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Interview with Alejandro Zambra

When I arrived at the home of Chilean author Alejandro Zambra, in the neighbourhood of La Reina in Santiago, it was a late afternoon in October, and neither of us had eaten. Zambra suggested ceviche: ‘There’s a great Peruvian restaurant around the corner and they know me by name.’ He told me he is a creature of habit, and that he would probably keep eating there even if he didn’t really like the food. We took the food back and ate it in the author’s sun-filled living room, every wall lined with books and most surfaces covered with pens, papers and ashtrays.

 

Born in Santiago de Chile in 1975, Zambra is the leading light of a generation of Chilean authors who have encountered both commercial success and critical acclaim, and whose work explores the contested space of the trauma inherited from the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990). Known primarily for his slender yet ornately constructed narratives, Zambra’s first novel Bonsái was published by Anagrama in 2006 and was quickly followed by The Private Life of Trees in 2007. A further novel, Ways of Going Home, which drew heavily from the author’s childhood, was published in 2011, and in 2013 Zambra published a collection of short stories called My Documents, aptly titled from the folder on his desktop where many of these works had been gestating for years. In addition to these narratives, which are available in English in the masterful translations of Megan McDowell and Carolina de Robertis, Zambra has published two collections of poetry and a quirky tome called Multiple Choice that is a kind of narrative poem in the form of a multiple choice aptitude test. As if all this isn’t enough, Zambra taught until recently at the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago and for many years was a literary critic for La Tercera daily newspaper. A collection of his essays, which touch on literature from Uruguay to Germany, Japan to Argentina, and most places in between, has just appeared in English as Not to Read, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Zambra came up with the title, he said, after years of suffering at the hands of mediocre teachers and lecturers: ‘As far and my friends and I could tell, the entire purpose of the teaching of literature in Chile was to dissuade everyone from the reading and enjoyment of books.’

 

The popularity of Zambra’s writing can be attributed perhaps in part to a voguish critical notion that contends that ‘World Literature’ in the twenty-first century is a profoundly globalised phenomenon. The theory holds that thanks to transnational commerce and the Internet, writers from Chile, the United States, India or Australia are able to participate in the same cultural conversation at the same time, rather than waiting for Art and Literature to arrive in a sea-chest from Europe. Zambra’s novels are unabashedly middle-class in both their interests and milieu, and this in part contributes to the success of his work in places like France and the US. But the spectre of recent history is everywhere in the author’s work: Zambra writes from the perspective of an individual who was simply too young to take sides in the ideological conflict of the twentieth century in Latin America – by the time he reached adulthood, the coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende had taken place over twenty years ago, and the dictator Augusto Pinochet had been removed from office by a plebiscite that returned the country to democracy. What remains is an inherited trauma.

 

Q

The White Review

—  When it comes to describing the literature being written in Chile today, there are at least two recurring tropes: on the one hand, much is written about a generation of authors who were children during the last military dictatorship; the author Nona Fernández describes it as a generation that is media guacha or ‘slightly orphaned’. On the other hand, there is a feeling that contemporary Latin American authors now fully inhabit a globalised literary landscape. The critic Patricia Espinoza has said that at the very least, the existence or otherwise of a ‘national literary tradition’ has returned as a topic of serious conversation. What is your position on the matter, given that your books might be considered very Chilean in many aspects?

A

Alejandro Zambra

 I also believe that my books are very Chilean, although I’m in the worst position to say so, because I am Chilean. I think that all literature is national and personal at the same time. Personal and national. Private and public. I don’t see a reason to stop talking about literature in terms of the national and the regional just yet. Everything hinges on what is irreducible in writing, and for me that irreducible bedrock is both personal and collective. I want to capture the difference between them by using the same language.

