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On Loss and Not Losing It: Neruda, Mistral, and Zurita in the Postdictatorship
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In an August 1989 conference titled “Encuentro con Gabriela Mistral” (Encounter with Gabriela Mistral) held in Santiago, Chilean critic and philosopher Patricio Marchant presented a paper titled “Desolación” (Desolation). Like all conference participants, Marchant must have been keenly aware of and shaken by the surrounding sociopolitical context: some months before the conference, in October 1988, a general plebiscite had been held on orders from the military Junta, which asked the Chilean people to vote “Yes” or “No” on an eightyear presidential term for Augusto Pinochet, and thus effectively on the continuation of the Junta’s military rule, which had held political control over Chile since the 1973 coup. Contrary to the Junta’s prospect, the results of the plebiscite showed the opposition coalition (united as the “Concertación de Partidos por el No” [Coalition of Parties for the No]) as having received the majority of votes, paving the way for a transition to civil government and, more concretely, for presidential elections to be held in December of 1989.

Reprinted later in Escritura y temblor—a selection of Marchant’s theoretical and philosophical writings edited by Willy Thayer and Pablo Oyarzún (2000)—Marchant’s conference text appears with the longer title of “Desolación. Cuestión del nombre de Salvador Allende” (Desolation. On the Question/Matter of the Name of Salvador Allende). If the brief yet solemn title of the conference piece evokes the figure and poetry of Gabriela Mistral (particularly her homonymous 1922 book, Desolación), the longer title that heads the version appearing in Escritura y temblor would seem to attempt a more intrepid move: to bring together two seemingly disparate proper names (Gabriela Mistral and Salvador Allende), and thus to forge a connection between Mistral’s poetics and the sociopolitical context in which Marchant, along with the rest of Chile, was situated—which, to repeat, was that of the nation’s complicated shift from dictatorship to postdictatorship.

By adding to “Desolación” the complementary subtitle of “Cuestión del nombre de Salvador Allende,” Mistral’s poetic output is made relevant, pertinent to the Chilean present, thus becoming an essential textual corpus for the critical conversations generated around the turn of the decade (1989–1990). Conversely, the term desolación would seem to render this temporal juncture inherently problematic, anticipating the difficult if not unresolvable issues that come with the nation’s attempts to overcome a dictatorial regime while dealing with its violent and traumatic inheritance. In naming the present via recourse to Mistral, Marchant names the present “desolate,” marks it as a time experiencing or sustaining its own form of despair or misery. “Desolación” would thus not only title Mistral’s first—and temporally distant—poetry collection; it would describe, for Marchant, the political and cultural agony of the current and even future social space.

Additionally, Marchant’s focus on desolación distances Mistral from the image of the comforting mother who unifies the nation and consolidates the idea of a virtuous Chilean community through celebratory poetic accounts of motherhood and pedagogy. Instead, a more dismal Mistral is foregrounded—a Mistral who mourns rather than sings communal harmony, who highlights the dissolution, pain, and ultimate incompletion of any project of community. In the words of Kemy Oyarzún, “to speak of [Mistral]” may become, in more recent, unorthodox interpretations such as those undertaken by Marchant and Oyarzún herself, “to speak of ourselves, of an ‘us’ that is not only plural but highly tensional: rupture of culture, shatters of community, project of a neoliberal country that fails to project itself” (Oyarzún 1998). With his bold analysis, Marchant precedes a line of recent criticism—encompassing the works of Grínor Rojo, Adriana Valdés, Jorge Guzmán, Ana Pizarro, and Kemy Oyarzún, to mention a few—which attempts to move away from potentially conservative, encomiastic, and institutionalizing readings that rely heavily on biographical data and/or idealizing conceptions of gender.

Marchant’s text purposely assigns a critical untimeliness to Mistral’s poetry, a kind of delay in receptivity. In a noteworthy study of Latin American postdictatorial literary production, The Untimely Present, Idelber Avelar reads texts that, in his view, are at all times strangely...

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