Reflecting upon Chile’s 9/11
September 2023 marks fifty years since the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government on September 11, 1973. To honor the struggles and sufferings of the Chilean people, the MEP’s Literature Group dedicates sixteen weeks in two parts to Chilean writers active before, during, and since the Pinochet dictatorship. In addition to the justly well-known writings of Roberto Bolaño, many of our readings will be from translations by Megan McDowell. McDowell has worked with US and British independent publishers to promote a diverse group of writers largely unfamiliar to American audiences. Our aim, to quote McDowell, is “to expand our circles of empathy.”
Session 1 (Sept 28) – Welcome and introductions. Discussion of Pablo Neruda’s poems, videos, and criticism posted on the Poetry Foundation’s publicly accessible website. Attendees are encouraged to select a poem before the meeting and share their impressions.
Sessions 2 and 3 (Oct 5-12)
Emar, Yesterday. Translated by Megan McDowell. Pereine Press/New Directions, 2021. 144 p.
For the first time in English, a mind-bending, surreal masterpiece by “the forerunner of them all” (Pablo Neruda)
Sessions 3 and 4 (Oct 19-26)
Pedro Lemebel, My Tender Matador: A Novel. Translated by Katherine Silver. Grove Press, 2005 176 pages
Centered around the 1986 attempt on the life of Augusto Pinochet, an event that changed Chile forever,
Sessions 5 and 6 (Nov 2-9)
Roberto Bolaño. By Night in Chile. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions. 144 pages.
A deathbed confession revolving around Opus Dei and Pinochet, By Night in Chile pours out the self-justifying dark memories of the Jesuit priest Father Urrutia.
Session 7 (Nov 16) (no session Nov 23 – US holiday)
Summary of Part 1 and preview of Part 2
Sessions 8 and 9 (Nov 30, Dec 7)
Lina Meruane. Nervous System. Translated by Megan McDowell. Greywolf Press, 2021. 176 pages.
In this extraordinary clinical biography of a family, full of affection and resentment, dark humor and buried secrets, illness describes the traumas that can be visited not just upon the body, but on families and on the history of the countries-present and past-that we live in.
Sessions 10-11 (Dec 14, 21 and Jan 4) (No session Dec 28 – holidays)
Paulina Flores. Humiliation: Stories. Translated by Megan McDowell. Catapult Press, 2019. 272 pages.
The nine mesmerizing stories in Humiliation present us with a Chile we seldom see in fiction: port cities marked by poverty and brimming with plans of rebellion; apartment buildings populated by dominant mothers and voyeuristic neighbors; library steps that lead students to literature, but also into encounters with other arts-those of seduction, self-delusion, sabotage.
Sessions 12-15 (Jan 11, 18, 25 and Feb 1)
Alejandro Zambra. Chilean Poet. Megan McDowell (Translator). Penguin Books, 2022. 368 p. In Chilean Poet, Alejandro Zambra explores how we choose our families and how we betray them, and what it means to be a man in relationships-a partner, father, stepfather, teacher, lover, writer, and friend-it is a bold and brilliant new work by one of the most important writers of our time.
Session 16 (Feb 8)
Summary and Zoom party
Emar, Yesterday. Megan McDowell (Translator). Pereine Press/New Directions, 2021. 144 p.
A brilliant and bizarre work from an overlooked great of 20th century Chilean literature, in English translation for the first time and with a new introduction by Alejandro Zambra. 144 pp. For the first time in English, a mind-bending, surreal masterpiece by “the forerunner of them all” (Pablo Neruda)3 In the city of San Agustín de Tango, the banal is hard to tell from the bizarre. In a single day, a man is guillotined for preaching the intellectual pleasures of sex; an ostrich in a zoo, reversing roles, devours a lion; and a man, while urinating, goes bungee jumping through time itself-and manages to escape. Or does he? Witness the weird machinery of Yesterday, where the Chilean master Juan Emar deploys irony, digression, and giddy repetitions to ratchet up narrative tension again and again and again, in this thrilling whirlwind of the ecstatically unexpected-all wed to the happiest marriage of any novel, ever. Born in Chile at the tail end of the nineteenth century, Juan Emar was largely overlooked during his lifetime, and lived in self-imposed exile from the literary circles of his day. A cult of Emarians, however, always persisted, and after several rediscoveries in the Spanish-speaking world, he is finally getting his international due with the English-language debut of Yesterday, deftly translated by Megan McDowell. Emar ‘s work offers unique and delirious pleasures, and will be an epiphany to anglophone readers.
Pedro Lemebel. My Tender Matador: A Novel. Katherine Silver (Translator). Grove Press, 2005 176 pages Centered around the 1986 attempt on the life of Augusto Pinochet, an event that changed Chile forever, My Tender Matador is one of the most explosive, controversial, and popular novels to have been published in that country in decades. It is spring 1986 in the city of Santiago, and Augusto Pinochet is losing his grip on power. In one of the city’s many poor neighborhoods works the Queen of the Corner, a hopeless and lonely romantic who embroiders linens for the wealthy and listens to boleros to drown out the gunshots and rioting in the streets. Along comes Carlos, a young, handsome man who befriends the aging homosexual and uses his house to store mysterious boxes and hold clandestine meetings. My Tender Matador is an extraordinary novel of revolution and forbidden love, and a stirring portrait of Chile at an historical crossroads. By turns funny and profoundly moving, Pedro Lemebel’s lyrical prose offers an intimate window into the mind of Pinochet himself as the world of Carlos and the Queen prepares to collide with the dictator’s own in a fantastic and unexpected way.
