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Chilean novel about a postman and a poet

Burning Patience, by Antonio Sk'armeta. New York: Pantheon Books. 132 pp. $10.95. The Chilean writer, Antonio Sk'armeta, is considered by both readers and literary critics to be one of the most representative authors of the post-boom generation in contemporary Latin American letters. That is, he is from the generation that comes after the boom writers who are so well known: Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, to name just three.

Sk'armeta became known in the English-speaking world through the translation of a novel called ``I Dreamt the Snow was Burning'' (1985), a moving account of a Chilean soccer player living through the last days of the regime of the Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende (1970-1973). Sk'armeta's second novel, the subject of this review, has already been translated into several European languages and also made into a film. It is one of his most tender works of fiction. Once again, the central protagonist is a young man living in the small fishing village of Isla Negra, about 40 miles north of the capital, Santiago. Mario J'imenez refuses to become a fisherman like his ancestors because he doesn't want to have to get up so early in the morning, so he becomes the village postman instead. He delivers mail to, among others, Pablo Neruda, who made his home in this cove by the sea from the 1950s to his death in 1973.

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A beautiful friendship develops between the postman and the poet. Sk'armeta succeeds in portraying these two opposite figures in a way that shows their similarities. Neruda helps Mario J'imenez write love poems with which to win his bride, Beatriz Gonzales, and through Mario's eyes, he witnesses events in the life of Neruda from his run for the presidency of Chile (which he lost) to his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971.

As a backdrop for the stories of the two protagonists, we witness the history and habits of the nation: Neruda's immense popularity among the Chilean working class, as well as his Nobel Prize, and finally the tragedy of his death, which, stranger than fiction, coincided with the overthrow and death of Allende, and the beginning of the military dictatorship of Pinochet that continues to this day.

Even though current historical events are a part of the book, the essential story is neither historical nor political; it is a simple story of an unusual friendship. Nevertheless, in the book as in life, there is no escaping the political events taking place in the nation, and at the end Neruda and Allende are dead, and the postman is arrested along with so many others.

``Burning Patience,'' the phrase, is taken from Neruda's acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He, in turn, took it from a poem of Rimbaud. This book is a delight to read, with much humor, and in spite of the ending, which cannot be helped, the book is cheerful and hopeful, a real achievement.

The mix of the fictional and the real is masterful, and that is what gives the book its special appeal and brilliance.

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