Despite being born into a well-connected family, Álvaro Yáñez Bianchi failed to secure a large foothold in the literary world during his time as a writer and critic, never quite amassing any sort of notable following. Still, many fellow critics knew him well, though primarily due to his vocal contempt for said critics: he would often harass them for their choice in career path, doing so in his own pieces of art criticism. And he seemed to dream of the notion of “writing without being a writer”, seeking “refuge” in not publishing, intending to have thousands upon thousands of pages published only after his death. From an outsider’s perspective at least, he seemed a critic and writer who was over with the worlds of critiquing and writing. Bianchi was, fittingly, better known as Juan Emar—fitting only because he derived this pen name from the French, “J’en ai marre”: “I’m fed up.”
“Neruda pretty haphazardly compares Emar to Kafka, thus generating an instant blurb that is a little unfair, because Emar was not the Chilean Kafka, just as Neruda himself wasn’t the Chilean Whitman,” argues Alejandro Zambra—the Chilean Paul Auster—in his foreword to Megan McDowell’s translation of Yesterday by Juan Emar. Originally published in 1935 and only now available to English-speaking audiences, Yesterday feels stuck out of time: it seems too modern, as if it is clearly critiquing the state of society today. One will have to remind themselves frequently that this book, in fact, cannot possibly be making reference to anything after 1935. But it is also hard to imagine a world where the book is any more relevant: the way it handles politics, its thinly-veiled criticism of Chilean society, it all seems too perfect for contemporary Santiago. A reader today is left feeling dumbfounded and, at a deeper level, somewhat lost—as if they missed out on what this book could have meant, if only they read it in 1935 instead. It feels at once necessary and impossible to remove it from a modern Chilean context.
To a Chilean today—and this is certainly the case for writers like Alejandro Zambra—the military men in the streets and the extrajudicial proceedings at the beginning of this novel bring reminders of Chile under Pinochet. But that time is not the time Emar writes in. It is almost impossible not to think of Pinochet’s legacy when reading the sections critiquing Chilean conservatism even as it would have been impossible for Juan Emar—a man who died nine years before Pinochet took power—to have been making any sort of direct invocation to the leader. The novel has been transformed by its own future.
The opening scene depicts the public execution of one Rudecindo Malleco. There is an eeriness to the general public’s nonchalance surrounding a modern-day public execution and a bizarreness to the court proceedings themselves, wherein the actual law seems to be an irrelevant aspect of the case. It is all delivered with a sort of matter-of-fact silliness. But the protagonist also distances himself from the crowd in a figurative sense: he conveys the idea that he is not quite enjoying this whole process from court case to execution the same way the rest of the city has been, though he is guilty of enjoying it at least enough to go watch for fun. He is, at his core, not much better than the rest of the residents of San Agustín de Tango, even if he might be a little bit more aware of how unjust the whole situation was.
Ultimately, this all makes it clear that Emar is trying to make fun of Santiaguinos of his day—this opening scene is another one of Emar’s condemnations of his contemporaries. And, today, the protagonist reminds us of the kind of people who are deeply performative in their politics—the kind of person who might post infographics lambasting fast fashion but shop at H&M, who condemns war but votes for a larger defense budget, who is at once woke and their own political enemy. Reading this scene and reflecting on Emar’s growing popularity today makes one start to think about how and why we might see a little bit of our own society today in the Santiago of 1935.
And, ultimately, this feels fitting: the novel’s ending in particular concerns itself with questions of time and coming unstuck in it, at least in a somewhat Vonnegutian sense. Though from here emerges another problem surrounding Yesterday and context: maybe others in the future will also look back and think “how could this book not be talking about the modern day?”
Alejandro Zambra ends his foreword by considering that, “maybe we are not his intended readers.” He reflects on the “beautifully ‘quantum’ ending of Yesterday and says, “Juan Emar, ahead of his time, was no doubt writing for readers of the future, and it’s as arrogant as it is exciting to suppose that those readers of the future are us, those who were born fifteen or twenty years after his death, in a world very different from and in many ways worse than the one he knew. […] Yes, we can read and enjoy him and think we understand, but deep down we know his books will be read and enjoyed and understood better by readers in a time yet to come.”
