In the tradition of the Latin American literary giants of the past century—think Garcia Marquez, Paz, Neruda—the Chilean novelist and playwright Antonio Skármeta has an expansive sensibility drawn from and influencing a staggering range of disciplines, from poetry to fiction, from cinema to international diplomacy. While his work has focused mainly on novels and theater, it is in constant dialogue with the slick spark of popular culture, for example, or the shifting politics of his continent.
His new novella, A Distant Father, while deceptive in its brevity and apparent simplicity of language, furthers this rich sensibility. Focused on the inner discourse and observations of Jacques, a village schoolteacher in Chile whose father has apparently left his family to return to his native France, the work presents a complex sketch of one man’s emotional universe and of a Chile that no longer exists. It is a conjuring of a piece of history via the poetic and personal current that runs apart from the language of newspapers, for example, or political speeches.
“There is a certain need in the most sensitive people to recover a kind of tribal language,” he said recently in a phone interview from his home in Chile.
To this end, the book is clearly edited down to its essence, revealing a distinctly poetic sense. “I’m the village schoolmaster,” the book begins. “I live near the mill. Sometimes the wind covers my face with flour.”
Readers familiar with Skármeta’s most famous works, from the novel Ardiente paciencia, which inspired the 1994 film Il Postino, to his play El Plebiscito, which was adapted into the brilliant 2012 film No, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, need not worry that this focus on the inner life signals a departure from his examination of the politics and history of his country. The opposite may be true. There is a case for reading the work as allegory: As Jacques matures in his desire, as he engages in his intellectual pursuits as a translator of poems, as he comes to a reckoning regarding his missing father, the reader can feel that Jacques has embodied a part of Chile itself. It, too, lost a paternal figure of sorts in the 1973 coup d’etat of Salvador Allende and suffered internally in its subsequent years of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
“About that tragedy, I have written many books,” Skármeta says. “This time I wanted the purity of a very close relationship between two people—independent of what happens socially. I went back to that kind of primitive innocence untouched by modernity.”
Thus the brief novel becomes an act of disciplined nostalgia, a wielding of the tribal language he references, which exposes his society at a crucial moment in its life. It is a moment of village dances, of movie houses with John Wayne posters and of intellectual awakenings, French poems, playful geography quizzes with a sex worker in a country brothel.
“These images should have a mood quality that you have the feeling of what is happening and the idea that something is happening behind the language,” he says. “Everything has been reduced to an expression.”
Skármeta is clear, however, that the images he refers to here are the nearly cinematic images conjured by his work—a cloud of flour carried to the face by the wind, for example, or the sweat in the air at a village party he describes. And yet these are antidotes, in a sense, to the more common images we consume on a daily basis, from the dominance of social media and 24-hour electronic everything.
“We have so many images. There is all this visuality with computers and communication and I realized that there is, in readers, a hunger for intimacy, for closeness, for the real thing.”
This complex relationship to the “image” is particularly relevant given the success of Skármeta’s works adapted into films. A Distant Father, too, is slated to be adapted by Brazilian director Selton Mello into a film appropriately titled A Movie Life. There is heavy reference to Hollywood throughout the work, from the movie posters mentioned above, to a self-defining statement by one of the novella’s key characters: “I want to be the star of my own life.” Skármeta is clearly steeped in the language of cinema, and in its evocative power and relationship to the viewer.
“The first film I saw was King Kong,” he says. “I was seven or eight, and there was this image—the big ape seems to come over the audience. You have the illusion that he is leaving New York and coming to you. I ran away! I left the theater to find my grandfather, who was drinking coffee on the corner. The next day, I went back to see it again, but hidden under a seat.”
There is something of this impulse to return in A Distant Father—a desire to revisit a defining moment that has left a sore nerve, whether for an individual or for a nation as a whole. What makes the novella successful is its ability to reexamine this moment, to recreate it with both the lyrical and cinematic sensibility that memory acquires. As Skármeta says of his Chile, “I live in a country where poetry is in the air.”
David Garza lives in New York City.