Chilean Poet

Alejandro Zambra, trans. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Viking, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-29794-0

Chilean writer Zambra (Multiple Choice) is best known in English for his experimental stories and novellas, tendencies he sheds to mixed results in this multigenerational story about South American poets. The reader first meets Gonzalo in 1991, when he is a teenager working out his first poems and his love for the beautiful Carla, who breaks up with him. Nine years later, the two meet by chance in Santiago, by which time Carla has a precocious son named Vicente. Nominally more responsible than the boy’s birth father, Gonzalo becomes a de facto stepfather to Vicente. In the second half, Zambra covers Vicente’s teenage years and his early efforts as a poet as he becomes entangled at 18 with an American journalist named Pru, 31, who has fled an abusive relationship to write a history of Chilean poetry, and with a duplicitous fellow poet, Pato López López (“You guys are like Bolaño characters,” Pru says of them). Eventually, Gonzalo and Vicente’s paths cross again, reuniting them as a surrogate family of poets. The painstaking details and plodding pace can make this a slog, but there’s no questioning Zambra’s deep affection for writers grasping at love. The author always shows a great deal of heart, but it comes through best in his shorter work. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Wylie Agency. (Feb.)
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