Alejandro Zambra: ‘I write because I need to feel I’m not dead’
Zambra’s writing is often brief, even though it encompasses everything from childhood to Chile’s dark history
Alejandro Zambra: ‘I am utterly sure that I read a different Seamus Heaney than you. And I loved him, for sure, I felt close to him, but I know that closeness involves a deep distance.’ Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
It’s hard to escape a strange sense of wonder when reading Alejandro Zambra’s books. They are slight enough to look at – Bonsai (2008), his first novel, clocks in at about 40 pages – and they can sometimes feel as if they are mere sketches of stories, soon to be fleshed out. At a glance, they seem all bone.
The Chilean’s latest book to be translated into English is a collection called My Documents. Like the motley contents of the computer folder, the writing ranges from longer narrative stories to memorable snapshots and journal entries, but they all remain oddly, surprisingly personal.
As anyone who has ever tried and failed to clear out a hard drive knows, sometimes the strangest scraps take on a glimmer of life. In My Documents, those slivers of evidence have a stubborn resonance.
One of the most unusual aspects of Zambra’s writing is the centrality of childhood. His stories, which often tell of specific places or people, can seem unimportant; there are no grand coming-of-age tales, but rather implicit acknowledgments of how we never know what will stick with us as we grow older. Nor, by extension, do we know what we’re forgetting.
This relationship – the unpredictable division between memory and loss – is at the heart of Zambra’s work.
“I think art is about what you lose after childhood,” he says. “What you’re losing all the time. Baudelaire says the artist is like a child, and also like a convalescent. I like that image a lot, the artist as convalescent. Someone who’s learning to walk or to talk again. Over and over. One who goes back and sees things as if for the first time.
“When I write about something it’s because I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I explore it by writing. In other words, if I often return to childhood in my work, it’s always by taking a different path. I don’t start out with that intention; maybe all roads lead there.”
A sorry bunch
The adults in My Documents are a fairly sorry bunch; they can’t hold down jobs or sustain relationships; they can’t give up smoking. It’s tempting to see this as a general reflection of early adulthood today, but a story with a title such as The Most Chilean Man in the World (a man flies from Chile to Belgium to surprise his girlfriend, only for the whole plan to collapse around him) suggests there might be something more parochial going on.
Is there a Chilean idea of maturity, a Chilean image of adulthood? “I think the subject of maturity for me is related to our idea of family, our failures as a generation,” he says. “We are people who distrust the traditional goals and roles that have been handed down to us. And there is a concern with not complaining. We grew up thinking we didn’t have the right to complain, partly because we were repressed by the system as a whole, and also because we thought we hadn’t suffered enough to earn the right. We had seen people who really suffered. Or we didn’t understand that there was suffering all around us. Complaining was too obvious a way of clamouring for attention.
“But maybe I’m really talking about myself here, and I am projecting these things unduly. I think maturity is over-rated anyway, as Gombrowicz said. I mean, it’s so artificial to assume that at a certain point you’re done, that you grew up and that’s that. And now you’re dead. I write because I need to feel that I’m not dead.”
Complex political history
The backdrop to much of Zambra’s writing is Chile’s complex political history: the paranoia and repression of the Pinochet dictatorship and the uncanny years after 1990. Reading these stories as an outsider with only a basic grasp of the situation, you wonder what you’re not picking up on.
How would a Chilean person read a story about a child spying on a man he thinks might be a communist? Or one about a down-and-out writer who tries to teach English literature to a bourgeois beneficiary of the regime? The stories are never about dictatorship or colonialism directly but, as in Irish literature, history has a way of casting shadows on the most personal of tales.
How does it feel to have those shadows, those questions of identity and history, interpreted by a non-Chilean audience? And is there a fear about being seen as representative of that history and that identity?
“Many readers of ‘world literature’ might have expectations for what my books will be about, and expect me to be representative in a way that is different from what Chilean readers expect,” Zambra says. “Many foreign readers read my work in a way I couldn’t predict. I like that. It’s entirely out of my control, and that’s why I like it. They see things I didn’t know were there, and after they mention them I begin to see them.
“On the other hand, I’ll always remember an American reader who said that though he liked The Private Lives of Trees, it was ‘not Latin American literature’. I mean, the guy thought Latin American literature was a genre, with women flying and all that.
“In one way or another, similar things happen in your country and in your language. I am utterly sure that I read a different Seamus Heaney than you. And I loved him, for sure, I felt close to him, but I know that closeness involves a deep distance, and maybe part of what I loved was that illusion of closeness.”
Many of Zambra’s literary children grow up to be writers, and so the slippage between life and the narration of life becomes a defining part of the stories.
Nowhere is this more evident, and more problematic, than in Artist’s Rendition, the final story in My Documents. A writer needs to finish a story for a competition, and he uses the story of a girl he knew as a child, including the abusive behaviour of her father and stepbrother.
It’s a short but tough read because of the writer’s lack of unease about manipulating it for his own gain. Are there limits to where the writer can, or should, go?
“Yes, there are limits,” says Zambra. “The author is merely the person who tells a particular story. One who gives himself the right to tell it. The author always deals with the danger of being authoritarian; the danger of betraying the people he talks about; betraying what he loves. In a certain way, that’s what Artist’s Rendition is about: the distance between the writer’s existence as observer and the often painful stories he uses.
“That idea of human suffering as a tool can come to feel incriminating or damning to a writer. On the other hand, telling the stories of people who have suffered in ways large and small, stories that might not otherwise be told, is valuable. It’s a responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly.”
- My Documents is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions