Il­lu­mi­nat­ing the ‘vo­ca­tion of de­feat’

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NOTTOREAD ALE­JAN­DRO ZAMBRA TRANS­LATED BY MEGAN MCDOW­ELL Fitz­car­raldo Edi­tions, £12.99

It is no easy thing to be­gin a re­view of a book which con­sists mostly of charm­ing and in­sight­ful book reviews. The com­par­i­son in­vites it­self, and is un­likely to be favourable. Not to Read isa col­lec­tion of Ale­jan­dro Zambra’s nonfiction writ­ing; typ­i­cally short, ap­proach­able mis­sives on var­i­ous south and cen­tral Amer­i­can writ­ers pub­lished in the Chilean press be­tween 2003 and 2008. Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Span­ish as No Leer in 2010, this first English edi­tion (trans­lated by Megan McDow­ell) adds sev­eral more re­cent pieces to the pile of 60-odd es­says.

In the open­ing cut, “Oblig­a­tory Read­ings”, Zambra says of his teach­ers at the Chilean National In­sti­tute: “That’s how they taught us to read: by beat­ing it into us.” Not to Read is maybe best un­der­stood as an an­ti­dote to such pre­scribed read­ing – a se­ries of ex­er­cises de­signed to cir­cum­vent the idea of read­ing as some­thing which must be done in a par­tic­u­lar way, with a par­tic­u­lar re­sult. The obli­ga­tion of the ti­tle per­tains not just to what must be read – Madame Bo­vary in this case – but also to how it must be read and what must be learned from it.

Zambra’s ap­proach is al­to­gether more am­bigu­ous, more por­ous: what one gives to read­ing, and what one re­ceives from it, changes from mo­ment to mo­ment, book to book, writer to writer. Tastes change; per­son­ally, po­lit­i­cally. Some­times you’re just not in the mood.

That said, Not to Read is a great in­tro­duc­tion to Latin Amer­i­can writ­ing of the past 50 years. Its firm but light­hearted dis­missal of “the Boom” (em­bod­ied by glob­ally feted writ­ers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Var­gas Llosa) gives way to an eru­dite and qui­etly con­fi­dent dis­cus­sion of nov­el­ists and po­ets who, as McDow­ell puts it in her in­tro­duc­tion, might not “ful­fil Euro­pean readers’ ex­pec­ta­tions of Latin Amer­i­can writ­ers – no magic, no lo­cal colour, no bom­bast”.

The­o­riesv­sex­am­ples

In­stead we get glimpses of the lives and works of a more self-ques­tion­ing co­hort, writ­ers for whom putting words on the page is rarely, if ever, a straight­for­ward mat­ter. Zambra lingers a while on a line from Clarice Lis­pec­tor: “I am writ­ing with a great deal of ease and flu­id­ity. One must dis­trust that.” “That’s how we are in Chile,” Zambra says. “We dis­trust flu­id­ity, the ease of words; that’s why we stam­mer so much. It’s not a crit­i­cism, just a de­scrip­tion.”

In­deed, most of Not to Read could be de­scribed as de­scrip­tion and not crit­i­cism (this, in turn, is not a crit­i­cism either). Zambra says that he has no the­o­ries, only ex­am­ples; ex­am­ples which refuse to co­a­lesce within a recog­nis­able the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, but which do, in time, add up to some­thing like a di­verse per­sonal canon: Ni­canor Parra, En­rique Lihn, Julio Ramón Ribeyro; Jose­fina Vi­cens – a fluid and heart­en­ingly well-thumbed set of touch­stones.

The first half of the book con­sists of short news­pa­per col­umns equal in length to this re­view, while the sec­ond half con­tains longer, more di­gres­sive es­says and lec­tures. There is more room in this lat­ter sec­tion for Zambra to re­flect on his own po­si­tion as a writer, an oc­cu­pa­tion which is never far from the sur­face of these texts. Zambra calmly dis­avows the hum­ble­brag of be­ing more a reader than a writer (an “el­e­gant” but “dem­a­gogic” self-con­struc­tion) and al­lows the ag­o­nies of the writer – a foun­da­tional scep­ti­cism of lan­guage, a near un­avoid­able un­ease with the task of com­mu­ni­cat­ing – to colour the plea­sures and bore­doms of the reader.

‘Talk­ingtonoone’

What the two ac­tiv­i­ties seem to share, for Zambra at least, is what he calls the “vo­ca­tion of de­feat that is im­plied by spend­ing hours talk­ing to no one”. Not to Read sug­gests that there is no as­cen­sion in the lit­er­ary sense; no point at which read­ing or writ­ing be­comes some­thing we have mas­tered. Taste, Zambra says, is thought of “al­most al­ways with a feel­ing or con­vic­tion of su­pe­ri­or­ity as­so­ci­ated with the present”. We like to think that we grow out of our child­ish pref­er­ences and mis­un­der­stand­ings, that we be­come more “ma­ture” – as readers if not as peo­ple. “Now we read bet­ter: that’s what we be­lieve,” he writes. “How to an­nul or even con­front – to not say com­bat – that con­vic­tion of su­pe­ri­or­ity?”

Not to Read is a won­der­fully li­cen­tious guide to un­der­min­ing that con­vic­tion. As Roland Barthes, a sub­tle but con­sis­tent in­flu­ence on this book, once wrote: “No progress in plea­sures, noth­ing but mu­ta­tions.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ULF AN­DER­SEN/GETTY IM­AGES

Ale­jan­dro Zambra: A great in­tro­duc­tion to Latin Amer­i­can writ­ing of the past 50 years.

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