Realism remained the dominant mode of fiction until well into the 20th century, but it appeared in several guises. Baldomero Lillo (1867-1923) wrote socialist realist stories about the coal miners of Lebu: Sub terra (1904) and Sub sole (1907). Lillo and other regionalist writers shifted the emphasis away from the city to the countryside and the miserable conditions endured by many Chileans. Other novelists, including Luis Orrego Luco (1866-1948) and Joaquín Edwards Bello (1887-1968), concentrated on the crisis of aristocratic values and the gulf between the wealthy and the deprived.
Another strand was criollismo, a movement seeking to portray Chile and the tribulations of Chileans without romanticism, championed especially by short story writers like Mariano Latorre (1886-1955). His main interest was the Chilean landscape, which he described almost to the point of overwhelming his characters. A different emphasis was given to regionalism and criollismo by Augusto d’Halmar (Augusto Goeminne Thomson, 1882-1950), whose stories in La lámpara en el molino (1914) were given exotic settings and were labelled imaginismo. D’Halmar’s followers, the Grupo Letras (1920s and 1930s), became openly antagonistic towards the disciples of Latorre: Luis Durand wrote books in the 1920s and 1940s that described campesino life in detail. Another branch of realism was the exploration of character through psychology in the books of Eduardo Barrios (1884-1963), such as El niño que enloqueció de amor (1915), El hermano asno (1922) and Los hombres del hombre (1950).
The anti-fascist views of a group of writers known as the Generation of 1938 (Nicomedes Guzmán, 1914-1965, Juan Godoy, Carlos Droguett, born 1915, and others) added a politically committed dimension, which coincided with the rise to power of the Frente Popular, a Socialist movement. At the same time, Mandrágora, a journal principally dedicated to poetry, introduced many European literary ideas, notably those of the surrealists. Its influence, combined with a global decline in Marxist writing after the Second World War and the defeat of the Frente Popular, contributed to the rise of a new generation of writers in the 1950s, whose main motivation was the rejection of all the ‘ismos’ that had preceded it. These novelists, short story writers and dramatists were characterised by existential individualism and political and social scepticism. Many writers started publishing in the 1950s; among them was Volodia Teitelboim (born 1916), a communist exiled to the USSR after 1973, whose novels Hijo del salitre (1952) and La semilla en la arena (1957) were portrayals of the struggles of the Chilean masses. In 1979 he published La guerra interna, which combined real and imaginary characters in a vision of post-coup Chile.
From the 1920s on, a significant development away from criollismo was the rise of the female voice. The first such novelist to achieve major recognition was Marta Brunet (1901-1967), who brought a unique perspective to the rural themes she handled (including the need to value women), but who has also been described as a writer of the senses (by Nicomedes Guzmán). Her books include Montaña adentro (1923), Aguas abajo (1943), Humo hacia el sur (1946) and María Nadie (1957). Also born in 1901, María Flora Yáñez wrote about the alienation of women with great emphasis on the imagination as an escape for her female protagonists from their routine, unfulfilled lives (El abrazo de la tierra, 1934; Espejo sin imágen, 1936; Las cenizas, 1942). María Luisa Bombal (1910-1980) took the theme of alienated women even further (La última niebla, 1935; La amortajada, 1938, and various short stories): her narrative and her characters’ worlds spring from the subconscious realm of female experience and are expressed through dreams, fantasies and journeys loaded with symbolic meaning.
Manuel Rojas (1896-1972) was brought up in Argentina, but his family moved to Chile in 1923. His first short stories, such as Hombres del sur (1926), Travesía (1934) and the novel Lanchas en la bahía (1932) were undoubtedly criollista in outlook, but he devoted a greater importance to human concerns than his criollista contemporaries. By 1951, Rojas’ style had changed dramatically, without deserting realism. Hijo de ladrón (1951) was perhaps the most influential 20th-century Chilean novel up to that time. It describes the adventures of Aniceto Hevía, the son of a Buenos Aires jewel thief, who crosses the Andes to Valparaíso, ending up as a beachcomber. Nothing in his life is planned or motivated by anything other than the basic necessities. Happiness and intimacy are only brief moments in an unharmonious, disordered life. Aniceto’s adventures are continued in Mejor que el vino (1958), Sombras contra el muro (1963) and La obscura vida radiante (1971). To describe the essential isolation of man from the inside, Rojas relaxes the temporal structure of the novel, bringing in memory, interior monologue and techniques to multiply the levels of reality (to use Fernando Alegría’s phrase).
The demise of criollismo coincided with the influence of the US Beat Generation and the culture epitomized by James Dean, followed in the 1960s by the protest movements in favour of peace, and black and women’s rights. The Cuban Revolution inspired Latin American intellectuals of the left and the novel-writing ‘boom’ gained momentum. At the same time, the national political process that led ultimately to Salvador Allende’s victory in 1970 was bolstered by writers, folk singers and painters who questioned everything to do with the Chilean bourgeoisie.
José Donoso (1924-1996) began publishing stories in 1955 (Veraneo y otros cuentos), followed two years later by his first novel, Coronación. This book describes the chaos caused by the arrival of a new maid into an aristocratic Santiago household and introduces many of Donoso’s recurring themes: the closed worlds of old age and childhood, madness, multiple levels of reality, the inauthenticity of the upper classes and the subversion of patriarchal society. The stories in Charleston (1960), El lugar sin límites (1966), about a transvestite and his daughter who live in a brothel near Talca, and Este domingo (1966) mark the progression from Coronación to El obsceno pájaro de la noche (1970), a labyrinthine novel (Donoso’s own term) narrated by a schizophrenic, throwing together reality, dreams and fantasy, darkness and light. Donoso achieved the same status as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa with this, his most experimental novel. Between 1967 and 1981 he lived in Spain; in the 1970s he published several novels, including Casa de campo (1978), which relates the disintegration of a family estate when the children try to take it over. Back in Chile, he published, among others, El jardín de al lado (1981), which chronicles the decline of a middle-aged couple in exile in Spain, Cuatro para Delfina (1982), La desesperanza (1986) about the return of a left-wing singer from Paris to the daily horrors of Pinochet’s regime.