 

Q

The White Review

— Language is clearly very important in your literature, and your prose is recognisably Chilean, without being impenetrably so. I’m reminded of a passage from one of the more emblematic Chilean novels of the 1990s, Mala Onda by Alberto Fuguet. The author asserts that Chileans speak Spanish the way Australians speak English. Could you describe your approach to language in your writing?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— The words in my books are words that I would say; that in certain circumstances, I myself would use. My writing style has a lot to do with orality, with a desire for orality. There’s a desire in my books to be talking and listening, rather than writing and reading.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your first two published works, Bahía inútil (1998) and Mudanzas (2003) are collections of poetry, but you are more widely known these days for your prose. Do you draw distinctions between the two forms? Was there anything in particular that occasioned your move from poetry to prose?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— Those first two books are heavily influenced by Ezra Pound; they’re quite imagist in their execution. I’m a poet by formation and most of what I have read in my life is Chilean poetry. I never read much contemporary prose, just the classics. My community was always poetry, and it still is – most of my friends today are poets who aren’t interested in writing novels. I think my move to prose had something to do with the defeat of poetry; not in the sense that I failed but in the sense that I was unable to express the things that I wanted in poetry. Then again, my poetry was always quite narrative in form, so I don’t see such a huge difference between my poetry and my prose.

 

I’ve never stopped writing poetry, but it was never my intention to be a writer. I always wanted to be a teacher, but I also began to keep a diary from an early age, and for years now I’ve jotted down everything that happens.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you ever re-read your diaries?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— As Mario Levrero once said, the diary is the genre of boredom. My diary is writing without any literary pretence. It’s very poorly written. Sometimes I read over it, just to depress myself, so I don’t forget who I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do, however many years ago. I like to remind myself every now and again of the enormous capacity we have for forgetting.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you write every day?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— I write every day, but not necessarily literature, although this can change when I’m at work on a longer piece. When I’m completely absorbed in a book, I’m much more obsessive about it than disciplined. I’ve never been the type of writer who says they’re going to write for two hours every day because they have to write a novel. It wouldn’t work for me either; I’m too obsessive by nature.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your father was an IBM salesman during your childhood in the suburb of Maipú. This made you a relatively early adopter of the word processor, and they feature prominently in your fiction. Do you think this has influenced your writing process?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— I have a thousand manic rituals when it comes to writing: I change the font, the size and spacing of the text, there’s no limit to the ways I can waste time. There’s nothing special about me in that sense. But I still like to write by hand, and I often read my own writing aloud and record it. I’m interested in the oral dimension of the texts I write; I want the words to sustain themselves in air. But I think our brains now function pre-loaded with avant-garde artistic processes like ‘cut and paste’. Whether you’re writing a novel or an email, you know that language is more fluid and completely transitory when you use a computer. So you ask yourself in a much more incisive way, why is this writing publishable?

 

Q

The White Review

— Is there a link in your work between process and form? Your novels in particular feel intricately constructed; do you begin with a large block of text and whittle it down or do you put them together piece by piece?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— The process is always changing, and each book tends to suggest its own form. Bonsái was a novel of assemblage and then pruning. At one point it was many different books at the same time. The Private Life of Trees was a much more symphonic novel, in the sense that it grew like a crescendo. I distrust my own instincts a lot when I write. Clarice Lispector has a great text in which she wrote, ‘this is coming out too easily, I should be suspicious’. I had to search hard for the form of Ways of Going Home. I had been walking around for a couple of years with the book in my head before I wrote the first paragraph and found the title. Then I started over from scratch, and wrote it in one big stretch, but of course that version included all the previous mental versions.

 

Q

The White Review

— I have heard that once you finish a book, you like to start work on a new one straight away, because you feel that as soon as a book is finished, it no longer belongs to you.

A

Alejandro Zambra

— People often say that publishing a book is like giving birth to a baby, but that’s not true. I think it’s more like when your kid leaves home. There’s a very long-standing relationship that will be changed forever, and sure, you want things to go well for your kids, for them to be treated well and to be loved, but there’s also the feeling that you’re done raising them, and you’ve let them go out into the world, and so what you really care about now is the next kid you’re raising.

 

Q

The White Review

— In 2011, your first novel Bonsái was made into a film by the director Cristián Jímenez, and while the basic plot was retained, much of the setting was changed in adaptation.

A

Alejandro Zambra

— When Bonsái was turned into a film, the director did what he wanted and that was perfectly fine with me, but I also felt a sense of loss.

 

Q

The White Review

— So it can be difficult nonetheless to let those kids go off into the world?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— For me it’s the same even with drafts of a novel. I make changes right up to the last minute; I must have a terrible reputation with my publishers. I’m incredibly obsessive about the final part of the process, it’s almost like it’s difficult for me to accept the situation, to actually watch the kid leaving home.

