Antonio Skármeta translated from the Spanish by John Cullen

A Distant Father

Publication Date: Sep 16, 2014

112 pp


List Price US $15.95
Trim Size (H x W): 4.5 x 7
ISBN: 9781590516256


List Price US $15.95
ISBN: 9781590516263

From the prize-winning Chilean novelist Antonio Skármeta, author of Il Postino, comes this soulful novella about a son and his estranged father

Jacques is a schoolteacher in a small Chilean village, and a French translator for the local paper. He owes his passion for the French language to his Parisian father, Pierre, who, one year before, abruptly returned to France without a word of explanation. Jacques and his mother’s sense of abandonment is made more acute by their isolation in this small community where few read or think. While Jacques finds distraction in a crush on his student’s older sister, his preoccupation with his father’s disappearance continues to haunt him. But there is often more to a story than the torment it causes. This one is about forgiveness and second chances.


Excerpt from A Distant Father

When Dad went away, my mother was suddenly extinguished, like a candle blown out by a gust of frosty wind.

Like her, I loved my father to the point of madness. And I too wanted him to love me back. But he was gone a lot. When he was home, he’d write letters at night on my old Remington portable typewriter and pile them up on the desk for me to hand on when the truck came to pick up the sheets. They were letters to his friends, he said. “Mes vieux copains.”

Occasionally, when we’ve been drinking brandy, the miller drops some nugget of information, and so I always listen to him with great attention. But his trails lead nowhere.  He keeps things quiet by talking about them. Or rather, he talks about things while keeping them quiet. It’s as though he had a secret pact with my father. Un jurement de sang.

When Pierre decided to leave, I was just about to graduate from the teachers’ college in Santiago. The week before I was to arrive in Contulmo, elementary school teaching certificate in hand, he told my mother that the cold climate of southern Chile cracked his bones, and that a ship was waiting for him in the harbor at Valparaíso.

I got off the train and he got on, boarding the very same car.

In southern Chile, the trains still belch smoke.

My father shouldn’t have left the same night I arrived. I didn’t even get a chance to open my suitcase and show him my diploma. My mother and I wept, both of us.



“Skarmeta treats his characters with a tender hand and, with impressive economy, balances dark humor with a sober and realistic portrait of a stagnant culture whose people are always longing for something better.” —Publishers Weekly

“In this jewel of a novella, Chilean Skármeta…exhibits [a] master touch…The beauty of the telling offsets the sadness and desolation of small-town life and the confusions and revelations that Skármeta describes are common to us all.” Library Journal

“A cunning little novella.” —Shelf Awareness

“[Skarmeta] knows how to use language without overusing language.” —Tweed’s

“Compelling.” —CounterPunch

“It is amazing how, in so few words, Skármeta is brilliantly able to paint the soul’s complexities and turn the world into a less uncertain place. With exquisite prose, as faint as a sigh, Skármeta weaves a fun and ironic story of the torturous road toward  maturity.” —Félix J. Palma, author of the New York Times bestseller The Map of Time

“In this spare, but emotionally rich and big-hearted new novella A Distant Father, the prize-winning Chilean author Antonio Skármeta accomplishes his usual magic of rendering with profound dignity the dilemmas of the human heart. Jacques, a young schoolteacher in the small village of Contulmo is on the cusp of a defining moment, a crisis of identity and manhood that unfolds in a masterfully told story. Desire confronts Jacques with life choices that present a clash of values: to stay with his beloved mother in their rustic idyll; to reunite with his abandoning Parisian father and pursue a more cosmopolitan life; or to explore a passionate relationship with the lovely Teresa. A poetic soul who finds beauty in the ordinary—winter apples, spiders building webs in a corner—Jacques’s haunting journey is archetypal and one we all share: becoming a Self. Written with exquisite calligraphic precision, A Distant Father is a book that plunges the reader into longing and loss, possibility and hope, and never strays from the heart’s truths.” —Dale M. Kushner, author of The Conditions of Love

A Distant Father sparkles. It’s an exquisite bow to life’s absurdity. Antonio Skarmeta’s prose is Chaplinesque—at once gentle-sad and drop-dead funny. And he has a magical touch with physical detail: time and again this tiny novella springs alive in our hands like a pop-up book.” —Leah Hager Cohen, author of No Book but the World

“This lovely coming-of-age novella is pure reading pleasure, like slipping into a cool pond on a hot day. Skarmeta has seemingly chosen his words and arranged his sentences with untiring precision and yet quiet modesty. The characters, especially Jacques, are endearing in their honesty and simplicity and the clarity of their expression. The twenty-five segments of the story flow gracefully toward a powerfully restrained climax that astonishes with its irony and deep humility. I’ll never forget this story and the character of Jacques. I shall recommend it to everyone I know.” —Nancy Peacock, University Bookstore (Seattle, WA)

