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Juan Emar: Un año [One Year]

It is not difficult to see why this was not a great success in Chile when it was first published. The reading public of the day was used to realist novels and here they were presented with a novel that was anything but realist, using, as its models, surrealism and associated writers such as Lautréamont and Roussel, where plot and realism were not only not important but non-existent. This slim volume – available in French and German but not English – is nominally the diary of the author for exactly one year, but with only an entry for the first of every month as well as an afterword on 31 December. The first entry sets the tone. It tells of the author’s reading (rapidly) Don Quixote and Dante’s Divine Comedy and then experiencing them, not least with the arrival of a knight who bangs on the table fourteen times (and no more than fourteen, as that is the author’s lucky number and cannot be exceeded). February gives us his attempt to play a Caruso disc manually, i.e. by banging the disc around, till he hears some sound and can sing along (badly) He tries this, of course, fourteen times.

March brings bad news. A friend has died. He goes to visit the dying friend, who is seated on the floor with his family watching and waiting for him to die. The doctor tells the author to get down on all fours behind the man to prevent him from falling backwards and banging his head when he dies. The author is reluctant to do this and leaves but, as he leaves, he hears a communal groan from the family as the man has died and fallen backwards. Next month brings the funeral. Why, he asks, did they wait a month for the funeral? They did not. The entry is actually written on 3 March but dated 1 April to keep the symmetry. He watches the funeral from his window, including the Cossacks that lead the funeral procession. The rest of the entries are in a similar vein. For example, he visits his personal library for the first time in seventeen years, where he finds a copy of Lautréamount’s Les Chants de Maldoror open. What interests him is the trajectory of a bookworm, which has eaten into the book and taken selected words out of various pages, all quoted by Emar. Next month, we see him getting annoyed and seeking (unsuccessfully) solace with his friends who live in a nine-storey block of flats, each one on a different floor, with the ninth only visited when he is feeling in a really bad way. Twice he goes to the seashore where he anthropomorphises the waves and rocks and has a further chat with the knight from Don Quixote and, as a good surrealist, does a bit of flânerie. He is visited by real people, such as César Miró, who cannot read his newspaper as all the letters keep dropping off the page, and Vicente Huidobro, who changes one of the author’s metaphors.

At the end he sets off on a cruise. He visits many Chilean and Peruvian cities, all of which he describes as a pleasant and picturesque town in the middle of a vast and calm bay which firstly is not always true and secondly he points out that each city is very different from the others with Antofagasta, covered in wool, Iquique full of singing birds which everyone tries to imitate and Pacasmayo, with its trees full of colourful leaves and fruit. The whole thing closes on 31 December, where he says he is happy that every entry starred off Today, I…. It is not for everybody – and certainly not for your average Chilean reader of the 1930s – but is is original and fascinating, if you can read Spanish, French or German.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1935 by Zig-Zag
No English translation
Published in German as Ein Jahr by Universitäts-Verlag in 1999
Translated by Sven Olsson-Iriarte
Published in French as Un an (by Jean Emar) by La Différence in 1992
Translated by Béatrice de Chavagnac