With the translations of his sprawling shaggy-dog tales of Latin American leftists and bohemians on the run from political repression in the 1970s and 1980s, Roberto Bolaño became something of an international phenomenon over the past decade or so. From The Savage Detectives to 2666 and The Spirit of Science Fiction, the Bolaño voice is irresistible—raw, omnivorous, a hopped-up mélange of gritty sex, revolutionary politics, and literary infighting. Bolaño, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, was himself an exile from Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile—which lasted from 1973 to 1990—settling first in Mexico and then Spain.
Recently, out of Bolaño’s shadow, a new generation of writers, from Chile and Argentina in particular, has emerged with its own take on the region’s violent legacy. (Argentina’s military junta ruled from 1976 to 1983.) The Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, born in 1975, offers miniaturist meta-novels about growing up on the outskirts of Santiago in the 1980s. In his 2013 book, Ways of Going Home, Zambra presents a seemingly typical coming-of-age-story, yet ominous tremors are felt just below the surface—earthquakes both real and political. This slim, oblique novel exemplifies, in part, what Zambra calls a “literature of the children.” “While the adults killed or were killed,” he writes, “we drew pictures in a corner. While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes.”
Other young writers have chosen to deal with the inherited damage of their parents’ world in different ways. The protagonist of Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain (2013) returns to Argentina to piece together the story of a disappeared activist using actual documents, creating a pastiche of fiction and true-crime reportage. Argentine Andrés Neuman, in Talking to Ourselves (2014), and Chilean Diego Zúñiga, in Camanchaca (2017), take more muted approaches, gradually unearthing tales of familial loss and silence that may have larger implications. This summer, two powerful debuts add to this growing body of work: Chilean Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder (translated by Sophie Hughes) and Argentine Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews).
A new generation of writers from Chile and Argentina has emerged, with its own take on the region’s violent legacy.
Short-listed for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, The Remainder is set in a present-day Santiago suffused with reminders of the past, the specters of vanished street names and missing bodies lingering over “this mortuary city” like a palimpsest. Felipe and Iquela, two childhood friends, navigate the layers of Santiago—suddenly awash in a freak ash storm—while trying to “unremember” a world they only dimly understood. Why, exactly, did their parents have two names, and what did belonging to a resistance “cell” really mean?
The Wind That Lays Waste, meanwhile, presents a sparser vision of rural Argentina, cut off from the capital and any overt historical context but carrying with it an air of natural menace. As a thunderstorm builds, “El Gringo” Brauer, a gruff mechanic, and his teenage assistant, Tapioca, shuffle about silently in a yard of forsaken cars. When a traveling preacher and his daughter show up, the scene is set for a clash over ideas of faith and morality. We learn about Tapioca’s abandonment by his parents and the daughter’s desire to escape the preacher’s suffocating grip. Finally, as the storm breaks, Almada’s taut spiritual allegory of freedom and repression—or is it a battle over Argentina’s soul?—reveals a vision just as stunning as Zerán’s hallucinatory reckoning. The “literature of the children” is growing up.
Anderson Tepper is co-chair of the International Committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival. He lives in New York City.