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The novel 'Chilean Poet' touches on and pulls apart the numerous varietals of love


The phrase Chilean poet is a little like saying Italian tenor. It connotes a certain kind of ambition, tradition and mastery. In Alejandro Zambra's novel "Chilean Poet," Gonzalo meets Carla in 1991. They're 16. They have a brief and awkward fling before Carla calls it off. Gonzalo then writes scores of poems for her in a state of heartbreak, including this one, which the narrator deems to be among the five least bad.

ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA: (Reading) The telephone is red as is the sun. I couldn't sleep, was waiting for your call. I look and look for you but find no one. I'm like a zombie walking through this mall. I'm like a pisco sour sans alcohol. I'm like a lost and twisted cigarette ne'er to be smoked, this treacherous Pall Mall abandoned in the street, so sad and wet. I'm like a wilted flower in a book. I'm like a threaded screw without a drill. A dead dog sprawled beside the road - don't look. But I'm just like that sorry-a** roadkill. Everything hurts from feet to face to eye. And nothing's certain but that I will die.

SIMON: Well, he doesn't and hasn't yet. And when he meets Carla nine years later, she's had a son, Vicente, with another man who's no longer in her life. But that quartet - Carla, Gonzalo, Vicente and poetry, Chilean poetry - are at the heart of the story told by Alejandro Zambra, who joins us now from Mexico City. Thanks so much for being with us.

ZAMBRA: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How does Gonzalo become a part of Vicente's life?

ZAMBRA: You know, I've always been interested in this relationship between stepfathers and stepsons. And in a way, you don't have an explanation because you just fall in love with someone who already has a son. And then everything starts, and you feel that you are the one who is giving love. Later, you realize that you are receiving love, too. So to me, it's a really beautiful and, at the same time, very complex...

SIMON: Yeah.

ZAMBRA: ...Situation.

SIMON: They go on fun trips in the afternoon after school, don't they?

ZAMBRA: Yeah (laughter). That's how I got to the idea that this stepfather could be a poet, you know, because they don't name their relationship.

SIMON: Yeah.

ZAMBRA: The word in Spanish is not a good word. It sounds pejorative, you know? Padrastro (ph), it does mean, in Spanish, bad father. And many stepfathers and stepmothers, they don't use the word. So when someone asks, what's the relationship between them? Gonzalo doesn't know what to answer. He's more like saying, we are friends, you know? But then he realizes that he wants to name their relationship. And I think that's what poets do, fighting with words. Nobody is watching them, but they are, in silence, writing and fighting with each word of the poem. That's how I got to the idea that this stepfather would be a poet.

SIMON: Well, help us understand what it means to be a poet in Chile. A lot of Chilean poets make cameo appearances in the novel.

ZAMBRA: (Laughter) Well, this is something funny, but if you ask Chileans, I think even though they don't care about poetry and they don't like poetry, they would say, we have great poetry, of course.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ZAMBRA: It's like a kind of national pride, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

ZAMBRA: And it's the only thing we have ever won, you know? (Laughter) Like, there is a character that says that we won the World Cup twice, you know, because we have two Nobel Prizes. It is more like, how do you deal with national myths, you know? How do you handle them?

SIMON: Vicente meets Gonzalo as a young adult. What do they find in each other after that separation?

ZAMBRA: I think it has been a really terrible time for Vicente because he trusted this guy. He had this stepfather who really raised him, and then he disappeared. After a while, after a few years, they know each other again, and they - now they are part of this different family, you know, the family of poetry, the family of literature, which is also a complicated family (laughter). But I think they have a second chance, but they have to decide what kind of relationship they are going to have. And I love the idea that they would stay together for a long time, but I don't know that. (Laughter) I'm not - I'm only the author (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, I'm only the author in that the characters tell you what to do?

ZAMBRA: Yes (laughter).

SIMON: I mean, we hear this from novelists. That's OK.

ZAMBRA: I mean, there is a point where - I know it sounds silly because you are the author. Sometimes, I feel like I really like these guys and I want them to talk and - OK, I have to invent their words in order to know what they want to talk about. The same with the poems - there are a few poems supposedly written by them in this novel. And I wrote them, many, many, many poems, you know, which are not obviously the poems I would write. I mean, I write poetry - really bad poetry - like the poem you had just heard (laughter).

SIMON: I enjoyed that poem.

ZAMBRA: Maybe you wrote something like that in your (laughter) adolescence?

SIMON: I probably wrote something like that last week.

ZAMBRA: (Laughter).

SIMON: But I enjoyed that. We are a few days away from a holiday that celebrates romantic love. There are several kinds of love that wind their way through this story, don't they? I was particularly struck by your wonderful phrase, the overwhelming joy of being important to someone.

ZAMBRA: Yeah, it's something related to true love, I think, complicated love, hurtful sometimes. Because if you think about it, you don't relate to kids in order to abandon them, you know? You are trying to be good, and you are enjoying that position. And what happens if he is split up with the mother of the kid, with the father of the kid? And this is something Gonzalo mentions a lot. At the same time, he fails, and he knows that. He tries to imagine how to fix this, but at the same time, he is broken.

SIMON: Alejandro Zambra. His novel translated by Megan McDowell is "Chilean Poet." Thank you so much for being with us.

ZAMBRA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLETA PARRA'S "EL JOVEN SERGIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.