Juan Emar’s Forgotten Vanguard

Influenced by the Surrealists, the obscure Chilean novelist took to task the social realist status quo in his magical fiction.

The Chilean writer known as Juan Emar chose that name amid a lifetime of dissatisfaction. Born Álvaro Yáñez Bianchi in 1893 in Santiago, he was the son of a prominent Chilean lawyer and newspaper magnate, and adopted his nom de plume around 1924 to express his disdain for the country’s intellectual landscape and his place in it. Contemporary Chilean literature’s staid criollismo movement was looking to the countryside for naturalist visions of rural life—imagine Little House on the Pampas—but Bianchi was more interested in European experimentalism. “Juan Emar” was meant to sound like “J’en ai marre,” French for “I’m fed up.”

Emar, following the lead of more famous literary figures, spent the 1920s and early ’30s in Paris, where he hung out in Montparnasse with Surrealists and Dadaists, wrote criticism, and tried to set up a Paris outpost of La Nación, his father’s newspaper. He returned to Santiago in 1932, not long after the dictatorial president Carlos Ibáñez del Campo seized control of the publication. In his early 40s, Emar self-published three novels and a Chilean university press, Editorial Universitaria, published a collection of his short stories. He found no readership at home or abroad and never published anything else in his lifetime. Until his death in 1964, he worked on a supposedly Proustian work of autobiographical fiction, Umbral, which eventually topped 4,000 pages and wasn’t published in its entirety until 1996. As the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra puts it in his helpful introduction to a new translation of one of Emar’s self-published novels, Yesterday (1935), “Today it seems a mystery how a millionaire aristocrat, whose father founded a newspaper and was president of the Senate of Chile, could fail so spectacularly.”

The explanations given for Emar’s failure are both aesthetic and personal. He was an avant-garde Surrealist at a time when a series of coups in Chile brought social realism into fashion. That he inserted into his books and articles personal attacks on the leading critics of the era couldn’t have helped his cause either. (His “I don’t want to learn the opinions of beings who turn what they read into a profession to earn a living” is at the very least more interesting than the current “They don’t build statues of critics.”)

Before this new translation of Yesterday, by Megan McDowell, the amount of writing by or about Emar in English was scant: a few stories in the summer 2007 edition of Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction; a brief academic article about Emar in Latin American Literature Today in 2020; a (translated) Roberto Bolaño quote calling him “the Chilean writer who bears a marked resemblance to the monument to the unknown soldier.” (I’ve read the passage from which this is taken, and looked up images of every monument to an unknown soldier I can find, and I still can’t quite make sense of whether this is a metaphor or a reference to a literal statue.) Anglophone markets are notoriously myopic, especially when it comes to literature in translation, but Emar long remained a relatively obscure figure in Spanish literature too, at least outside of Chile. I recently read Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier’s Interviews With Latin American Writers (1992), which features extensive interviews with major figures from the Boom era and the subsequent generation (Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Parra, Puig, etc.), and Emar’s name never came up. It’s all Borges, Rulfo, and Cortázar, plus Faulkner, Proust, and Joyce.

Emar’s renown in Chile began to grow slowly in the years following his death. In the ’70s, parts of Umbral were published and Diez, his story collection, was reprinted with an introduction by Pablo Neruda, who called him “our Kafka” and wrote, “My comrade Juan Emar will now get what here we are not stingy with: posthumous respect.” His prediction seems to have been made a few decades early, but, well, better late acclaim than never.

Yesterday is a weird and charming little book, less a predictor of the magical realism to come than a sui generis detour. There are glimpses of the kinds of themes Borges played with; at one point, the narrator and his wife visit a painter friend whose exclusively green paintings contain all possible greens, which feels not so dissimilar from the infinite mirror of “The Aleph,” but Emar is sillier, still philosophical but less outwardly scholastic.

The premise of Yesterday is simple: The narrator, an Emar proxy, recounts what he and his wife did yesterday. Here’s an example of a typical scene: The couple head to his parents’ “small mansion” in the fictional Chilean town of San Agustín de Tango. They find the entire family laughing—younger sister María, overgrown brother Pedro, mother, even father, who never laughs. Even the visiting Uruguayan consul is laughing. What’s so funny? A bet has been made: “Dad and the good consul are sure that you will dare, and we are sure that you will not dare, to cross the room and look at what is behind that sofa in the corner. That’s it!” What would you do?

The narrator takes the reader through a finely wrought and increasingly baroque analysis of the wager. Might something repugnant be back there? “I took a deep breath. All repugnant things have a foul smell. Nothing.” Something dangerous? But then everyone in the room would be scared: “If the thing was going to lunge for my throat, it would already have lunged at María’s to guzzle her young blood. If it would go after my testicles, the consul would already have lost his.” What could possibly be behind the sofa? “A single word exploded, alone, isolated, in my head: ‘Jelly!’” From here, he expounds on disgust for “all things gelatinous, above all if they are of the color commonly known as burgundy,” reasoning that, coming face-to-face with such an item behind the couch could drive him to madness. There probably isn’t such a thing behind the sofa at all, and even if an unpleasant surprise were awaiting, he’d probably be fine, but he can’t be sure—he hasn’t been in the situation before. (I’m condensing heavily; the explanation is about 15 pages long.) The narrator cannot risk being “taken prisoner by the liberated unconscious”; as a married man, he has responsibilities.

“Are you going to look or not?” snide brother, Pedro, asks.

“No.”

The book is full of these kinds of absurd situations played seriously. It’s not exactly Kafkaesque, as Neruda might have us believe, but the writing is slyly funny, while remaining uncanny and mannered enough to put up a challenge. The day starts at the public square, where the couple see a man guillotined for the crime of impious thoughts. The blade enters at the base of his skull and exits above his eyes—“perhaps this was due to the sentence itself, which called for the amputation of the sinful part and nothing more”—at which point the soon-to-be-dead man picks up the lopped-off part of his head and attempts to reattach it (“the good man was left with the ridiculous air of one wearing a hat that was too small”). He then tries to fistfight his executioner. Later, the couple go to the zoo and sing with monkeys and watch as an ostrich swallows a lion, whole, then shits it out, skinned; they eat elaborate meals (pickled duck, lamb stew, conger eel stew, cochayuyo seaweed with onion, etc.); their friend the painter obliquely threatens them with a machete.

Most of the chapters are self-contained enough to function as short stories, but they build into a crescendo that breaks with temporal reality. It’s not hard to imagine how the scene would have been a bit too jarring for readers used to pastoral tales of gaucho life; nearly a century later, it’s not exactly a breeze, but it’s a lot of fun. Standing at a urinal, the narrator is using his stream to trace the holes drilled in the porcelain for drainage, “spinning like the hands of a clock.” Suddenly he notices a fly and hesitates between continuing the movement of time and trying to kill the fly with his piss; in that delay, he becomes unstuck from time. He imagines himself doing something not unlike a bungee jump, but while his body snaps back, “Another part of me—the one that includes all of my ideas, all of my memories and experiences, my entire life, all that exists in my head, conscious and unconscious, in sum, everything—continues to fall.” He continues:

Only my body is suspended, along with my perceptive faculties. Then, for an instant, I see, I contemplate, I observe, there below me, scattered but still united and simultaneous, my entire past. I see it there in one single point and all at once, since I see it without the chronological succession of time.

Heady stuff, and it only gets more complicated from here. He ends up in bed in a Groundhog Day–esque time loop, replaying the day’s events up through the pee break with time. And a lively day it was.