Chilean Author Alejandro Zambra Is More Than Just the New Roberto Bolaño
We Skyped with the increasingly prominent Chilean author, whose recent story collection 'My Documents,' has become a breakthrough book.
Zambra. Photo by Mabel Maldonado. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Chilean author Alejandro Zambra, age 39, has published two books of poems and three novels, Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees, and Ways of Going Home—all translated into English. His most recent publication, My Documents, has received a fanfare rarely enjoyed by story collections. He recently published a story in the New Yorker, was announced as "the new star of Latin American literature," and his books have been translated into more than ten languages. Not bad for a writer who spends his time teaching at a university in his native Chile and who recently has been searching in films for what's he encountered in literature: personal stories that, for the most part, are set in Chile and masterfully narrated.
His latest book published in Spanish, Facsímil, will appear in English from Penguin in the near future. But thanks to My Documents, his name has begun to be heard more and more. The stories that make up this book feel personal, close to the author. There's the literature professor who talks about books with a wealthy businessman he met on the phone while working at a call center. There's a story about a boy's relationship with computers and lit. There's another about a young writer who must take care of a house and, when meeting a neighbor, pretends it's his own. And then there's one about a Chilean ( published by VICE this past February) who spontaneously travels to Belgium to surprise his girlfriend, only to discover she's no longer interested in him.
Zambra spoke over Skype from his apartment in Santiago about the grant that will bring him to live in New York in September and what it's like to be a writer who's read in the United States.
VICE: How do you feel about coming to live in New York?
Alejandro Zambra: Well, I like it. But I like living in Chile just as much. It's good to work here. I'm working on a book that's not going very well but that nevertheless exists. I'm not sure if it's a novel or a long essay—it's about a personal library, about the accumulation of books, told from multiple perspectives. At times, it's almost a parody. I'd like to place myself a little in the background of this one. It's a personal essay, but there's fiction in there too. And I have friends in New York. Good friends. True friends, I want to say.
Your stories are very personal and familiar, but they occur in the physical and mental geography of Chile. How can readers from other countries relate to something that happens on the other side of the world?
I ask myself the same question, Camilo. You're Chilean, so you know my books are very Chilean. But there's this external construction of "The Chilean" that I don't feel is in my books. On the contrary. When The Private Lives of Trees appeared in the US, someone said, "The book's all well and good, but why is it Latin American literature?" Obviously a sort of idiot said this, because he thought Latin American literature is a genre that requires a handful of recurrent themes. But, really, I'm totally uninterested in that. You can have lots of plans, all sorts of expectations and ideas, but these certainties dissolve when you're writing.
I also wonder how it's read outside Chile. I think Megan McDowell's translations are very good. English is the only other language I can more or less read well, so I have an opinion, but it's not my language. I work very closely with her. We talk a lot about the translations, the intended shade of a phrase, its various meanings, which is tremendously nourishing for me. In a sense, it makes me think one really reads the book I wrote.
I suppose there's a certain reticence on my part regarding the typical, but it seems this can't be confused with an unwillingness to observe reality. From a distance I hear the discourse about how "Latin America today is neither a rural nor urban reality" and, OK, it could be like that, but we can write about the countryside if we want to. Everything that constricts or removes your freedom seems insubstantial, really. Literature always defies the rules—and in the end, everyone writes what they want or what they can write.
"I think all books are autobiographical. There's this misunderstanding that fiction is a lie. Many writers say it. But fiction isn't the opposite of the truth." —Alejandro Zambra
Do you think the translations are different books that lose a little of the initial message?
It could be, because you don't have any control. But the truth is that the book in Spanish is important to me. If there's a reception that matters to me it's the Chilean one, not the official critics, just the people who are very important to me. In general the authorship occurred with the help of these people.
But with translations, it always seems strange—I never intended to see them published. If someone says, "I read your book of poems." I say, "Why?" There's no way to follow the sequence that ends in an exchange with a reader of a translated book. But a beautiful thing about publishing in this other dimension is that you lose control, like in that poem by Emily Dickinson: "This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me." You send a letter and people receive it.
