Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga

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Where the driest desert on Earth, the Atacama Desert of Chile, meets the Andes Mountains, dense clouds of fog form but never release their water where it’s needed most. These clouds are known as camanchacas. Tantalizing potential, hovering just out of reach.

The literal fog rarely makes an appearance in, Camanchaca a novel by Diego Zúñiga, but it’s still a supremely appropriate title. The story follows an unnamed college student protagonist who is visiting his father in Iquique. His long drive involves leaving his home, his mother, and his university in Santiago to pass through the Atacama Desert. Iquique is the site of the sediment of his family’s drama: the murky reason for his parents’ divorce and the death of an uncle. Reading through the book puts you on the edge of your seat, constantly expecting a breakthrough. The complete explanation for what’s going on, always seems like it’ll be on the next page. But Zúñiga is a master of showing that the full story is never the full story, and it’s never going to satisfy or justify.

On the surface, the situation in Camanchaca seems familiar enough. The protagonist narrator is mired in poverty and watches as it affects his mother even worse than himself, while also having to see his father’s new family enjoy material comforts he can’t build up the assertiveness to demand for himself. There’s a slowly dying dog that’s symbolically linked with his poverty. His grandfather runs a boarding house and fulfills the guilt-inducing role that lonely, eccentric grandparents often play. The narrator is extremely passive, wandering through events, only daring to have agency in a few key moments. I found myself constantly surprised that this was supposed to be a twenty-year-old character, but as the second half of the book unspools, his passivity and helplessness is justified in an artful peeling back of all the layers built up so far.

Camanchaca’s narration is the most impressive element of the novel. The narrator never says what he’s feeling, but the narration is constantly showing it—for example, by putting on and taking off headphones in response to lines of dialogue during their long car ride. There’s the occasional repetition of specific phrases, showing the narrator’s constant frustration. There’s the choice of whether to use “my stepmother,” “my father’s wife,” or “the woman.” And there’s moments like this:

“I don’t know,” I replied as she pulled the sheets over her face. It was a slow and awkward gesture. She told me no one was ever going to want a woman like her, and she asked me to hold her tight again. I obeyed, and she was quiet. I felt her bulky belly against my own. She asked me to run my fingers through her hair, and once again, I obeyed.

There’s so much power here in the word choice. So many things are said through the shorthand of the word “obeyed.”

Which makes translator Megan McDowell’s work all the more impressive. The precision of word choice required to make the narration work is really tight. But McDowell has proven to be an expert. She’s translated several Alejandro Zambra novels and stories (a feat unto itself) and last year translated the fantastic semi-autobiographical novel Seeing Red by Chilean author Lina Meruane—a book much different in tone from Camanchaca but one that also required absurdly specific word choice.

The structure of this novel is intricate, and that pays off—most of the time. The book jumps between multiple storylines constantly. A particular section of prose never crosses from one page to another. This works because Zúñiga is willing to limit some pages to a couple of sentences while going nearly to the end of the page in others, allowing him to tell the story in carefully managed bursts. The individual plotlines bleed over one another, which works really well thematically. It does make the book hard to reengage with once set down, though. I found myself having to rewind and reread the previous few pages to figure out what exactly was going on. The good news is that this is a very short book (~110 pages with a lot of white space), so picking it back up shouldn’t be much of an issue.

At the end of the book, I was satisfied. I felt like I understood the character who had been a mystery at the beginning. But in a way, this book also feels like the first half of something bigger. The narrative offers revelations but leaves things frustratingly unchanged. Maybe wanting more is a sign of something lacking, or maybe it’s a sign that Camanchaca is a good story. Regardless, this is a masterfully crafted short novel.

Graham Oliver is an MFA candidate and writing instructor at Texas State University. He is the nonfiction editor for Front Porch Journal. His work has previously appeared in the Harvard Educational Review, Full Stop, Ploughshares' blog, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about family, legacy, and genealogy. You can follow him on Twitter @GRAHAMMOLIVER. More from this author →