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Juan Emar: Miltín 1934

This is one of the three novels that Emar published in 1935 (no others were published in his lifetime) and, like the others, it disappeared without trace, till it was republished well after his death. Like the other two, it had no plot, no character development and none of the hallmarks of the then prevailing realist trends founds in Chilean and other Latin American novels. Its models were the modernist European novel and surrealism, both virtually unknown in Chile at the time. Indeed, even now these books are unlikely to appeal to most readers.

Emar does surrealism and this novel can be best described as surrealism-inspired. Much of it is ramblings by Emar – his thoughts, what is going on in his life, his imaginings and dreams. The preface tells us that he has been visited by one Martín Quilpué. It is not clear why, but we learn that Quilpué is leaving at the point that Emar starts writing. He follows Quilpué’s slow journey and, throughout the book, continues to see Quilpué walking here and there. Quilpué will not be the only character to keep popping up during the book. Emar starts off the way he intends to continue. He mentions a couple of his friends – Dr Hualañé, a calm man, and Estanislao Buin. His interest in both men is not in their characters but the fact that he has worked out that 977 out of 1000 people have things hanging on their wall or standing on their desks and tables and he proceeds to describe what Hualañé has on his desk (statues) and what Buin has hanging on his walls (two paintings of storms and one of the countryside). He then feels he has to stop this description, as it is approaching midnight and he had always planned to write a story called Midnight Story. He agonises about what to call it – Night Story and Tonight’s Story are both options, till be finally decides on La Tournée des Grands Ducs (literally The Grand Dukes’ Tour but a French idiom for having a night on the town). (This is not explained in the Spanish so any Chilean reader who did not know French may well have been at a loss.) He then goes on to describe a night on the town he had with his wife and a friend. They have had a splendid meal but wish to go on to a club and wind up at the Zurich (after much consideration), where he lists seventeen of the people there that he knows, adding that he actually knows a total of sixty-six but it would be too boring to list them all. They move on to the Arno where only three of the ninety tables are occupied. After arguments with both the other patrons and the waiters, he soon moves on to the story of Teodor Yumbel, who has an ego which leaves him and walks on ahead and is attacked by a cloud that explodes.

He moves on to criticism, discussing Alone’s Panorama de la Literatura Chilena durante el siglo XX [Panorama of Chilean Literature during the 19th Century], which he criticises (and similar critical works) as they focus on all writers, good and bad, describing their faults and strong points. He wants a criticism where critics only mention works that they are really enthusiastic about or which they think are totally awful. All criticism would start with either This book is an absolute marvel or This book is complete and utter rubbish. Other books would be ignored. (As the blurb on my edition of the book points out, this is, of course, what happened to Emar.) The book continues in similar vein. We meet Gilberto Moya, a man Emar does not particularly like (and who does not particularly like him) but they keep bumping into one another – in Santiago, in New York and in Paris. They manage to maintain cordial relations till an argument about whether Landru should be executed.

We do get an explanation for the title of the novel. Sort of. He tells us of the story of Pedro de Valdivia, the founder of Santiago. After setting up Santiago, Valdivia fought the Araucano Indians. In this book, de Valdivia had modern armaments to help him – tanks, gas, even a plane, while the Araucanians used tear gas. The Spanish won, thanks to their technical superiority. The Indians when captured said that their leader was called Miltín but did not know where he was. (If this is correct, I can find no evidence for it. The Araucanian leader was called Caupolicán.) Finally the Spanish found Miltín on top of a mountain. Their first thought was to kill him but they noticed he was crying. They did not know what to do, so they brought out a doctor who carried out all kinds of test, including X-rays and a Wassermann test. His conclusion was that Miltín was crying but he recommended various medicines and a diet for him. Eventually, Miltín stopped crying so they brought out an electric chair (up the mountain!). When Miltín realised what his fate was he managed to stop his heart beating and died that way. The Spanish had asked him why he was crying but never did obtain an answer so that people in Chile apparently now say That’s why Miltín was crying, when anything unpleasant happens.

His travels through Chile, helped by Captain Angol, the pilot of the plane who helped Pedro de Valdivia, his concern about how bees can reach to the height of fuchsias to obtain pollen, which leads him to the Honey Laboratory to ask their experts, his French, English and Spanish stories (merely walks through London, Paris and Madrid, naming the streets), a recipe for ocean soup and his final flights with Captain Angol, which take him to the Sun and Uranus are just some of the antics Emar, often accompanied by his (nameless) wife and the artist Rubén de Loa, get up to. It is all great fun and clearly designed (obviously successfully) to upset the realist-minded Chilean intellectuals of the 1930s.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1935 by Zig-Zag
No English translation