I also have a certain ambiguous feeling because a good translator is extremely opposed to using clarifying footnotes. But as a reader I like those notes at the bottom of the page, and not only because I'm a Foster Wallace fanatic—more so, I dislike not understanding what I've read. It'd be wrong for me to say, "This book isn't like the one I wrote." Of course it's not in the original language, which makes it another book. But this is also understood as a part of the game. Otherwise, it'd be ridiculous to include authors who write in other languages in your list of favorites.
Beauty and Sadness [by Yasunari Kawabata] is one of my favorite novels, but I read it in an edition that was translated from Japanese into French and from French to Spanish. Somehow the book survives all this and impresses. The truth is, I don't care if what I'm reading is original or not if I like what I'm reading.
I remember one time I was in Bogotá, talking at the National University. Everything was going very well, but I noticed that someone was laughing a lot. What I was saying merited a bit of laughter, sure, but he was laughing a lot. Afterwards, when he approached me, I asked, "Why were you laughing so much?" and he responded, "No, you were really good" and I said, "No, you were laughing more than anyone else—what's up?" He said when he heard me speak he couldn't help remember these Chilean clowns on 1970s Colombian TV. These Chilean clowns became really popular. It became fashionable for all clowns in Colombia to speak like Chileans. So now every time he hears a Chilean, he thinks they talk like clowns. Someone showed me a tape and, yeah, they speak very much like Chileans. It seemed very funny to me. These things interest me a lot.
"He said when he heard me speak he couldn't help remember these Chilean clowns on 1970s Colombian TV. Someone showed me a tape and, yeah, they speak very much like Chileans." —Alejandro Zambra
In the New Yorker, you said you started writing prose because your poetry wasn't very good, and you started to write poetry when you realized you weren't going to be a rock star or soccer player. You write about soccer, but not much about rock. How are these worlds related?
I've had really eclectic musical tastes since I was little so I know a lot about music. But I lost the fantasy. I had a group associated with Latin American folk—the music they listened to at the barbecues, the strumming sessions, also the music of AM radio and later Los Prisioneros I once thought this array of listening was essential for an eclectic citizen. On the album La Voz de Los 80s, there's a reggae song, and there's something half-ska. Lots of styles. It's influenced by the Clash, too.
Later I had these periods when I decided I liked something more like Anthrax. I was more of a poser. I liked Skid Row. And then the Pet Shop Boys. They were all associated with different ways of dressing, and everything was very Zelig in a musical sense. Later I decided I didn't like it. The truth is that the music I've always liked has been rock, folk, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, later the Kinks and folkloric music, like Violeta Parra. I learned how to play guitar when I was very young, but then I had a very Silvio Rodríguez-esque period, a soft and smooth vibe. The idea was to put out songs that were lyrical because Silvio Rodríguez is poetic. But then more recently the invention of the iPod shuffle worked well for me. There are many songs I listen to that aren't well known. There's a song by Burt Bacharach called "Any Day Now"—the version I like is by Chuck Jackson. I discovered it ten years ago, and for ten years I bet I've listened to it every day. At best, I should write an essay about this song.
But the most important music for me is Los Prisioneros, whom I believe are very Chilean in their eclecticism. Victor Jara and Jorge González's voices are crude, rude, and yet they sing lyrics that are often sentimental. The Chilean albums I like most are Corazones and Las Ultimas Composiciones de Violeta Parra—the synthesis of the work she did with Chilean music. It's also a record that contains many other styles. But I've internalized everything, the mix of Pet Shop Boys with Sandro...
A performance of 'Any Day Now' by Chuck Jackson from 1965
With the Latin ballad of AM radio. Now I listen a lot to a song by Father John Misty called "I'm Writing a Novel." When I'm writing, I put this song on when I take a break. I like when he says, "I'm writing a novel because it's never been done before."
With soccer, to be a fan of Colo-Colo is the only aspect of my heritage I've never questioned. At 12, 13 years old, one sees much of the world as a function of the family. But then I started to disengage, in all senses of the word, which led to literature and whatever didn't have to do with my family. Your opinions aren't the same as those of your parents. Everyone goes through this. I never questioned it. Parents don't only try to make you think like them—they also want you to like what they like. But I always rejected the things my father liked because my father did everything well. If he was playing dominoes, he had to learn the logic behind it and I would get bored.
