Alejandro Zambra (trans. by Megan McDowell)
San Francisco, CA
Alejandro Zambra has been called a major successor to Roberto Bolaño, and it’s easy to see why. The Chilean compatriots share a gnomic bookishness, a kaleidoscopic storytelling style, and an ability to leaven the seriousness of their themes with an impish sense of humor. Plumbing the fault lines of Chile’s landscape and society, both authors capture the shifting emotional valence of a country gone slightly out of whack, and bring a strong sense of moralism to a world in which morals seem to be in short supply.
But while Zambra may be less over-the-top than the man who conceived of The Savage Detectives, his slightly more earthbound tales nonetheless create an atmosphere that gives an aura of magic and mystery to events that begin in the mundane, but rise far above it. His love for puns (both as a stylistic flourish and a narrative device) and his sharply playful take on social rules and regulations give each tale an appealing shaggy dog story quality, a casualness that makes their twists and turns all the more unexpected.
One story in My Documents takes the pun as its main source of being. Titled “The Most Chilean Man in the World,” it carries its romantic, sad-sack hero halfway around the world in pursuit of a woman who no longer has any interest in him, and sets him loose to stagger, “like Spiderman’s cowardly apprentice,” through the streets of Brussels. When he falls in with some new friends (a writer and a publisher, of course), he proceeds to regale them with a long anecdote about the “chilliest man in the world," the word “chilly” then being transposed into “Chilean” by one of his companions. And after the story is told, the narrator goes off to bed and the next morning, tentatively moves out into the unknown, completely alone.
In earlier novels, such as Bonsai and Ways of Going Home, Zambra created stories that function like sets of Russian nesting dolls, one narrative thread interlocking with and commenting upon another. The complexity and denseness of those books can be seen in all of these new stories. Broken into four sections, the collection runs a wide gamut, from a chronicle of a contemporary family in disarray (“True or False”) to a wry dissection of the elite portion of Chile’s educational system (“National Institute”).
The first section of the book consists of the excellent title story, “My Documents.” “My father was a computer and my mother was a typewriter,” the story’s narrator tells us at the start, and the story of his expanding sense of self takes a course that is charted at least partly through his relationship to various forms of technology and social structures. From learning and then outgrowing the beauty of “the language of mass” to gauging his emergence into young manhood by the arrival of a new laptop whose red mouse is leeringly described by the IT guys as “the clitoris,” the story’s hero experiences life’s personal transitions through the filter of the institutions and artifacts that contain him. Soccer, rock music, and the plot lines of television shows all assume pivotal importance to the characters in these stories, showing us how contemporary culture gives voice to the deepest emotions and thoughts of the people who consume it. Zambra expertly joins the social to the personal and sets up a tone that finds a wide range of expressions throughout the rest of the book.
"My Documents" also introduces another theme that runs through the entire collection. Ambiguity, whether at the level of sexual identity or simply one’s attitude toward the basic truth of a situation, is a constant in this collection. When the hero is talked into becoming an acolyte in the Catholic Church by one of his schoolmates, he keeps secrets about himself from both the church (he claims to have already taken communion when this is not so) and his family, from whom he keeps his entire position as an acolyte hidden. Double lives and secret identities pop up throughout the book, creating a world in which knowledge is always questioned and nothing is ever set in stone.
In the second section, four stories give that duality life by illustrating them in different social situations. “Camilo” tells the story of the conflicts that the arrival of a godson brings to a young boy and his family, while “Long Distance” is about a young man whose relationship with his girlfriend takes an unexpected turn when the fictitious game that they build their affair on collapses. “True or False” turns on the back and forth of a boy between his divorced parents’ households, and “Memories of a Personal Computer” matches the duration of a romance to the lifespan of a PC.
The third and fourth sections mirror the structure of the first two, with the third section consisting of first-person narratives that bring Zambra’s aesthetic into focus while the fourth once again applies that aesthetic to a range of situations.
The third section’s highlight, “I Smoked Very Well,” serves as a manifesto for the glamour and psychic power of the cigarette. “I could smoke without writing,” the narrator opines, “but I couldn’t write without smoking.” And the book ends with its most ambitious story, “Artist’s Rendition,” which lets the reality of an author’s life and the story that he is telling interweave so closely that at times the reader feels lost in a maze. The themes of duality, ambiguity, and the construction of knowledge as an ever-changing entity are given vivid realization here.
Zambra’s engaging, conversational style is well rendered in Megan McDowell’s clear, lucid translation. My Documents represents a major step forward for the author, and also serves as an excellent introduction to his work for readers who are new to Zambra's work.
Barnes has written for publications from the Wall Street Journal to ARTnews, and has worked as a graphic designer and editor.