Though we might not understand Emar’s writing to the same degree as some future audience, Yesterday remains outstanding. It is grotesque at times, but never not beautiful. We are, in an early scene, introduced to a painter named Rubén de Loa, who, “for twenty-four years, […] had been painting nonstop.” This is the kind of story where you almost believe a sentence like this and want to take it at face value. It starts to feel more probable that this was not said figuratively at all—that he really has painted nonstop, without breaks, for twenty-four years. Emar builds a world where the nonsensical makes sense.
The artist himself is introduced alongside his green-themed studio. It is so full of green, the protagonist expects to hear the cry of a macaw, thinking himself stuck in the middle of a jungle. But, as he doesn’t hear such a thing, the green doesn’t feel right at all. The character is guided, much like the reader, by expectations and the crushing of those expectations. It is impossible to tell when the book will choose to introduce the most sublime surrealism in place of utter realism.
The artist’s green studio is so green, in fact, that he gains a mastery over the colour. His paintings contain every possible green. They contain the green of the jungle, the green of every leaf on Earth, God’s green, your green. Everything has some green in it and it seems the artist has perfectly captured at least part of the essence of all things as a result. Though some things aren’t green at all, the artist explains this away by introducing a sort of theory of complements: for every bit of green, there is an equal amount of red put into the world, and vice versa. There are imperceptible greens in this world because of this very balance. Red is an implied green, at least insofar as it implies a lack thereof.
The protagonist at one point describes walking down an avenue and seeing beautiful women all dressed in red. He watches them in awe at their looks. He experiences sexuality, that is red, and which burns within him. He feels an unease. He wondered for ages what that unease was, but now he places it: it was from an imbalance caused by a failure to perceive the “corresponding greens that would calm them.” He doesn’t know where the corresponding greens are, but he knows they exist at least, and this quells the uneasiness. This seems to be a general message in the novel: we ought to seek out balance and, at the very least, have faith that it is somewhere out there for us to find. Here emerges an interpretation of the book that says it is thematically about balance: by being outrageously strange and impossible at times, it urges us to seek the mundane and the possible in real life.
And this seems yet again deeply modern. It is the perfect call-to-arms for a society obsessed with status and grandeur, with moments and experiences. Whether seeking to post about it all or not, society at large seems obsessed with the Spectacle. Emar does not negate the beauty of the remarkable—he, in fact, seems obsessed with it himself. Yesterday is full of unique scenes that could never in a million years be described as mundane, yet our enjoyment of them emerges from the very fact that they are so weird. No lion in the Bronx Zoo will ever be eaten by an ostrich whole, only to pass through the bird without a scratch on its body. But because this is the case, we can read about it and guffaw at how gross and silly the idea of it is: we can laugh at the book only because life is mundane, this is far from a bad thing.
To even describe any of these moments or sweeping themes feels almost ridiculous. The whole theory of complements seems designed to make one feel silly and childlike when thinking or writing about it. The eccentricity of the novel bleeds through into the very attempts to explore it. It is intoxicating and inescapable, but rarely is it clear. What point is it actually trying to make? Or does the novel simply urge the reader to contemplate and reflect on the very experience of feeling silly?
Even the other sections of the novel are concerned with matters of relation and how one thing relates to another ontologically. They are concerned with the relation people have to each other, and even bleeds into a critique of consumerism.
The characters also always seem to be on the move, with each scene ending in some variation of “Let’s go! Let’s go!” As a result, the novel feels a bit like a collection of stories rather than one large novel, as if the reader is just rushing from one unrelated story to the next. It makes these stories digestible and also keeps the reader reading more and more furiously as they advance through each scene, eager to find the connection.
This is certainly a weakness in the story as, until the very end, the novel feels not quite whole—it isn’t immediately clear what any of these scenes have to do with one another. Though the payoff might just make up for it. The ending is certainly the pinnacle of Emar’s surrealism. It is ridiculous, vulgar, and hypnotic. It is at once a celebration of mundanity and the everyday—a call to arms to fall in love with one’s own life and the cycles we live in—and a tale of obsession and the dangers of nostalgia, infinity, and not moving on. A double life emerges in the main character as he grapples with living in the moment and remembering the whimsical day he’s just had. Likewise, the reader is left living their own amazing double life, stuck physically in their seat with book in hand as well as stuck mentally in San Agustín de Tango, grappling with questions about flies, ostriches, and urine.
Photos of Santiago de Chile provided by Diego Plaza Homiston