The characters in Zambra’s stories and novels can’t help being impostors. Alarcón finds out why, on the occasion of the Chilean author’s recently published short- story collection, My Documents.
I first met Alejandro Zambra in 2007, at a literary festival in Bogotá. I’d read him, of course—his first novel, the brilliant and subtle Bonsai, had been all but forced on me by Chilean friends—but I’m often wary of meeting writers whose work I admire. In this case, I shouldn’t have been concerned. There was a moment on the second night of the festival, which, at least in my mind, cemented our friendship. We’d all been invited to a party at the apartment of a local critic and editor. I don’t remember who told us, but we were all somehow under the impression that the apartment had just been sold, that we could destroy it if we so pleased. The gathered writers needed no further invitation. There was hardly any furniture left, and the windows had been thrown open. No one sat because there was nowhere to sit. Many danced. Everyone drank. No one discussed the future of Latin American literature. There was nothing staid about the party, nothing intellectual. At a certain point, I was standing with Zambra, both of us quite drunk, when a young man strolled up to us. He asked if I was Alarcón. He was Bogotano, and if you know Bogotanos, you can easily imagine the friendly tone with which he said the next line: “Alarcón, I found your novel unrealistic.”
It might have been three in the morning. Just a few steps from us, on the dance floor, a generation of Latin American writers recreated scenes from Black Orpheus. A cool evening breeze blew through the empty apartment, and I didn’t quite know what to say. Zambra did: “I find you unrealistic, huevón!” he bellowed, and shooed the would- be critic away.
Alejandro Zambra is an extraordinary human being, a good friend, and one of the writers of my generation I most admire. There are few writers as observant, as sensitive to human vanity, or as forgiving of the same. In January, we spoke over Skype about his short- story collection My Documents, just out from McSweeney’s, as well as his career, his obsessions, and his secret life as a songwriter.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So I want to start with something you said in your book of essays No leer (Do not read), an odd title for a book by a novelist and poet. You said you learned to read a palos, or by force. Your school days and education form the background for your most recent short- story collection, My Documents. Was being taught to read by force the norm for your generation?
ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA: Yes, it’s a generational issue more than a personal one. In the No leer essay, literature is presented as completely dissociated from pleasure. If knowledge was imposed top- down in school, reading, in my case, arrived all of a sudden, without much of a context. I always associated it with pleasure. My interest in literature came from lyrics, from language, jokes, and tongue twisters, more than from direct reading— there weren’t any books around. There was literature, though.
DA: An oral literature?
AZ: My maternal grandmother wrote songs and stories, but I never saw her read anything other than the newspaper. She had the temperament of a narrator. I remember her earthquake stories; her life’s greatest trauma had been the earthquake of 1939 that wiped out the town of Chillán.
DA: Did she lose her parents then?
AZ: Yes. She often would tell the story of how her surviving brother saved her from the rubble, and would bring up the sensation of having dirt in her mouth, which apparently lasted years.
DA: How old was she?
AZ: Fifteen, or eighteen, or twenty? She wasn’t registered immediately after she was born, so she would take advantage of this to shave off years from her age. The earthquake completely marked her life. After, she moved to Santiago.
DA: When you hear about trauma as a child it doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps it’s only now that you understand what it meant for her to say that the event marked her life. Before it was just empty words. But when you’re grown, when you’re forty you go, “Holy shit! To lose it all!”
AZ: Yes. She’d tell these stories and there’d be lots of laughter, even though inevitably, at the end, all the characters in them died. I’d heard so much about earthquakes, and I’d experienced some small ones, but the 1985 quake was an important moment.
The novelWays of Going Home starts with that earthquake, although that’s not exactly how things went for me. My grandmother was at home; she took my cousin and me to the patio and embraced us. She was screaming and calling the others. We weren’t feeling it. All of a sudden the earthquake came to a halt and we saw the neighbors, which made no sense, since, in theory, there was a wall between us. We realized that it’d come down. It was a relatively mild earthquake next to the one in Chillán, of course, but also next to the one we had in 2010. In 1985 something that’d been fiction all of a sudden was becoming real. Paradoxically, there was even a flash of satisfaction.
DA: As if experiencing an earthquake were part of a growth process for a Chilean.
AZ: Yes, something that unites all of us is that we have
either grown up hearing about an earthquake or have gone through one.
DA: You’ve mentioned that your grandmother wrote lyrics. You too have written lyrics under a pseudonym.
AZ: Nobody knows that, Daniel!
DA: Why? What’s wrong with it?
AZ: I’m embarrassed. Most of my lyrics are terrible.
DA: Come on, man! This is for the sake of literary history!
AZ: Best not to bring this little chapter to light.
DA: I’m curious as to what you found attractive about doing it. What does it allow you to do that writing a poem, a story, or a novel doesn’t?
AZ: It’s a good question. It’s all play. Having space to play is extremely relevant in writing. I’m trying to redirect the question here . . .
DA: I can tell.
AZ: Ask me something else. That’s a big secret. Did I tell you about it?
DA: Someone told on you. I can’t remember whom.
AZ: Okay, I’ve written some lyrics. I’m not sure it’s that different from writing literature. I’m always looking for that moment in which I’m not sure of what I’m doing.
When you write a book you’re full of expectations, you make plans, you think it will turn this way or that. Yet the moment of true joy comes when you have no clue as to what you’re doing, when one phrase follows another and you’re there witnessing what comes to the surface. Traditional structures and rhymes require a similar unconscious engagement, when sound comes over sense, for instance. I’ve thrown out pieces of mine because I had them all figured out beforehand—I was hovering over the text. Books are born once they surpass you.
DA: I have so many notes on your books now I can’t remember where this came from. Maybe from The Private Lives of Trees. The protagonist—a writer, like many of your protagonists—says he doesn’t want to write a novel, but instead “arrive at a nebulous but coherent zone where he can pile up his memories.” Do you subscribe to that definition of the novel?
AZ: In Bonsai too there’s a rejection of a certain idea of the novel; a rejection that contains, in itself, a search. I understand writing in general to be a search. Of course, I’m speaking of intangible or esoteric things. In some books there is no search; they are merely appealing to the conventions of genre. I have no use for that. I much prefer books that set their own rules.
DA: Do traditional or conventional novels frustrate you?
AZ: The conventional ones more than the traditional ones, I’d say. As a genre, the novel remains pretty much undefined, so when we speak against the novel we’re speaking about bad novels or novels that we don’t like. A while ago I became a chaotic reader.
Alejandro Zambra and Nicanor Parra, 2003.