Contemporary Chilean Narrative

Literati Between the MP3 and Zanjón de la Aguada

by | Apr 22, 2004

Clockwise from to left: Alberto Fuguet, Pedro Lemebel and Gonzalo Contreros. Photos courtesy of El Mercurio.

Toward the end of the 1970s, the upper class neighborhood of Vitacura in Santiago, Chile, gave rise to the Los Cobres and Bulevard Kennedy shopping centers. Chile’s first fullfledged mall, located in Vitacura’s Parque Arauco, soon followed. The importation of consumer goods imports boomed. In 1989, the Plaza Vespucio mall was built in La Florida, a populous mixed middle- and working class neighborhood, a world apart from the economically elitist areas of Santiago. Since then, malls in Chile have become a major component of contemporary mass culture and especially a place for many young people to hang out.

 

VIRTUAL REALISM?

Readers do not need exclusively to go to graphs and statistical data to learn about this Chile of the recent decades. Short stories and novels are excellent manifestations of “the great transformation” of this period. Without a doubt, by the mid-1980s, Chilean narrative is no longer about casas de campo (country houses), the preferred setting of one of the most influential contemporary Chilean novelists, José Donoso (1924–1996). Indeed, after his thick and masterful novel Casa de campo, Donoso himself incorporated a more urban scenario in his narrative: the Santiago of political repression (Pinochet’s years) and that of neo-modernization can be traced in the 1986 La desesperanza (Curfew).

Within this context, Chilean narrative has become increasingly about cities, shopping centers, television, movies, the culture of cell phones, DVD and MP3. These are the recurrent elements in the narrative of one of the most visible writers of the period: Alberto Fuguet (1964). His 1990 book of short stories Sobredosis (Overdose) opens with a movie-like scene in a fictionalized Apumanque, a typical shopping mall of the barrio alto in Santiago—the locus for the book’s literary imagination. Sobredosis has become a key reference in the genealogy of the literary and publishing phenomenon known as the “New Chilean Narrative.”

During the 1990s, Alberto Fuguet moved into the novelistic genre. His 1992 Mala onda (Bad Vibes) became one of the most widely read novels of the first half of this decade. Like José Donoso’s La desesperanza, Fuguet’s Mala onda takes place in a city whose atmosphere is marked by political tensions, with the heavy hand of the military siege as a very faded background. In Fuguet’s novel, in contrast to Donoso’s narrative, fashion, TV culture, movies, and publicity form the fabric of the daily life of its main character, 17-year-old Matías Vicuna, a boy who evokes J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in a late twentieth century South American city. Fuguet’s 1994 novel Por favor rebobinar (Please rewind) accentuated this cityscape. One of its chapters occurs in a multimedia hotel setting, populated by images of the Allende and Pinochet years, images that playfully become part of the visual decoration, without major historical or political density. In addition, U.S. mainstream culture is incorporated in celebratory ways—no longer a traumatic North/South dilemma. Many narrative texts of the period exhibit lightness in regards to issues of political history, media and global culture. This has become a major feature in books ranging from Fuguet’s Mala onda to other more recent ones such as his Las películas de mi vida (2003) to Andrés Velasco’s Lugares communes.

Alberto Fuguet’s narrative aesthetics have aimed to reshape not only Chilean literary imagination but also Latin American narrative. In a 1998 collection of short stories entitled McOndo (1998), bringing together seventeen Latin American writers, Fuguet suggests in the prologue that new Latin American writers have radically shifted from magical realism to a sort of virtual realism.

 

RECONVERSION OF THE MARGINS

What is left of the traditional political and social commitment of the writer? Is the new wave of modernization making meaningless any literary project aimed to remain politically and socially “engaged”? There is no doubt that the old-fashioned “committed writer” has left the intellectual and literary scene of contemporary Chile. In this process, some new writers have invented suggestive ways to critically talk back about issues of public culture and politics in society. Two interesting, but very different, literary styles have developed what we may call “literatures of the margins” in the late 20th and early 21st century Chile: Diamela Eltit (1949) and Pedro Lemebel (born in the mid-1950s).

