El Pais

Spain’s largest paper explores the world’s love affair with Chile

“And the world discovered Chile”: Chilean narrators, singers and designers gain public admiration and critical success in Europe and the United States.

Thursday, July 07, 2011  
The film adaptation of Alejandro Zambra's book, Bonsái. The film adaptation of Alejandro Zambra's book, Bonsái.

The following is a translation of an article published in the Spanish paper, El Pais, on June 6, 2011. The complete article in Spanish can be found here.

“Chile today is the result of an experiment started by Milton Friedman and his economics school in Chicago. He used the economic catastrophe of the Pinochet dictatorship to impose the neoliberal model without resistance. It’s only fair that we Chileans go back to Chicago and other cities connected to that experiment and ask for explanations. And they pay attention to us, because they made us.” So writes author Carlos Labbé, describing the growing interest from Europe and the United States in the artistic viewpoint of the South American nation.

Labbé was included in the first Granta list of young Spanish-language narrators and has just published Caracteres Blancos, a compilation of short stories that contains a few keys to understanding contemporary Chilean literature. He looks beyond the shadow of Pablo Neruda - who is largely responsible for the idea that Chile has more poets per capita than any other country - and Roberto Bolaño - more Catalan or Mexican than Chilean, says Labbé - to what is most interesting about the new narrative from the country of Gabriela Mistral: “The outburst of silenced indigenous speech, the incorporation of neo-baroque Argentinean and Caribbean Spanish, and of Golden Age baroque Spanish, going against the journalistic and neoliberal need for story-telling.”

Another Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra - also on the Granta list - reflects on the point where the subversive and the accidental meet. He saw his third book, Formas de Volver a Casa, translated into half a dozen languages without knowing how to explain it to himself, especially after forging his career on a novel, Bonsái, that consisted of barely 40 pages in Word and that “was made into a book thanks to the lay-out talent of the editors at Anagrama.”

Zambra was in Cannes, where the film adaptation of the novel from Director Cristián Jiménez was greeted with applause. “It was the first movie to last longer than reading the book. If someone has little patience, I recommend the novel,” jokes the author. He notes a greater interest in South American art - and Chilean art in particular - in places that used to be almost immune to its influence. “We have more chance of catching on in the United States or Europe than our neighbors, because we are just as boring as they are,” Zambra says.

Singer Javiera Mena explains it in similar terms. The artist is on tour in Spain, reaffirming the huge success here of her second album, Javiera, in person. Alongside Gepe or Dënver, Mena is the flag-bearer for a new Chilean pop, without complexes and stripped of folklore-for-gringos. She manages to sound global without the cosmopolitan posturing. “We are not a country that looks outside ourselves very often. We are isolated, and we tend towards introspection. The scenes are reduced in Chile, but very integrated and formed by people who know each other. We are the only country in Latin America that doesn’t celebrate carnaval, which explains a few things.”

“The writers or the pop singers have it easier, because in Chile they are loved. Fashion still means nothing in my country,” comments Pola Thomson, a designer based in New York. “People think that the success of María Cornejo, who dressed Michelle Obama, will serve as a boost, but María left the country when she was 11. She’s marvelous, but she is not a Chilean artist.”

Thomson’s work is set apart with her use of white and black, the fruit of a scarcity of textiles in Chile (“They were the two cheapest colors”). She continues working in Chile, but more as an act of faith than as a decision backed by her accountant. “We should be cosmopolitan without forgetting our country. We Chileans can’t afford that luxury. If Latin American becomes fashionable, it won’t reach us. We shouldn’t get on that train, but rather drive our own.”