A Distant Father by Antonio Skármeta[Other Press; 2014]

Tr. John Cullen

Chilean author Antonio Skármeta is a master of economy of language. However, his talent goes beyond conveying a lot with very few words; he’s able to constrict time and express profound feelings with short, simple sentences that jump off the page and stay with readers long after the narrative is over. In A Distant Father, Skármeta’s new novel, the author explores identity, falsehood, desire, small-town aesthetics, abandonment, the power of memories, and how these elements relate to human nature, and he does all of it in a 112-page novella that demands to be read in a single sitting.

Jacques is a young schoolteacher in Contulmo, a small, quiet Chilean village. To make extra cash, he also freelances as a French translator for the local paper. His relationship to the French language is complicated because it stems from nostalgia, pride, and a deep sense of loss caused by his Parisian father, Pierre, a man who, one year before, decided to return to France without explanation the same day Jacques was returning home from finishing his studies. The teacher and his mother spend their days immersed in their own minutiae and the slow flow of small town life. They only have each other’s company and the ghost of Pierre hanging over them at all times, causing them a constant feeling of desertion. Jacques travels to the nearest city often and occupies himself with a crush he has on a student’s older sister. Then, on a day that started like any other, that city reveals to him a secret that changes everything he thought was true. The revelation sets in motion a series of decisions and puts forgiveness, as well as the ability to move forward, at the center of everything.

A Distant Father is a really short novella. In fact, if it weren’t for the padding afforded by blank pages between chapters and generous spacing, this would fall short of the 100-page mark. However, brevity is not a shortcoming here and in no way keeps the narrative from being a fulfilling read. Jacques is a likable character and the situation he’s thrown into is one that simultaneously pulls him a plethora of directions and tests his moral fabric. Also, despite the fact that there are plenty of somber, heartfelt moments, Skármeta manages to use Jacques’ work, his students, and his crush, not to mention trips to the city to visit prostitutes, to infuse the narrative with a surprising humor and a bit of unexpected sex.

While all the elements are in place, what makes this novella an enjoyable read and sets it apart from other family dramas is the writing. Superb prose is the reason Skármeta has collected so many accolades and has been widely translated, and A Distant Father finds him in fine form from the get-go:

My life is made up of rustic elements, rural things: the dying wail of the local train, winter apples, the moisture of on lemons touched by early morning frost, the patient spider in a shadowy corner of my room, the breeze that moves my curtains.

Although this is a profound narrative in terms of emotion, its beauty lies in its simplicity. In the world Skármeta creates, everything has a languid pace and details are important because, when there is not much around, little things acquire special meaning. For example, Jacques’ visits to the town’s prostitutes are unhurried outings that include conversations, tea, and poetry. There’s a strange camaraderie between him and the girls, and they share information, worries. These exchange are much deeper than the physical act and make Jacques observe the women in a different light:

The girl chews a fingernail. She looks at the ceiling and the rug. Then she goes to the curtain, presses her forehead against the windowpane, and gazes out at the street for a while.

A Distant Father is a quick read because, besides the short word count, the story flows and the dialogue is never excessive. Skármeta constructs brief sentences packed with meaning, but the pacing comes from the way those lines interact with their predecessors and naturally lead the reader into equally concise and dynamic successors. This is a book for readers who crave a short but lasting dose of sadness wrapped in humor.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and a few other things no one will ever read. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, Entropy, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Z Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Word Riot, and a other print and online venues.

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