Diamela Eltit’s 1991 publication of Vaca sagrada (Sacred Cow) in the Biblioteca Sur Series of Planeta Press, a mainstream publishing house, represented a shift for the development and circulation of her narrative, formerly limited to the avant-garde elite of the 1980s in Chile and the MLA academic circles in the United States. The influential literary critic of the period, Ignacio Valente, from his literary column in the Sunday edition of El Mercurio, praised Eltit’s writing. Vaca Sagrada is a text that delves into the poetic and narrative potential of language in order to convey a hallucinating and deep journey into the realm of the female body. In this manner, Eltit’s text defies also the canonical code of the novel. By mixing poetic, narrative and conceptual writing, and collapsing the traditional notion of history or narrative plot, Vaca sagrada—like many of Eltit’s books—undermines the boundaries of literary genres. This type of neo avantgarde exploration is critical to Eltit’s narrative. In fact, her first book, Lumpérica (1983) (translated into English as E Luminata) shocked many readers. This text—perhaps, the best way to define it, or not define it—develops a highly codified literary language. It is a narration about the nightlife of a female body and its exposure to the violent signs of the city. Eltit’s most recent book, Mano de obra(2002), takes place in an imagined supermarket in which the characters seems to be enslaved to an nightmarish commodity culture.

While sharing with Eltit a certain critical edge, the writing of Pedro Lemebel has become more assimilated into the mainstream literary market. By the early 1990s, the signature of Pedro Lemebel began to circulate as the author of anti-establishment chronicles in alternative, left-oriented magazines, such as Página Abierta and Punto Final. He also founded, along with Francisco Casas, the Performance Group Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis. His 1994 La esquina es mi corazón and his 1997 Loco afán, Lemebel’s first collections of crónicas urbanas (urban chronicles), brought to the fore both a creative and a troublesome way to speak openly, insolently, bitterly, and yet seductively about the daily and nocturnal milieu of homosexuals, lesbians, and transvestites, vis-à-vis the urban glamour of modernization and the political history of Chile. His most recent book of chronicles carries as a title the name of a poor neighborhood in southern Santiago: Zanjón de la Aguada(2003). Through Lemebel’s writings, lo popular has become again popular in Chilean reading communities. His first novelTengo miedo torero (2001), translated into English as My tender matador (2004), is the story of a transvestite and a radical leftist militant who often hang out in the poor southern periphery of Santiago, while participating in underground politics and planning the assassination of General Pinochet. This novel—like Fuguet’s Mala onda in 1994—became a best-selling book in 2003. Sexual difference, conspiratorial political plots and anti-establishment views have taken the literature of Lemebel to the center of the literary market, on a national and international scale.

 

THE “LETTERED CITY” STILL SURVIVES?

In 1991, Gonzalo Contreras (1958) published his first novel La ciudad anterior as a result of receiving a prestigious literary prize by the El Mercurio literary supplement. Like Fuguet’s Sobredosis, this novel represented a milestone in what was then called the “New Chilean Narrative.” La ciudad anterior relates the story of an arms merchant who ends up in an unknown provincial city, near a highway and somehow stuck in the past. Highly visual and cinematic in its language, well-crafted in its literary style, and compact in its structure, this novel—along with his 1998 El gran mal (The Great Evil)—has placed Gonzalo Contreras among the most talented and skillful writers in contemporary Chilean literature.

In 1999, the prestigious Prize Rómulo Gallegos, considered by many as the Latin American Nobel Prize, was awarded to Roberto Bolaños for his 1998 novel Los detectives salvajes (The Wild Detectives). The prize placed Bolaños’s narrative on the spotlight as a path-breaking literary talent in the contemporary scene of Latin American narrative. Los detectives salvajes is about two men who become nomadic figures traveling around the world in search of a disappeared female writer. Bolaños’s novel takes place in many countries: Mexico, Liberia, Israel, Angola, France, the United States, and Spain. In my view, Bolaños’s narration poses fascinating questions about the issue of displacement, nomadism, and transnational imagery.

The works of Contreras, Bolaños, Eltit, Lemebel or Fuguet suggest a dramatic relocation of “lettered culture” within the context of a country strongly marked by the advent of the global era. The cohabitation, or at times tension and disjunction, between the literati and the market, the literary field and the new media ecologies, the lettered subject and the social margins, has evolved into new ways in the contemporary intellectual and cultural scenario of Chilean society.

Spring 2004Volume III, Number 3

Luis E. Cárcamo-Huechante is an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures in Harvard University’s Romance Languages and Literatures Department. He is also a literary columnist for El Mercurio. His “1975: The Friedman Lecture and Chile’s Cultural Adjustment” is the newest addition to the DRCLAS Working Paper Series.

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