Roberto Bolaño. By Night in Chile. Chris Andrews (Translator). New Directions. 144 pages.
A deathbed confession revolving around Opus Dei and Pinochet, By Night in Chile pours out the self-justifying dark memories of the Jesuit priest Father Urrutia. As through a crack in the wall, By Night in Chile’s single night-long rant provides a terrifying, clandestine view of the strange bedfellows of Church and State in Chile. This wild, eerily compact novel – Roberto Bolaño’s first work available in English – recounts the tale of a poor boy who wanted to be a poet, but ends up a half-hearted Jesuit priest and a conservative literary critic, a sort of lap dog to the rich and powerful cultural elite, in whose villas he encounters Pablo Neruda and Ernst Jünger. Father Urrutia is offered a tour of Europe by agents of Opus Dei (to study “the disintegration4 of the churches,” a journey into realms of the surreal); and ensnared by this plum, he is next assigned-after the destruction of Allende-the secret, never-to-be-disclosed job of teaching Pinochet, at night, all about Marxism, so the junta generals can know their enemy. Soon, searingly, his memories go from bad to worse. Heart-stopping and hypnotic, By Night in Chile marks the American debut of an astonishing writer.
Lina Meruane. Nervous System. Megan McDowell (Translator). Greywolf Press, 2021. 176 p
Ella is an astrophysicist struggling with her doctoral thesis in the “country of the present” but she is from the “country of the past,” a place burdened in her memory by both personal and political tragedies. Her partner, El, is a forensic scientist who analyzes the bones of victims of state violence and is recovering from an explosion at a work site that almost killed him. Consumed by writer ’s block, Ella finds herself wishing that she would become ill, which would provide time for writing and perhaps an excuse for her lack of progress. Then she begins to experience mysterious symptoms that doctors find undiagnosable. As Ella’s anxiety grows, the past begins to exert a strong gravitational pull, and other members of her family come into focus: the widowed Father, the Stepmother, the Twins, and the Firstborn. Each of them has their own experience of illness and violence, and eventually the systems that both hold them together and atomize them are exposed. In this extraordinary clinical biography of a family, full of affection and resentment, dark humor and buried secrets, illness describes the traumas that can be visited not just upon the body, but on families and on the history of the countries—present and past—that we live in.
Paulina Flores. Humiliation: Stories. Megan McDowell (Translator). Catapult Press, 2019. 272 p
The nine mesmerizing stories in Humiliation, translated from the Spanish by Man Booker International Prize finalist Megan McDowell, present us with a Chile we seldom see in fiction: port cities marked by poverty and brimming with plans of rebellion; apartment buildings populated by dominant mothers and voyeuristic neighbors; library steps that lead students to literature, but also into encounters with other arts-those of seduction, self-delusion, sabotage. In these pages, a father walks through the scorching heat of Santiago’s streets with his two daughters in tow. Jobless and ashamed, he takes them into a stranger ‘s house, a place that will become the site of the greatest humiliation of his life. In an impoverished fishing town, four teenage boys try to allay their boredom during an endless summer by translating lyrics from the Smiths into Spanish using a stolen dictionary. Their dreams of fame and glory twist into a plan to steal musical instruments from a church, an obsession that prevents one of them from anticipating a devastating ending. Meanwhile a young woman goes home with a charismatic5 man after finding his daughter wandering lost in a public place. She soon discovers, like so many characters in this book, that fortuitous encounters can be deceptions in disguise. Themes of pride, shame, and disgrace-small and large, personal and public-tie the stories in this collection together. Humiliation becomes revelation as we watch Paulina Flores’s characters move from an age of innocence into a world of conflicting sensations.
Alejandro Zambra. Chilean Poet. Megan McDowell (Translator). Penguin Books, 2022. 368 p.
After a chance encounter at a Santiago nightclub, aspiring poet Gonzalo reunites with his first love, Carla. Though their desire for each other is still intact, much has changed: among other things, Carla now has a six-year-old son, Vicente. Soon the three form a happy sort-of family-a stepfamily, though no such word exists in their language. Eventually, their ambitions pull the lovers in different directions-in Gonzalo’s case, all the way to New York. Though Gonzalo takes his books when he goes, still, Vicente inherits his ex-stepfather ‘s love of poetry. When, at eighteen, Vicente meets Pru, an American journalist literally and figuratively lost in Santiago, he encourages her to write about Chilean poets-not the famous, dead kind, your Nerudas or Mistrals or Bolaños, but rather the living, striving, everyday ones. Pru’s research leads her into this eccentric community-another kind of family, dysfunctional but ultimately loving. Will it also lead Vicente and Gonzalo back to each other? In Chilean Poet, Alejandro Zambra chronicles with enormous tenderness and insight the small moments-sexy, absurd, painful, sweet, profound-that make up our personal histories. Exploring how we choose our families and how we betray them, and what it means to be a man in relationships – a partner, father, stepfather, teacher, lover, writer, and friend-it is a bold and brilliant new work by one of the most important writers of our time.