Patriotism and Chilean Poetry

Bridget McNulty discusses Hugh Ortega's debut collection and Chilean identity

Tackling the ever-growing vacation reading list can often feel like a hike up the Andes. A new poetry collection by Chilean writer Victor Hugo Ortega, however, offers a refreshing antidote to the post-term drudge through its incisive perception of everyday life for ‘Latinos del sur,’ or ‘Latinos of the South.’

Having made his name in Chile as a writer of short stories, Ortega’s debut work of poetry aims to ‘prestar oído al fondo indiferenciado’ (‘lend an ear to a featureless background’) in the words of Cristián Sánchez Garfias. This collection weaves a variety of both public and private experiences into a montage of the unstable and ever-changing capital city, and its not without politics or humour.

The opening poem of Ortega’s collection, ‘Cambria,’ sets the scene for an overt challenge of misguided representation, and the speaker championing his favourite computer font becomes a principal theme. From a revolution which no one saw coming, to the assertion that ‘en Europa también hay melodrama,’ (‘in Europe, too, there is melodrama’), Ortega’s humour reinforces the need for both self-consciousness and an awareness of one’s own personal deficiencies.

The poet’s role as ambassador can only function through an attempt to distance themselves from the community in question. Despite the implications of its title, Ortega’s discussion of identity expands beyond the Chilean –  the poetic voice inhabits several distinctive world views, through representatives of those views. Even in what is arguably the most romantic poem of the collection, ‘Hay viento en Varsovia’ (‘There is Wind in Vienna’), the poetic voice is incapable of distinguishing the individual from their identity. The poetic voice appeals to Poland, as a country which has suffered romantically, to reflect his own grief at the loss of his lover.

Patriotism may have become a dirty word nowadays, but Ortega attempts to revitalise a sense of it through his claim that, with patriotism, history will be prohibited from repeating itself. This is a sentiment which is made clear in the events of ‘La Moneda de noche’ (‘La Moneda by Night’) in which a man is compelled to circle the infamous seat of Chile’s Republic to evade an attacker, but refuses to allow his attacker to gain the upper hand. Yet if history cannot be allowed to repeat itself, then neither can the misguided stereotypes which continue to circulate and plague progress. Compelled to find new ways to represent his community and avoid damaging clichés, the poet chooses to openly adapt and challenge misguided statements in the eponymous poem of the collection ‘Latinos del sur,’ quashing salsa as ‘marketing’ and professing the Chilean love for Shakira, ‘the brunette.’ Humour continues to channel Ortega’s objection to the depersonalisation of the Latino community through his choice of unexpected statistics in ‘La misma razón’ (‘The Same Reason’) in which he creates his own unique way of uniting the continent, free from Western stereotyping. From ‘Tiempo de perros’ (‘Time of the Dogs’) to ‘Los primos’ (‘The Cousins’), it would be difficult to find any group which goes unmentioned by Ortega. But his most personal poems, ‘Año nuevo casero’ (‘New Year at Home’) and ‘Ausencia del padre’ (‘A Father’s Absence’) disclose his primary motivation: his frustration at a country that is continually denied the fulfilment of its potential. ‘Amo la ciudad, pero me está matando’ (‘I love the city but it’s killing me’) he exclaims in ‘La ciudad solitaria’ (‘The Solitary City’), a cry which can only come from one who feels intrinsically linked to this city’s fate.

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Aside from the occasional dose of Chilean slang, a basic grasp of the Spanish language is all that’s needed for Ortega’s collection. But it’s linguistic simplicity shouldn’t undermine it’s political complexity, as a work in which the poet’s vision is often contrasted with the absence of one for his country. ‘Latinos del sur’ never says that it’s a perfect representation of Chilean life, but Ortega can claim to have brushed off the problems of patriotism in his revival of the concept.

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