Alejandro Zambra is one of our favorite living writers. His first book, Bonsai, won the Chilean Critics' Award for Best Novel of the Year in 2006. We first read his work when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Ways of Going Home in 2013. What distinguishes Alejandro from his contemporaries is the sweetness and intimacy of his writing, and his confidence in letting himself be as he is. As you read his work, there's never the impression that he is second-guessing himself, thinking, "So-and-so would do it this way," or "Such-and-such editor would say that." He exhibits this remarkable confidence on the page, one that allows him to be himself and to speak, a special kind of generosity. It feels like knowing and speaking to a sweetheart—it never feels like he's an author who pretends, or tries to teach, or falls into egotistical traps. Flaws in writing often come from flaws in character. Alejandro doesn't seem to have any of those. He's just a lovely, special, strange person who seems to look at his actual world and describe it in his actual, natural voice, and he leaves it at that. He has the authority that J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, and Bret Easton Ellis have all identified as the writer's bedrock.
"I got a feeling you two are together and you're keepin' it a secret"—"No we're not," they answer in unison, and it's the truth: for a little over a month now they've been sleeping together, they eat, read, and work together, so that someone with a tendency to exaggerate, someone who watched them and carefully parsed the words they say to each other, the way their bodies move closer to each other and entwine—a brash person, someone who still believed in these sorts of things, would say they really loved each other, or that at least they shared a dangerous and generous passion; and yet they are not together, if there is one thing they are very clear about it is precisely this, that they are not together. She is Argentine and he's Chilean, and it's much better to refer to them like that, the Argentine woman, the Chilean man.
They'd planned on walking, they'd talked about how nice it is to go long distances on foot, and they even reached the point where they were dividing people into two groups: those who never walk long distances and those who do, and who they believe are, because of that, better. They'd planned on walking, but on a whim they hailed a taxi, and they had known for months, even before they'd arrived in Mexico City, when they'd received a set of instructions that was full of warnings, that they should never hail a taxi in the street, and up till then it had never occurred to them to hail a taxi in the street, but this time, on a whim, they did it, and soon she thought the driver was going the wrong way and she said as much to the Chilean in a whispered voice, and he reassured her out loud, but his words didn't even get to take effect because right away the taxi stopped and two men got in and the Chilean reacted valiantly, recklessly, confusedly, childishly, stupidly: he punched one of the bandits in the nose, and he went on struggling for long seconds while she shouted, Stop it, stop it, stop it. The Chilean stopped, and the bandits let him have it, they showed him no mercy, they may have even broken something, but this all happened long ago, a good ten minutes ago. By now they've already given up their money and their credit cards and they've already recited their ATM PIN numbers and there's only a little time left that to them seems like an eternity, during which they ride with their eyes squeezed shut, "Shut your eyes, pinches cabrones," the two men tell them.
And now there are three men, because the car stopped a few minutes ago and the taxi driver got out and a third bandit who'd been following behind them in a pickup truck got behind the wheel. The new driver hits the Chilean again and feels up the Argentine, and they accept the punches and the grabbing hands with a kind of resignation, and wouldn't they like to know, as we know, that this kidnapping really will be over soon, that soon they will be walking silently, laboriously, with their arms around each other, down some street in La Condesa—because the bandits had asked them where they were going and they replied that they were going to La Condesa and the bandits said, "Well, we'll drop you off in La Condesa then, we're not so bad, we don't want to take you too far out of your way," and a second before letting them out, incredibly, the bandits handed them a hundred pesos so they could take a taxi home, but of course they didn't go home by taxi, they got on the subway, and at times she cried and he held her close and at other times he confusedly held back his tears and she moved her feet closer to his the way she had in the taxi, because the kidnappers had made them keep their distance but she had kept her right sandal on top of the Chilean's left shoe the whole time.
