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.