 

Q

The White Review

— For a time Latin America was famous for the so-called ‘total novel’ of the Boom era, books like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral that aimed to represent a time and place in its totality. In the twenty-first century, the novel seems to be smaller, more fragmentary, but also networked in an interesting way. Do you consider your books to form a connected whole? Is there an explicit connection between the protagonists of Bonsái and The Private Life of Trees, Julián and Julio?

 

A

Alejandro Zambra

— I think that as a reader, it is possible to understand my books as one connected whole. My first two novels are very closely linked and I think that The Private Life of Trees is a novel written against Bonsái. The way it works is that Julián (the protagonist of The Private Life of Trees) wrote Bonsái and he’s very pleased with himself for having written such a short and strange book. He wants to show it to his wife, but his wife never returns home and that’s far more important than the book he’s just written.

 

In terms of the Great Latin American Novel, or perhaps we could call it ‘The Dictatorship Novel’, I’m not so sure. It presupposes a very high level of intentionality and representation, like a product devised by a focus group. I’ve always been suspicious of false articulations like those. Ways of Going Home is a novel that’s less about events themselves than it is about ways of approaching certain events. But I’m not always sure what it is that I intend to write when I set out. I always begin with an image, and then I consider the writing of a book to be a process of opening into an intransitive space, of giving oneself over to uncertainty. A book never much resembles the idea you had for it in the first place.

 

Q

The White Review

— In all of your writing, but in your novels especially, there is a very dynamic relationship between the past and the present. I’m thinking in particular of that masterful passage in Ways of Going Home where the protagonist is walking by the National Stadium with his friend Claudia, and he begins to associate several different levels of memory with the physical space around him, all the while conducting a conversation in the present. In just over two pages, you manage to fuse together at least five time periods or narrative chronologies: there is the present moment of the walking and the conversation, the protagonist’s personal memories of attending university nearby, the collective history of the National Stadium as a torture site during Pinochet’s dictatorship, and Claudia’s first memories of the stadium: attending a children’s concert with her parents. Finally, the inherited narrative of the parents edges its way in. When taking their daughter to the concert, they were forced to look on nervously and accept the image of the stadium festooned with decorations and alive with the laughter of children, while at the same time they are deeply troubled by the dark history of the place. This process of layering time, space and subjectivities seems key to understanding your work.

A

Alejandro Zambra

— I think that scene came out very naturally in the book. Now that you mention the layering of five different chronologies, I have to say it’s the first time I’ve thought of it that way, because it was quite simply something that came from the way we tried to formulate the past when we were around eighteen years old. The idea that the past isn’t ours, and then the sense of impropriety that comes with writing about it is a recurring theme of my books. I remember when I was about twelve years old, I had to travel quite far everyday to get to the National Institute, where I went to school in downtown Santiago. Sometimes I would wait for my parents to leave in the morning, and then I would go downtown but not to school. I really loved walking through the city by myself like that, trying to understand what was happening around me: not necessarily the political situation, but what was happening in life, in the street, full of all these people who were so different from the people I knew, although deep down they were the same people. And then I can remember one day in particular – I don’t know why but I was about to burst into tears and then suddenly (of course, when I tell it to you now it sounds like some kind of epiphany, but things aren’t like that in real life, they’re not as linear as they are in television shows) I realised for the very first time that all these people had lives, that everyone has a life, everyone has problems, they all arrive home hungry and sit down to eat a sandwich, or maybe they wait for their family to get home and then they have dinner together, and I think that this feeling is very present in my books. Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this, but a thousand times in my books I’ve arrived at this same realisation: it’s the ending of Ways of Going Home, it’s the entire premise of Bonsai, and it’s the reflection on the legitimacy of pain that animates the last story in My Documents. Ultimately, it’s the feeling of putting yourself in the place of others. This almost sounds like a cliché today, some trite, half-Christian maxim. But more specifically it’s the impossibility of putting yourself in the place of the other, the impossibility of putting yourself in your father’s place, in the place of someone who was tortured, or the place of the children of the true victims. All of this creates a climate of hesitation where truth and sincerity are caught up in an endless search. It’s like discovering that the past wasn’t the way you thought you experienced it. That’s a very complicated and painful thing, because it can completely upend your conception of yourself and the past.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your novels pulse with the presence of music and literature: across your entire body of work there is a sustained interest in books and the act of reading, and the way literature influences identity and relationships. How does intertexuality function in your writing?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— Of all my books, I think that Bonsái in particular has a lot to do with the longing to read, and the longing to connect the parallel worlds of reading and reality. It’s also about the disappointment of reading. It’s about literature as a permanent illusion of identity that always betrays you because it forces you to look inside yourself for something; it doesn’t just hand it all over at the beginning. It forces you to search for something that you’ll never find, and at the same time it convinces you of the absolute necessity to find it. And so I think the presence of authors and music in Bonsái was quite natural, and then from there it opened up in all kinds of directions. Books leave a mark on you, and they also become familiar. I owe things to people I’ve never met; I’ve made important life decisions because of Gustave Flaubert, for example. That sounds terrible now that I say it out loud. I bet Flaubert would laugh in my face!

