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Book Review :: Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra

Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra book cover image

Guest Post by Colm McKenna

Alejandro Zambra’s most recent novel, Chilean Poet, follows budding poet Gonzalo through his adolescence, followed by a fortuitous meeting with his first love Carla, and the family they start together with her six-year-old son Vincente.

It’s a story about poetry and poets in Chile, where it is los sueños de los niños – a child’s dream – to become a poet. It’s also a commentary on family. Gonzalo delves into the Spanish for stepfather – padastro – and is upset by the negative connotations the -astro suffix carries. Though language fails us sometimes, Gonzalo develops a relationship with Vincente that is unrestricted by dictionary definitions.

Chilean Poet is realistic and experimental: Gonzalo and Carla separate, his relationship with Vincente fades. After the separation, the narrative follows Vincente through his teenage years, combating similar issues his father had dealt with. One of his lovers becomes the protagonist, before being abandoned by the narrator upon boarding her flight home. The storytelling is erratic, despite its traditional bildungsroman form. It correlates well with lived experience; years flash by in seconds, people come and go, dreams and expectations are rarely satisfied in full.

Zambra has crafted a glorious story, full of literary references and astute observations on family and growing up. Notice the missing article in the title; the story is about the idea of being a Chilean Poet; Gonzalo and Vincente just happen to instantiate the idea for a while.

Chilean Poet by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell. Granta Books, Febrauary 2023.

Reviewer bio: Colm McKenna is a second-hand bookseller based in Paris. He has published and self-published an array of short stories and articles, hoping to eventually release a collection of stories. He is mainly interested in the works of John Cowper Powys, Claude Houghton and a range of Latin American writers.

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