun in simultaneous translation in Spanish and English. Its inclusion here is not a token – there is some damn good poetry being written in one of Chile’s first languages, and this is a book that recognizes that it is not just Chile, but the world, that is the worse for not knowing it. Of course there are poems that deal with the considerable lot of the Mapuche, and well there should be, but this is far from an exercise in victimhood. It is a stretching of the muscles of a singular language, and the distinct voices that use it.
David Nash is a poet from Ireland, and lives between Ireland and Chile. He also writes for Harper’s Bazaar and the Irish Times.