An Introduction to Chilean literature in 10 books

José Donoso 1981 | © Elisa Cabot
José Donoso 1981 | © Elisa Cabot
Photo of Elizabeth Trovall
10 March 2017

Though it’s known as the country of poets, there are plenty of top-tier novelists out of Chile that have made noteworthy contributions to the world’s literary scene. Discover the beauty and tragedy of this forgotten Latin American country by checking out some of Chilean literature’s most important novels.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

This moving novel by prolific Chilean novelist Isabel Allende launched her career when it was published in 1982. The book is mainly told through the perspectives of Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter Alba, and follows the tumultuous lives of four generations in the Trueba family. Using elements of magical realism, Allende explores the social and political unrest occurring in her home country of Chile and the lives impacted by these events.

House of the sprirts courtesy of Plaza & Janés

Curfew by José Donoso

Curfew, by famous Chilean author José Donoso, offers an authentic and detailed look at the suffocating Chilean military dictatorship in 1985. The story occurs over the course of just 24 hours, starting immediately after the death of Matilde Neruda, the wife of celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Donoso’s characters, representing the various political ideologies of the time, stand to gain political and social momentum from Matilde’s death. The reader is left with a detailed look at life in Santiago during this complicated moment of Chile’s history.

Curfew courtesy of Grove Press

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

One of Chile’s leading female authors, Lina Meruane, mixes autobiography and fiction to explore the limitations of the body and human relationships in Seeing Red. An unsettling exploration of the inner life of a Chilean woman who finds herself going blind in a new city, the book follows the protagonist’s impediments and subsequent rage with poignant eloquence.

Seeing Red | © Deep Vellum Publishing

My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel

Written by Chile’s most prolific queer novelist Pedro Lemebel, My Tender Matador gives its readers a unique perspective on life in Santiago during the transformative mid-eighties. The book takes place around the time the military dictator Augusto Pinochet was nearly fatally attacked and anti-regime protest movements gained momentum. In a Santiago working-class barrio, the gay and aging Queen of the Corner offers up his home to the young, attractive Carlos to use as a gathering space for the resistance.

My Tender Matador courtesy of Grove Press

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

This 1998 novel by Roberto Bolaño is divided into three different parts, with frequent changes in narrator. The book follows two decades of adventures of realist poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, from Chile and Mexico, respectively. As the poets cross continents in search of the poet Cesárea Tinajero, who has mysteriously disappeared, they encounter a diverse array of characters that each add a unique perspective to this lively novel.

The Savage Detectives courtesy of Picador

The Postman by Antonio Skarmeta

Ardiente Paciencia, released in English-language markets as The Postman, is a treasured romantic novel set in the years leading up to Chile’s military dictatorship. The protagonist Mario Jiménez is a shy teenager working as a postman in the Chilean town Isla Negra, where Chilean poet Pablo Neruda also lives. After delivering Neruda his letters, Jiménez befriends the famous poet who subsequently educates the youth and helps him woo the daughter of the local bartender.

The Postman courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

The Shrouded Woman by María Luisa Bombal

As Ana María lies dead in her coffin, her transition into the afterlife is haunted with vivid memories and surreal sensory experiences. Surrounded by the people closest to her that mourn her death, the protagonist relives some of her most defining moments as the reader slowly discovers her complex relationships and identities.

The Shrouded Woman courtesy of Farrar, Straus

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra

Alejandro Zambra writes exquisitely about life in Chile during and after the country’s 17-year military dictatorship in Ways of Going Home, a tall order in a country that tends to keep quiet about Pinochet’s rule. Told from the perspective of a Chilean author who creates a fictitious narrator to discuss the realities of the dictatorship, Zambra uses metafiction to explore the phantoms of Chile’s dark past and how they haunt the country’s increasingly stable present.

Ways of going home courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Absent Sea by Carlos Franz

This striking novel by Carlos Franz includes vivid details of the brutality experienced during Chile’s 1973 military coup. The book’s protagonist – the youthful and passionate judge Laura – is forced to flee her hometown in northern Chile after enduring unspeakable acts of violence. The story continues with Laura’s homecoming twenty years after her exile.

The Absent Sea courtesy of McPherson & Company

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories by Luis Sepulveda

Set in a small town in the Ecuadorian jungle, Chilean author Luis Sepulveda’s captivating novel follows protagonist Antonio José Bolívar, who takes solace in romantic literature. However, no matter how much he reads, Antonio ultimately finds it impossible to ignore the outsiders slowly disrupting the town’s isolated harmony.

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories courtesy of Harvest Books

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