June 19, 2009
The new wave in Chile is not necessarily inspired by Bolano
by Dennis Johnson
Melville House author Alejandro Zambra‘s novella Bonsai, when first published in Chile, “filled just ninety-four generously spaced pages, and its recent English translation by Carolina De Robertis stretches only to eighty-three. Still …,” notes Marcella Valdes in an essay for The Nation, “its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size. As the venerable Santiago newspaper El Mercurio commented in April 2008, ‘The publication of Bonsai…marked a kind of bloodletting in Chilean literature. It was said (or argued) that it represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation’s letters.'”
Indeed, continues Valdes — who most recently made a splash with her insighthful writing about Roberto Bolano‘s 2666 in this Nation essay — “Readers who consider Roberto Bolano the pole star of contemporary Chilean fiction will be jolted by Zambra’s little book. For though Zambra has been stamped as the Next Great Chilean Writer in many circles, he’s in no way Bolano’s heir.”
In fact, Valdes says the prevailing sentiment in Chile is that, as one critic said, Zambra is “in the antipodes of long-winded writing, like the negation of a Roberto Bolano.” Valdes says thanks to Zambra, minimalist novellas have “carved out a place in the national letters. Like Beckett reacting to Joyce, the young writers of Chile, who were born in the 1970s during the military dictatorship … have turned from Bolano to the bonsai.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.