Reading may consist of a personal encounter between a reader and the text that can’t ever be completely and universally shared, but I suspect that everyone who reads Alejandro Zambra’s fiction has pretty much the same experience.
First, you are drawn in by the Chilean author’s sly humor, easy-going style, and prolific invention of characters, details, and scenes. You notice how brilliantly the content of the story plays against its form. Soon, the narrative gets dizzy—it folds into and back out of itself; the story becomes a story about another story, perhaps even the story you are reading. You enjoy the poetic asides (they are profound but also elusive, somehow) and puzzle over the passing references to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, which don’t seem to fit into the narrative. You finish the book or story with the joy of having read something truly great, and the nagging suspicion you don’t quite know what it was about.
Take Zambra’s debut novel Bonsai. It’s a love story told through the fragmentary, intersecting lives of two university students, Julio and Emilia, and a small ensemble cast, all of whom have a predilection for deceit. In school, Julio and Emilia lie to each other about the books they’ve read. Years later, Emilia lies to her co-workers about being married, and perpetuates the lie by enlisting a friend’s husband to act as her imaginary one at an office party. Julio is the most inventive liar of them all—in the end, he turns his lies into a novel, entitled Bonsai.
Bonsai is about a lot of things: the falsely epic love between Julio and Emilia; the ways its characters sidestep authenticity by fabricating the central elements of their lives; the symbiotic relationship between form and subject, between a container and the things it contains, whether that container is a book or the life of a Santiago resident unable to transform himself into the literary character he longs to be. But like all of Zambra’s books, Bonsai also seems to be about something else. There are passages, observations, and symbols that seem to point to an overarching meaning, an idea that would draw the story’s parts into a larger whole. The problem is you can’t quite put your finger on it.
The sense of a phantom meaning pervades Zambra’s three novels (Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees, and Ways of Going Home) and his collection of short stories (My Documents). It is the unstated subject of this James Wood review of Zambra’s work. Zambra makes a point of describing his characters as characters, as if he means to illustrate something in dramatic form. Those characters are often misguided or unable to find their way. Many are writers who, in remarkably creative ways, can never manage to write, or to write what they think they should be writing. Everyone seems to suffer under one kind of silence or another. Augusto Pinochet pops in and out, an obvious objective correlative if ever there was one, a symbol Zambra seems to invoke in the name of something. But what is it? What is he trying to say?
Multiple Choice, Zambra’s latest book to appear in translation, can be read as a provocative response to that question. It is as if Zambra decided to make his elusive subject even more obscure. The book is designed like a college entrance exam, complete with sections on “Sentence Completion” and “Reading Comprehension” and a back page answer sheet that will send you scurrying for a No. 2 pencil. Multiple Choice, in other words, takes the question of what Zambra’s books are about and turns it, literally, into a puzzle.
Section I (“Excluded Term”), for example, instructs the reader to identify the word whose meaning bears no relation to either the heading or the other words listed, and contains questions like these:
What are these? Poems? A literary commentary on No Child Left Behind? The five possible answers for the last term, “silence”—“A) silence B) silence C) silence D) silence E) silence”—have to be a clue. But where are they supposed to lead?
In Sections II (Sentence Order), III (Sentence Completion), and IV (Sentence Elimination), the words grow into sentences, and the sentences into stories, several of which are amazing. Section IV, Question 65, for example, is about a ghost writer who pens the road trip memoir of a lottery winner who appears to be some kind of aging strongman—general, mafia don, or business tycoon. “That’s what we’ll do,” the strongman says when he hires the writer. “We’re going to tour Chile in the new car.” And so the aging figure of emasculated authority sleeps in the back seat while the ghost writer drives “like a zombie, to the beat of the old man’s terrifying snores.”
It’s the story of a waking nightmare. The old man is a Pinochet sympathizer. He harasses waiters in cafes. He pays the writer well, but only by the word. He’s a narcissist who sees but doesn’t notice or observe. The ghostwriter, meanwhile, is chained to the wheel, unable to speak in his own voice, forced instead to transcribe the nonsense proclamations of his backseat tyrant.
The three stories in the Reading Comprehension section are brilliant. My favorite is “Text No. 1,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year. On the surface it’s a story about cheating, on tests and in life, but its real subject is the devious power of cultural conformity. Chilean society, the story tells us, divides every person into two versions of himself and then pits them against each other. The choice is the same for everyone: Do you follow your heart, or your ambition and desire to conform? In the story’s final image, a faithless religion instructor turns over his hand to trace the life, head, and heart lines on his palm. Of course he is really searching for his soul.
If ever the work of a writer called out for a literary heuristic, Zambra’s does. Wood, in his review, concluded that Zambra’s great subject is fiction-making, that he is answering the call of the avant garde to remake fiction so it can capture all of life. I have a slightly different idea, having to do with Zambra’s favorite walk-on character, Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet came to power in a 1973 coup against Chile’s democratically elected, socialist president Salvador Allende. He left power in 1990. Zambra was born in 1975. His generation grew up under Pinochet’s rule and came of age in the years after his demise, just as Chile began its transition to democracy. Zambra, I would argue, is writing about a liberated generation’s attempts to imagine (or perhaps realize) itself, and of the mysterious ways in which it remains haunted by its dictatorial past.
Maybe to a critic with a hammer everything looks like a nail, but I can say that reading Zambra’s books in this light has the satisfying effect of pounding their seemingly disparate elements into alignment. It explains why his characters so often seem like exiles in their own country, and in their own lives; why they seem to be playing a part that has been written for them but that they don’t understand. It explains why so many of Zambra’s writers suffer from one kind of silence or another (Julio in Bonsai, who transcribes a novel he is not allowed to read; the playwright in “True or False,” from My Documents, who is literally silenced, so that his wife must speak for him; the writer-protagonist of The Private Lives of Trees, who worries that he has written, and is writing, the wrong book). It explains why Zambra writes so much about writers and writing, as the project of trying to write a novel is a pretty handy metaphor for a nation that is trying to invent the story of itself. Finally, it explains why Ways of Going Home is Zambra’s best and most fully realized novel: because it weaves his great theme so intricately into its story of the living ghosts of Chile’s past.
If nothing else, this theory is one way to make sense of Multiple Choice, which might otherwise read like a sophisticated send-up of a scholastic achievement test. The excluded terms in the first Section of the book are a projective test anyway, but keep Chile’s recent history in mind as you try to find the one word in each list that doesn’t belong:
And so on. The ghostwriter driving the general’s car is the country itself. The cultural conformity in “Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1” is the lingering repressiveness of the former regime. James Wood wasn’t wrong—Zambra is definitely concerned with the problem of making fiction. But the problem of making fiction is just one of the many problems a reborn country must figure out. In Chile, Multiple Choice is entitled Facsimil, a word that might describe a mirror of a country, or its representation, and therefore might have been a better title for the English edition, too.
Well, it’s one theory, anyway. The real beauty of Zambra’s writing is that it is the opposite of dictatorial. His stories are so playful and open, so simple and so much fun to read, so equally joyful and sad, that they can be about anything, or everything, or nothing. They really do invite the reader’s participation in the construction of the text. Which makes Zambra’s work, Multiple Choice included, captivating and meaningful in the best possible ways.