“Do you recognize Skármeta ‘s name? No? He wrote the novel that inspired that pretty little academy award winning movie Il Postino. His is yet another lovely and insistent voice from a literary tradition that winds its way from Cervantes to Garcia Lorca to Garcia Marquez to Bolaño and into the present. This is a gentle story told without baroque excess or elaborate artifice or rhetorical flourish. Sometimes small and simple is best.” —Conrad Silverberg, Boswell Book Company (Milwaukee, WI)

“Funny how I didn’t want this short book to end. Skármeta’s writing style is deceptively simple as he guides you through a lush story, with an occasional flourish of poetic brilliance. A novella that makes you long for more to read, especially as you approach the final pages, can only be an unrequited love. Unless you rightly choose to move on and continue the joy of reading Skármeta’s prose by picking up The Days of the Rainbow, as I did. A perfect choice after reading A Distant Father.” —Rui Carlos da Cunha, Seminary Co-Op Bookstore (Chicago, IL)

“One of the great contemporary voices of Latin America, Skarmeta’s work has inspired a pair of superb motion pictures–Il Postino and No. The former is the captivating story of a rural postman who delivers mail to Pablo Neruda during his exile to an isolated island. The latter captures the thrilling campaign to defeat the dictator Pinochet in the plebiscite of 1988. A Distant Father is a more intimate and personal novel (novella, really) of coming of age. There is a plot within the plot that reveals itself suddenly at the close of the story. There is a bakery, a train station, a whorehouse, and a movie theater. There is love, sex, betrayal and the hint of redemption. In a curious twist, this provincial village in the remote south of Chile has taken on a decidedly French flavor—the father is a Frenchman; the son a translator of French poetry. It is a nod to a convergence of aesthetic sensibilities between the two countries and their literary connectedness. Felix J. Palma of the New York Times calls it ‘a fun and ironic story of the road toward maturity.'” —Theron O’Connor, Apostle Islands Booksellers (Bayfield, WI)
“An enchanting, touching memory of what it feels like to grow up, and the ambivalent knowledge one gains in the meantime.” —Nürnberger Zeitung

A Distant Father reads just like a summer love story right before coming of age: painful, but at the same time beautiful.” —Berliner Zeitung

“Antonio Skármeta is a cardiac surgeon who is working with words instead of a scalpel.” —Osnabrücker Zeitung

“Skarmeta’s narrative reminds me of fairy tales. Odd fairy tales without fairies and without ogres and without spells, but with just absolutely common people instead. It’s the magic of the commonplace.”  —O Globo

“Each fragrant line of A Distant Father is in just the right place. Without excess, every word is positioned with the precision of an artist who works with their eyes closed, fluidly. Without artifice, without sterile rhetoric, and without pyrotechnics.” —La vanguardia

“Poetic.” El Periódico de Catalunya

1. On page 26 Augusto says, “I don’t want to feel humiliated next Friday because I’m not a man yet.” Are there any similarities between Jacques and his student? How do these similarities affect their relationship?

2. How does Jacques describe the women he knows? Are there any similarities or differences in how he describes his mother and the Gutiérrez sisters? As the novel unfolds, is there a change in the way he describes them?

3. Over the course of the novel Jacques suffers from insomnia, anemia, bronchitis, a constant “cold” (p 9), conjunctivitis, and a fever. Why do you think this is?

4. Describe the relationship between Jacques and Pierre. Can any similarities be drawn between his relationship to his father and his native town’s relationship to the larger, outside world? How does the small town, Contulmo, help to shape the course of the narrative?

5. A number of movies are referred to in the novel (Rio Bravo, Rebel Without a Cause, Wild Is the Wind). What role does cinema play in A Distant Father? Does it influence any of the characters in the novel? Apart from the fact that he works at a movie theater, what is the relationship between Pierre and films?

6. List the different scenes that occur at the train station. Why do you think so many scenes take place there? What is the relationship between time and the train station?

7. After his aborted rendezvous with Teresa Gutiérrez, Jacques looks in a mirror and says in French, “I got old,” repeating the words from a character in the book he’s translating (p 79). Who else “gets old” in the novel? How are the stopped clock at the train station, Jacques’s characterization, the isolation of Contulmo, and the aging of the characters in the novel related?

8. How are Jacques’s obsession with his father’s absence, his preoccupation with the Gutiérrez sisters, and his literary aspirations related?

9. On page 78 Teresa says, “But it’s my house, Jacques. I don’t want to do it with you in this jail.” Does anything else serve as a “jail” in the novel? At the end, does anyone manage to escape their respective “jail(s)”?