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Literature Letters From Latin America

Reviews of poetry and fiction by Chilean authors Ariel Dorfman, Paulina Flores, Eduardo Embry and Winett de Rokha

MIGUEL DE CERVANTES, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language and one of the world’s pre-eminent novelists, was kept in captivity between 1575 and 1580 in the city of Algiers, then one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the Ottoman empire.

After his return to Spain, he briefly worked in Andalusia as a purchasing agent for the Spanish navy. This led to his imprisonment for a few months in Seville after a banker with whom he had deposited Crown funds went bankrupt.

It was during his brief stay at a jail in Seville that Cervantes started his masterpiece Don Quixote, a picaresque narrative that would become a founding work of Western literature — it’s often labelled the first modern novel.

Cautivos (O/R Books, £14) by Argentinean-Chilean-American novelist, playwright and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman, recreates the eventful months Cervantes spent in Seville and Algiers, recounting tales and experiences from fellow captives, friends and lovers that would influence his magnum opus about the adventures of the noble Alonso Quixano from La Mancha.

The narrator in Dorfman’s short novel tells the story of a captive Cervantes and his meditations on writing, life, suffering and creativity. Cautivos is a work with profound insights about confinement — in all its senses — but also about liberation in a kind of imagined dialogue between Dorfman and the Spanish writer.

“My Cervantes lives on in me, his creature,” writes Dorfman in the epilogue “and I die with him, my creator, cautivos of each other, Miguel and I, captives of a humanity that mourns his absence and celebrates my enduring name, forever bound to each other in love and fire. Keeping you company in the gathering dark.”

Dead Flies (Smokestack Books, £8.99) by prolific Chilean poet and academic Eduardo Embry is a highly political collection that meditates also on writing, life and suffering, albeit with a language that is playful, satirical and absurd.

It’s a brilliant collection, full of irony and luminous poems, dealing with subjects such as the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile from 1973 to 1990 and its aftermath, the poet’s exile to England, the trappings of language and memory and the importance of allegory as a way to allow the facts of the past to show their relevance to the present.

For Embry, who has been inspired by the work of writers such as Steven Spender, Robert Graves, Philip Larkin and Brian Patten among others, allegory, irony and fantasy allows the poet “to teach, without being didactic, about torture, persecution and the physical elimination of those who oppose dictatorship.” His book is a must-read.

Another recently published collection by a Chilean poet is Oneiromancy (Smokestack Books, £8.99) by Luisa Victoria Anabalon Sanderson (1894-1951), who used the pen name of Winett de Rokha. The beautiful translation by Jessica Sequeira does justice to a modernist firebrand who was to become one of the most revered figures in 20th-century Chilean poetry.

Married to the poet and communist Pablo de Rokha, she founded the communist and anti-fascist literary journal and publishing house Multitud with her husband, whose slogan was: “For bread, peace and global freedom.”

In Oneiromancy, social injustices and personal preoccupations are revealed in long, surreal verses that although at times might be perceived as cryptic, benefit from rich images which have a dream-like power and pictorial imagery.

Resolutely avant-garde, its verses are filled with tenderness and a melancholy for the past and are laden with symbolism and myth which delve into the unconscious. It is high time her poetry was fully appreciated in the English-speaking world.

I was struck by the maturity and richness of Humiliation (OneWorld, £12.99), a collection of nine short stories by young Chilean writer Paulina Flores.

They show a side of Chile that is very relevant in the current political climate of the country —port cities marked by poverty and social injustices, dominant mothers and voyeuristic neighbours, a jobless father trying to find a job through the scorching heat of Santiago’s streets.

In all the stories, the main characters battle against a world of conflicting sensations and daily challenges, all in the context of a country struggling to make sense of a dark, disturbing past.

 

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