Another writer who describes the bad faith of the aristocracy is Jorge Edwards (born 1931). His books include El patio (1952), Los convidados de piedra (1978), El museo de cera (1980), La mujer imaginaria (1985) and Fantasmas de carne y hueso (1993). His book Persona non grata (1973) describes his experiences as a diplomat, including his expulsion from Cuba. Fernando Alegría (born 1918) spans all the movements since 1938, with a variety of work including essays, highly respected literary criticism, poetry and novels. He was closely associated with Salvador Allende and was his cultural attaché in Washington 1970-1973. Recabarren was published in 1938, after which followed many books, among them Lautaro, joven libertador del Arauco (1943), Caballo de copas (1957), Mañana los guerreros (1964), El paso de los gansos (1975), about a young photographer’s experiences in the 1973 coup, Coral de guerra (1979), also about brutality under military dictatorship, Una especie de memoria (1983), Alegría’s own memoir of 1938 to 1973, and Allende: A Novel (1992). Having been so close to Allende, Alegría could not write a biography, he had to fictionalise it, he said. But the rise and fall of Allende becomes a realisation that history and fiction are intimately related, particularly in that Chilean epoch.
The death of Salvador Allende in 1973, and with it the collapse of the left’s struggle to gain power by democratic means, was a traumatic event for Chilean writers. Those who had built their careers in the 1960s and early 1970s were for the most part exiled, forcibly or voluntarily, and thus were condemned to face the left’s own responsibility in Allende’s failure. René Jara says that before 1970 writers had not managed to achieve mass communication for their ideas and 1970-1973 was too short a time to correct that. Once Pinochet was in power, the task became how to find a language capable of expressing the usurping of democracy without simplifying reality. Those in exile still felt part of Chile, a country temporarily wiped from the map, where their thought was prohibited.
There are many other contemporary male novelists who deserve mention: Antonio Skármeta (born 1940) was exiled in Germany until 1980, writing short stories and novels and directing theatre and film. His short-story collections include El entusiasmo (1967), Desnudo en el tejado (1969), Tiro libre (1973) and his novels Soñé que la nieve ardía (975), No pasó nada (1980), Ardiente paciencia (1985) and Match-ball (1989). Ardiente paciencia, retitled El cartero de Neruda after its successful filming as Il postino, is a good example of Skármeta’s concern for the enthusiasms and emotions of ordinary people, skilfully weaving the love life of a postman and a bar owner’s daughter into the much bigger picture of the death of Pablo Neruda and the fall of Allende. A different take entirely on the legacy of Neruda and Chilean letters in general is provided by Roberto Bolaño – also an exile – whose satirical novel Nocturno de Chile (2003 – English translation, By Night in Chile) provides both an understanding of the fate of the Chilean literary world under Pinochet and of the nature of that world itself.
Another famous Chilean exile is Ariel Dorfman , whose work exemplifies the struggle of the exile to find a bridge between their social reality overseas and their Chilean identity. His prolific output includes the novels Moros en la costa, 1973 (Hard Rain), La última canción de Manuel Sendero, 1982 (The Last Song of Manuel Sendero), Mascara, 1988, Viudas, 1981 (Widows), Konfidenz, 1995 and The Nanny and the Iceberg, 1999; the plays Death and the Maiden, Reader (1995), Widows (1997) and two further dramas co-written with his son Rodrigo; several volumes of essays and many poems (some collected in English as Last Waltz in Santiago and other poems of Exile and Disappearance (1988). Most of Dorfman’s work is currently in print in English.
The most successful Chilean novelist today is Isabel Allende (born 1942). Her book La casa de los espíritus (1982) was a phenomenally successful novel worldwide. Allende, a niece of Salvador Allende, was born in Peru and went into exile in Venezuela after the 1973 coup. The House of the Spirits, with its tale of the dynasty of Esteban Trueba interwoven with Chilean history throughout much of the 20th century, ends with a thinly disguised description of 1973. It was followed in 1984 by De amor y de sombra, a disturbing tale set during the Pinochet regime. The main motivation behind these novels is the necessity to preserve historical reality . The same thing applies in Paula (1994), Allende’s letter to her daughter in a coma, where possible salvation from the devastation of not being able to contact Paula comes through the “meticulous exercise of writing”. She has also written Eva Luna (1987) and Los cuentos de Eva Luna (1990), about a fictional Venezuelan storyteller and her stories, El plan infinito (1991), Daughter of Fortune (1998), Portrait in Sepia (2002), and Mi país inventado (2002), a look at Chile and her people.
Like her predecessors, Allende employs the marvellous and the imaginary to propose alternatives to the masculine view of social and sexual relations. The same is true of Lucía Guerra (born 1942), who published Más allá de las máscaras in exile in 1984. Another example might be Daniela Eltit (born 1949), who did not leave Chile after 1973 and was actively involved in resistance movements. Her provocative, intense fiction confronts issues of exploitation, violence, the oppression of women and volatile mental states. In Vaca sagrada (1991) at least, the protagonist’s vulnerability is expressed through her body, by her blood, her two lovers’ effects upon it, the brutality inflicted upon it and her obsession with her heartbeat. The main characters live out their obsessions and fears in a city in which there are no jobs and no warmth. Three earlier novels, Lumpérica (1983), Por la patria (1986) and El cuarto mundo (1988) maintain the same experimental, challenging approach to contemporary Chilean society.