BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Daniel Alar­cón

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

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.

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