Antonio Skármeta is best known to me (and maybe everyone else) as the author of Il Postino, a novella that mixes politics and poetics and love and letters, which was adapted into an Academy Award winning film (the poster of which you can see in the book cover below). In A Distant Father (Un padre de película, 2010; tr. from the Spanish by John Cullen, 2013) we get another novella, but one that mixes a father-son relationship and film.
The title of the English-language edition is A Distant Father, so let’s start with that angle. Even in the first of many very short chapters (most running a page or two at most) we feel the absence of the father. Twenty-one-year-old Jacques introduces himself as the village schoolmaster in rural Chile. He lives by the mill and is, he says, surrounded by “rustic elements, rural things.”
During the day, my mother washes enormous sheets, and in the evening we drink lemon balm tea and listen to radio plays until the signal gets lost among the dozens of Argentine stations that crowd the dial at night.
Apparently, one year before, his French father went back to Paris. It was out of the blue. Jacques returned from school, got off the train, said hello to his father, who then boarded the same train and left. There were no arguments; on the contrary, his father said he still loved both the mother and son. Nevertheless, when he left, “my mother was suddenly extinguished.” We get the sense that this father has, in the past, been the beneficiary of “distance,” in a sense. He was always gone a lot, and when home spent much of his time writing letters. This created a longing: “Like her, I loved my father to the point of madness. And I too wanted him to love me back.”
But now, with father officially absent, both mother and son a passing the tranquil days and evenings, a bit numb, “merely convalescing.” One of Jacques’ students (who seems to be missing his own father figure) asks if Jacques can help him enter a certain out-of-the-way home. Jacques chides the student a bit, saying he’s too young, though really Jacques is mostly upset at himself for never having visited this home either. With all of his need for love and numbing, you’d think visiting the whorehouse would be a natural solution.
But the more natural solution is the movies. The original Spanish title is Un padre de película, which translates to “A Father of Film.” Quite a bit actually happens in this novella, yet the most important things happen at the movie house and in the mental space of a movie plot, ultimately bringing this novella to its naturally generous conclusion.
For me, it doesn’t work as well as Il Postino. The elements are here and do fit nicely together, but it settles a bit closer to the surface. Still, I picked the book up, read it straight through and have read it a second time. I can’t deny it has touched and charmed me. Strangely, though I don’t believe it is as well done as Il Postino, I like A Distant Father more.