As often happens in the Mexico City subway, the train stops for a long time, an inexplicable six or seven minutes, at an intermediate station, and that quite normal delay nevertheless makes them suffer, it strikes them as intentional and unnecessary, until eventually the doors close and the train moves off and they finally reach their station and then go on walking together until they reach the house where she lives. The Argentine and the Chilean don't live together, he lives with an Ecuadorian writer and she lives with two friends—one Spanish and one Chilean, another Chilean—and they aren't really friends, or they are but that's not why they live together, they are all just passing through, they're all writers and they are in Mexico to write thanks to a grant from the Mexican government, although the thing they do the very least is write, but oddly, when they arrive and open the door, the Spaniard, a very thin and cordial boy, with eyes that are maybe a bit too large, is writing, and Chilean Two isn't there (there's no way around calling him Chilean Two; this story is imperfect because it has two Chileans in it when there should only be one, or even better, much better, none, but there are two). Chilean One and Chilean Two are not friends, really they're more like enemies, or at least they were in Chile, and now they're both in Mexico and they are both, each in his own way, aware that it would be absurd and unnecessary to go on fighting, and moreover their fights were tacit ones and nothing was keeping them from trying out a kind of reconciliation, although they also both know that they will never be friends, and that thought is, in a way, a relief, and there is one thing that unites them, in any case: alcohol, since out of the whole group the two of them are without a doubt the biggest drinkers, but Chilean Two isn't there when they come home after the kidnapping, only the Spaniard is there, at the table in the living room, concentrated, writing, beside a bottle of Coca-Cola—you might say clinging to a bottle of Coca-Cola—but when they tell him what has happened he puts his work aside and he seems shaken and he comforts them, invites them to talk, eases the mood with some well-timed and lighthearted joke, he helps them look for the phone number they need to call to block their credit cards—the thieves had taken 3,000 pesos, two credit cards, two cell phones, two leather jackets, a silver chain, and even a camera, because the Chilean had gone back to get the camera—he wanted to take pictures of the Argentine, because she is really beautiful, which is also a cliché, but what can you do, the fact is she's beautiful, and of course he has thought that if he hadn't gone back to get the camera, they wouldn't have taken that particular taxi, the same way so many other things that would have sped them up or slowed them down could have spared them from the kidnapping.
The Argentine and Chilean One tell the Spaniard what happened, and as they tell him they relive it, and for the second or third time, they share it. Chilean One asks himself whether what has just happened is going to bring them closer or drive them apart, and the Argentine wonders exactly the same thing, but neither of them asks it out loud. Just then Chilean Two returns, he's coming back from a party, he sits down to eat a piece of chicken and right away he starts talking without realising something has happened, but then he sees that Chilean One's face is very swollen and he's holding a bag of ice to it to try to bring the swelling down, and only then does Chilean Two realize—maybe at first it seemed perfectly natural to him that Chilean One would have a bag of ice on his face, maybe in his singular poet's universe it is normal for a person to pass the night with a bag of ice on his face, but no, it's not normal, so Chilean Two asks what happened and when he finds out he says, "That's horrible, the same thing almost happened to me this afternoon," and he sets off talking about the possible attack of which he was almost the victim, but from which he had saved himself because he made a split-second decision to get out of the taxi. While they talk the Chileans are taking long pulls from a bottle of mescal, and the Spaniard and the Argentine are smoking a joint.
Now someone else arrives, maybe a friend of the Spaniard's, and they go over the story once again but mostly the last part, the final half hour in the taxi, which for them is a kind of part two, because the kidnapping had lasted an hour and for the first half of it they feared for their lives and for the second half they didn't fear for their lives anymore; they were terrified but they vaguely intuited that, however long it lasted, the bandits weren't going to kill them, because their words weren't violent anymore, or they were violent but in a calm and terrible way: "We've held up Argentines before but never a Chilean," says the one in the passenger seat, and he seems like he is truly being curious, and he starts to ask Chilean One about the situation in his country and the Chilean answers politely, as if they were in a restaurant and they were waiter and customer or something, and the guy seems so articulate, so used to that kind of conversation that Chilean One thinks that if he ever tells this story no one will believe him, and that impression only grows over the next few minutes when the bandit riding with them in the backseat, the one holding the gun, says to them, "I got a feeling you two are together and you're keepin' it a secret," and they respond in unison that no, no, they aren't. "And why not?" asks the bandit—"Why aren't you together, he's not so ugly," he says. "Ugly, but not that ugly, and you'd look better if you cut that hair, it's straight outta the 70s, no one wears their hair like that anymore," he tells the Chilean, "and those giant glasses, too, I'm gonna do you a favor," and he takes the glasses off the Chilean's face and throws them out the window. For a second the Chilean thinks about a Woody Allen film he saw recently where the protagonist gets his glasses smashed over and over, and the Chilean smiles slightly, maybe he smiles to himself, he smiles the way we smile in panic, but still, he smiles.