 

Q

The White Review

— There are certain authors who seem very present when reading your novels. There are many I could name, but I’m thinking about Mario Levrero and Clarice Lispector in particular.

A

Alejandro Zambra

— I really like Mario Levrero’s work and reading him was a revelation. He’s always linked to Julio Ramón Ribeyro in my mind because I read them at the same time. They’re quite different, but there’s a shared sensibility there and a sense of humour too. I read Clarice Lispector much earlier in my life. The first story of hers that I read is called ‘Love’. I admire her psychological penetration and also her sense of humour, which is built upon close observation, like the classical humour of Flaubert.

Q

The White Review

— A wry sense of humour seems really important in understanding your work.

A

Alejandro Zambra

— I’m interested in humour in the broad sense of the term, not a laugh-out-loud slapstick hilarity, but the humour that emerges from a sense of distance that allows you to understand yourself. Looking at it biographically, I don’t think I ever lost my sense of humour, it was always in there somewhere, but during my adolescence I approached poetry with a dreadful seriousness. For me to write novels it was very important to recover my sense of humour. If irony works on a scale from one to ten, and sarcasm is ten, for me it was very important to discover level one irony. You have to be able to go up and down through the levels, and then veer off suddenly in another direction.

Q

The White Review

— Is there a link between humour and meta-literary games, when the author might be said to be ‘winking’ at the reader? Your prose wears its erudition lightly, and your novels are shot through with a healthy dose of bathos.

A

Alejandro Zambra

— There’s the Italian author Dino Buzzati and his novel The Tartar Steppe, which is a fantastic book in so many ways. On the other hand you have Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, which miraculously sustains itself almost completely through irony. Or you have the books of Elias Canetti and Roberto Bolaño – I think Bolaño read Canetti’s Auto da Fé very astutely. You have to be able to make fun of a character without completely screwing them over, like when Bolaño writes about the literary critics in 2666. Is there anything more ridiculous or less interesting than a bunch of nerdy academics travelling the globe to attend conferences? But Bolaño manages to make that world interesting, and funny. It’s a classic, Cervantine approach to humour.

Q

The White Review

— Can you think of any authors in particular who operate at level one irony?

A

Alejandro Zambra

— I like meta-literary games. But I always jokingly say that Macedonio Fernández is my favourite writer for only six months out of the year, because I end up needing a break from the relentless onslaught of his irony. Fernández is always lumped in together with the Uruguayan author Felisberto Hernández, but they’re very different writers, precisely because Felisberto never seems to be laughing at the reader. Rather, he’s telling his readers a funny story and laughing along with them. But I still like Macedonio.

Q

The White Review

— Are we taking ourselves too seriously? Do we need to laugh more in literature?
A

Alejandro Zambra

— I don’t think literature can exist without that first measure of distancing that we call humour, in the broad sense of the term. By the same token, you can’t learn anything about yourself if you don’t step back at least a little from that same, comfortable story you keep telling yourself and others.
 

 

Not to Read is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and is out now.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Meanjin, Overland and Gulf Coast. He has translated five novels and his work has been recognised with an English PEN Translates Award, and has been shortlisted for the 2018 Queen Sofía Translation Prize. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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