Literature and Poetry

Chilean writers create and recreate the world from a village that makes them universal. Two Nobel Prizes confirm this.

Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize in Literature 1971
Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize in Literature 1971

Chile’s writers create and recreate the world from a country described for the first time by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, chronicler of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. His master work, the epic poem La Araucana, tells in perfect hendecasyllabic verses: “Chile, province fertile and marked / in the famed region of Antarctica / by remote nations respected / for its strength, nobility, and power”.

Four centuries later, the poets Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda each won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The greatest award in the global world of letters recognized Latin America’s voice in the work of these Chilean poets and the deepest dreams and values of humanity.

From Orality to Writing

It is often claimed that Chile was invented by a poet, in reference to La Araucana, which was partially published for the first time in 1569 in Madrid. The text describes the war between the Mapuche Indians and the conquistadors, the character of the indigenous inhabitants and the lush natural beauty that Ercilla y Zúñiga encountered.

Writing was not, however, the first to arrive. For the Mapuche Indians who inhabited the land before the arrival of the Spaniards, the language was rooted in oral and not written traditions. Poetry was a part of war oratory and funeral or religious rituals. Upon the arrival of the Europeans, colonial literature was developed by Spaniards and by Creoles, who were those born in Chile.

Land of Poets

“Chile, land of poets,” as the popular saying goes that is seemingly confirmed by its two Nobel Prize winners. And should there be any doubters, various other authors have contributed with their works to prove it. For example, Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), a member of the European vanguard in Paris in the early years of the 20th century, founder of Creationism together with French poet Pierre Reverdy. “Why do you sing to the rose, oh poets! / Make the rose bloom in your poems,” Huidobro proposed.

Among the diverse group of Chilean authors, Nicanor Parra (1914) stands out as the creator of Anti-Poetry, incorporating colloquial language, irony and a tone that distances itself from solemnity. There is also Gonzalo Rojas (1917), in whose texts sensuality and eroticism are frequent themes. Both Parra and Rojas have achieved international recognition in recent decades.

The poets who began publishing their work in the second half of the 20th century are in a special category of their own. Enrique Lihn (1929-1988) and Jorge Teillier (1935-1996) are two of the most outstanding of their generation.

The poets of the 1960’s belong to “the generation decimated” by the military coup, some of whom suffered imprisonment and exile. In the 1980’s, during the military dictatorship, the so-called “Generation NN” [NN = No Name] emerged, in a clear reference to their anonymity and secrecy. During these years a powerful feminine and feminist voice began to be heard, at the same time as Mapuche poetry arrived from the south, transitioning from ancestral oral tradition toward what was now named “oraliture.”

Prose Narrative

The books of Roberto Bolaño are found today in bookstores around the world. The work of this Chilean author who died in 2003 has been especially well received in Spain and the United States, the latter being where his work has received critical praise following his death. Los detectives salvajes and 2666 are his most important novels, which reflect a more urban and cerebral Latin American reality than that expressed by the writers of magical realism.

Isabel Allende, an internationally acclaimed author for, among others, her novels The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna and Portrait in Sepia, has sold over 35 million copies worldwide. Presently, Bolaño and Allende are probably the two most recognized Chilean authors.

The origins of Chilean literature date back four centuries, from the chronicles of the Indies. These foundational texts contain the testimonies of travellers who, without knowing it, set down the foundations of the prose that originated Chile’s prose narrative and essay. The first and most important work in this genre was published in 1644 by the Jesuit priest Alonso de Ovalle and was entitled, Histórica relación del reino de Chile (Historical Account of the Kingdom of Chile).

The book Cautiverio feliz (Happy Captivity), by in 1673 by a Creole named Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán is considered the first Chilean novel.

Although Recuerdos del pasado (Reminiscences of the Past) by Vicente Pérez Rosales was a literary milestone of the 19th century, the first generation of Chilean narrative prose writers was criollista or costumbrista, interpreting the local everyday life and customs of Hispanic colonial society, whose most notable exponent was Manuel Rojas (1896 – 1973), author of the novel Hijo de ladrón (Thief’s Son).

With the generation from the 1950’s, the new wave of Chilean narrative comes to the forefront, with José Donoso and María Luisa Bombal as its main exponents. Surrealistic themes run through their works, notably Donoso’s El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Night Bird) by Donoso, and Bombal’s La última niebla (The Last Fog).

The 1960’s was the stage for a new generation of prose writers whose works dealt primarily with cosmopolitan urban themes and issues of social commitment. Antonio Skármeta and Poli Délano are the referents of this wave.

The 1970’s ushered in a period in which the Chilean novel and short story also run the gauntlet of political and social change, overcoming limitations and censorship. The winds of change made themselves felt in the 1990s, new works and names joining a solid tradition of writers – a tradition whose first, tentative steps were taken four centuries before.

Luis Sepúlveda, Hernán Rivera Letelier, Ramón Díaz Eterovic, Gonzalo Contreras, Pedro Lemebel, Alejandro Zambra, Carla Guelfenbein, Marcela Serrano, Jaime Collyer, Pablo Azócar and Alejandra Costamagna are just some of the many outstanding Chilean narrative Chilean narrative writers of today.