"I can't cut your hair 'cause we don't have any scissors," the gunman says, "remind me to bring some good scissors tomorrow so I can cut the Chileans' hair when we hold 'em up, 'cause from now on we're only holding up Chileans, we haven't been fair up to now, we've held up lots of Argentines but only this one motherfucking Chilean de la chingada, and from now on we'll specialize in long-haired Chileans. I got a knife but you can't cut hair with a knife, knives are for cutting off the balls of pinches Chileans, your boyfriend's got balls but the ones with balls sometimes gotta lose 'em, tell your boyfriend not to be so ballsy anymore, 'cause I was just about to wanna fuck you, little Argentine, because of this one's balls, and if I don't fuck you it's not 'cause I'm not into you, you're real hot, of all the Argentine chicks I've ever met you're the hottest, but I'm working now and when I fuck I'm not working, 'cause if fucking was my job then I'd be a whore and even though you can't see my face you know I'm no whore, and I wish you could see my face so you'd know I'm one pretty crook who also knows how to cut hair, even though I don't have any scissors and I sure can't cut your hair with this knife, Chilean—I can cut off your dick but you need that to fuck this Argentine hottie, and I can't cut your hair with this gun either, or maybe I could, but I'd lose the bullets and I need them in case you get your balls back, and then I would fuck the Argentine hottie, after I killed you, my Chilean friend, I'd fuck your girlfriend, I didn't plan to kill you but I would kill you and I didn't plan to fuck her but I'd fuck her, because she's really hot, she looks like she's straight outta the best whorehouse in the city. I'd sure choose you, my little Argentine, tomorrow I'm gonna get a hooker and I'll pick the one who looks the most like you, my Argentine hottie."
The driver asks the Argentine if she's a Boca fan, and though it would have been more opportune to say yes, she goes with the truth and says no, she's for Vélez. The Chilean doesn't have this problem, since he's for Colo-Colo, which is the only Chilean team the bandits know. Then they ask about Maradona and the Argentine says something in reply and then the driver comes out with something crazy: he says that Chicharito Hernández is better than Messi, and then he asks them which of Mexico's teams they're for, and the Argentine says she doesn't really know much about soccer—which is a lie, she knows a lot, she knows much more than that poor bandit who thinks Chicharito Hernández is better than Messi, and the Chilean, rather than resorting to a similar lie, gets nervous and thinks hard for a long second about whether the bandits would be for Pumas or for América or Cruz Azul or maybe for Chivas de Guadalajara, since he's heard there are a lot of people in Mexico City who root for Chivas, but in the end he decides to tell the truth and he says that he follows Monterrey because that's who Chupete Suazo plays for, and the driver doesn't like Monterrey but he loves Chupete Suazo and then he says to his companions, "Let's not kill them, in honor of Chupete Suazo we're going to spare their lives."
"Who's Chupete Suazo?" asks Chilean Two, who surely knows but feels obliged to demonstrate that he doesn't care about soccer. Chilean One was going to answer him, but the Spaniard knows a lot about soccer and tells him he's a Chilean center forward who looks fat but isn't, who plays for the Rayados in Monterrey, and who had a successful season when he was lent to Zaragoza, but then he went back to Mexico because the Spaniards couldn't afford him. Chilean Two replies that the same thing happens to him, that he's actually skinny but people think he's fat.
Chilean One and the Argentine are still sitting very close together, but they keep a prudent distance, since even though everyone knows or guesses there's something going on between them they still pretend and develop strategies to keep from being found out, and it's not exactly out of modesty, more like desperation, or maybe because the time is gone when things were so simple as to just be together or not, or maybe everything is still that simple but they haven't accepted it, and it really is absurd that they don't live together because they always sleep together—it's almost always him who sleeps over at her place, but sometimes the Argentine stays over at the apartment the Chilean shares with the Ecuadorian girl. What the Chilean and the Argentine really want is to be alone, but the night draws out in the eternal retelling of the kidnapping story, in the search for details they hadn't remembered and that, when they do remember, bring them a new and renewed complicity. Finally he says he's going to the bathroom and instead goes into the Argentine's bedroom; she stays a little longer in the living room and then she slips away, too.
She takes a long shower and makes him take one too, to wash the kidnapping off of them, she says, thinking of the groping she'd been subjected to, groping that was in any case minimal, for which she is thankful. That is, in fact, what she said to the bandits when she got out of the car: "Thank you." She's said it many times over the course of the night: "Thank you, thank you, everyone." To the Spaniard who comforted them, to the Chilean who ignored them but in some way also comforted them, and to the bandits, too, again, it's never a bad idea to repeat it: "Thank you," because you didn't kill us and now life can go on.
She also says thank you, in the end, to Chilean One, after long hours spent caressing each other knowing that tonight they won't make love, that they will spend the hours very close, dangerously, generously close, talking. Before going to sleep she says thank you to him, and he answers a little late but with conviction: "Thank you."
They sleep badly, but they sleep. And they go on talking the next day, as if they had their whole lives in front of them and were willing to work at love, and if someone were observing them from afar, someone brash, someone who believed in these kinds of stories, someone who collected them and tried to tell them well, someone who believed in love would think that the two of them will be together for a very long time.
Translated by Megan Mcdowell.
More from this issue: