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.