Antonio SkÁrmeta has worn many hats: film critic, ambassador, educator, and, of course, writer. I first encountered his work two years ago, when the film No was released. It was brilliant—cinematography, acting, script, you name it—all exceptional. Not surprisingly, the film was adapted from a play written by Skármeta called El Plebiscito (The Plebiscite). Like the play, Skármeta’s novels often carry residual hints of Augusto Pinochet’s longstanding dictatorship, a byproduct of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. His latest book, A Distant Father, navigates similar terrain. Blending humor and pathos, Skármeta captures the personal and political through Jacques, a young schoolteacher and poet who has a chance encounter with his father after previously losing contact with him. Much like Albert Camus or James M. Cain’s brief, yet, rich novels, A Distant Father is compact and impactful, a fruitful slice of Chilean life and life itself.
Front Porch: The debut of your new novel coincides with the forty-first anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile, an event that has deeply informed your work. Can you talk about how that experience impacted your writing? In addition to political concerns, did you find other aspects of your writing transformed?
Antonio Skármeta: That coup changed my life. I had to leave my beloved country to live in West Berlin, without being able to speak German and a family to take care of. It also impacted my writing. I never thought that such violence could be brought upon defenseless people. Up to that point, I had trusted others with a kind of Walt Whitmanesque enthusiasm, and had written and published short stories filled with joy, energy, love, and a sense of future. Needless to say, I began to realize that life was far more dramatic than I had thought. You can see the beginning of this shift in outlook in the last chapter of my novel The Postman. And besides, the terrible and fascinating experience of exile invaded my fiction.
FP: The main character, Jacques, is deeply haunted by the absence of his father. In ways both physical and emotional, absence affects almost every character in the novel. Was this theme always central to the narrative or did its presence emerge later in the drafting process?
AS: I loved my father. During my last year of high school, he asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him that I wanted to be a writer. Instead of sending me directly to the psychiatrist, he embraced me and said that I had made a very good choice. At that time I wrote with a pencil on copybooks. My father used to take my short stories to his office and type them on an Underwood typewriter. Once, he gathered all my works and sent them to a contest for young writers without telling me. I only found out when I was told at the university that I had won first place. When he died, I realized that absence is a continual, universal force: when democracy returned to Chile, I came back to my country, but my two sons stayed in Berlin. Now they have children of their own, and I have to make long trips to Europe to visit them and my grandchildren. But in general, I must tell you that I have a sense of human existence as something very fragile and vulnerable. We love and we need to be loved, and it’s difficult to strike a balance between these two feelings. In the end, absence was always central to my narrative.
FP: I have to ask: what came first, Jacques’s character or the story in which he exists?
AS: Jacques’s character. In my narrative, the characters both make the story and live in it. The character is the action. Jacques is a very sensitive young man with an ability to see the beauty in the people and things around him. He’d love to be a poet, but he is more a fan of poetry rather than a poet himself. Nevertheless, I have the feeling that there is poetry in the way he narrates his life, although he doesn’t seem to be aware of it.
FP: Speaking of poetry, I’m curious about your own relationship with the form. You’ve written screenplays and novels. Have you ever dabbled in verse?
AS: If I had tried, I would have been lost. I prefer to fall in love without rhyme.
FP: Despite his resentment towards his father, in his own way, Jacques forgives him by the end of the novel. As an ending, what do you feel this says about relationships and your own ideas about human nature?
AS: Dostoyevsky once said that we should occasionally look at human beings not as they are, but as God intended them. Out of a deep pain Jacques transforms his resentment into an even deeper act of love: he offers his own mother as a “present” to a new born baby.
FP: At the end of the novel, Jacques begins to speak more like a writer as he gathers at a train station with his mother, student, and love interest to send them off. During the course of this scene, he calls them his “protagonists.” This sudden shift in language feels significant, as if Jacques is now the creator of his own destiny—his own story. Does the act of storytelling inform the way Jacques views the world?
AS: This is a very keen observation. I have nothing to add: the act of storytelling informs the way Jacques views the world. Story is his language.
FP: Jacques has a very particular voice, one characterized by sharp wit and insights. Did this sensibility emerge immediately?
AS: It’s not by chance that a poem by René Guy Cadou serves as a kind of character in this novel. Cadou was a low-key poet who was able to see poetry everywhere and Jacques quotes, without shame, one of his most delicate poems at a bordello.
FP: Can you talk more about that poem and why it’s significant in that moment? You say Cadou’s poem masquerades as its own character in the novel. Has he always influenced your work?
AS: Cadou’s poem is very significant. It’s a poem about the love of a son for his father that the son expresses shortly after he has discovered his father in a very sad, uncomfortable, even pathetic situation. That these very specific verses are recited to a prostitute in a very poor bordello shows how two very vulnerable, hurt characters are able to deeply connect through poetry. Cadou himself might have been a character in this novel. He was not a city poet. He lived in a province in France, and he loved the simple people in his town. Legend says that he never visited Paris. But he played a very active role in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation of his country.
FP: Natural beauty is not something I’d readily associate with the fictional world Jacques occupies. Indeed, even physical beauty is “marked by melancholy,” as in the case of his mother. How does this representation of beauty affect Jacques’s worldview and relationships?
AS: I’m sorry to say that I might be guilty of injecting some of my personal philosophy into the attitude of my character. Once I wrote a kind of aphorism: “The secret of poetry consists not of having nostalgia for the things you don’t have any more, but of having nostalgia for the things you have.” If I had to explain this, I’d say that the poet captures the plenitude of the world already hurt by its fugacity.
FP: Lastly, what do you enjoy most about writing? Have its pleasures changed throughout the years?
AS: Creating characters and situations in praise of love and beauty. It’s always been the same.
Antonio Skármeta is a Chilean author, who wrote the novel that inspired the 1994 Academy Award–winning movie, Il Postino (The Postman). His fiction has received dozens of awards, and has been translated into nearly thirty languages. In 2011, his novel, The Days of the Rainbow, won the prestigious Premio Iberoamericano Planeta-Casa de América de Narrativa. His play, El Plebiscita, based on the same true events as this novel, was the basis for the Oscar-nominated film No.