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.
|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
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About the Author
John Cullen is the translator of many books from Spanish, French, German, and Italian, including Yasmina Khadra’s Middle East Trilogy (The Swallows of Kabul, The Attack, and The Sirens of Baghdad), Christa Wolf’s Medea, Manuel de Lope’s The Wrong Blood (Other Press), and Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes (Other Press). He lives in upstate New York.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Reading Group Guide
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)”?