Later in the 90s I started to think that soccer was a substitute for real debates.
On Noisey, check out 'The Psychedelia of Santiago: South America's Hotbed of Retro Rock'
Like the week when the Copa América was in Chile...
Like that week. I have an ambiguous relationship with soccer, too. It reminds me of the parody on The Simpsons about soccer: There's a play-by-play announcer talking about the game with lots of enthusiasm, but what you see are two guys passing the ball back and forth in the middle of the field. It can seem really boring, but it's a pleasurable boredom because it's so simple. The experience of going to a stadium made me like soccer. There's this collective venting, the people say everything, you're allowed to say anything. When I was young, they didn't always show the games on TV, or only a few, so I taped them on the radio and listened to them later. Games on the radio are absolutely like literature—the metaphors, the pacing, the need for an evolving style. You can't always say the same thing. The role of the play-by-play announcer seems much more interesting to me than that of the color commentator. In the end, the announcer is the narrator and the commentator is the literary critic [laughs].
From 'The Simpsons'
You've said that your writing process is based on rewriting, cleaning. Bonsai is a short novel, but at first it was much longer.
That's right. Now I don't know if it's cleaning. Now I see it from another perspective. When I was young I had access to computers, because my father was a computer technician. He defended computers as the future. I collected books, and my books were my world. When I was 16 years old, my dad said, "Why are you collecting so many books? In 20 more years they'll all be on a little computer." And I said, "Dad, what are you saying? Books will never disappear." I always wrote by hand, but I always also used the computer. I think a lot of my writing comes from the computer. These are the sort of things writers never want to say.
But I do think that when you write you have to forget about correcting what you're doing, because it impedes the flow. Forget how it's going to be read. Forget if it will be published or not. This comes later in a form of post-production.
I've been learning how to edit videos in Final Cut and Adobe Premiere. It's very addictive, absorbing, and fun. Revision is a word that sounds restrictive, but it's really not—it's part of the business, the second stage after you let things loose. Of course you fall in love with the material, as the curators say, which is a problem—you fall in love with a phrase, an image.
Even with Bonsai, I think there were different books in my head at first. I spent a lot of time with the idea. First it was a book of poems. For a long time this was a book I was writing for my friends. They said, "What are you up to?" and I said, "I'm writing a book called Bonsai." I tried to explain it a little, but it was a difficult idea to explain. Later I started to write some prose and I think they were different projects. The second part of Bonsai, for example, was a different book. Later I realized it was the same book—and when I realized this, I wrote the rest very quickly. I also started to shorten it. There was some pretty explicit talk in this project about pruning. Bonsai trees are quasi-lyrical images, half-diffuse and ambiguous. I liked them, but at the same time I found them repellent because they're tortured trees. "One must cut the mother root"—if you read a bonsai manual, there's a ton of language that out of context seems like poetry. This conceptual development was washed through with a chaotic and natural question related to the love of stories. The first scenes of "Bonsai" are about these kids who get together to study. Even when I wrote them I was thinking, I think this is superficial. I was much more serious and intellectual at the time. This is like a party of kids, I thought, but at the same time it included my sense of humor and melancholy. I remember I found it odd to write like this. I wasn't planning it, but the moment it appeared, I liked it.
"[The Bolaño comparison] bothers me a little since I come out losing—and I will always lose. He's an immense and irreducible writer." —Alejandro Zambra
Now you're working on a film based on the story "Family Life." What are your hopes for it?
What I hoped for I've already achieved. I had never written a screenplay. We produced a very good thing with Christian Jimenez and Alicia Scherson (the directors). I met Christian when he adapted Bonsai for film and, other than sometimes asking questions, he didn't bother me when working on that one. With Bonsai, they laughed because my screenplay was in Word, 16-point type. They said, "What's this?" They said screenplay programs exist, but I wrote my screenplay in this word processor. They're friends. I'm interested in their work. We made it with very little money. Friends acted in it. During shooting I was the screenwriter, but also the chauffeur for the actors and the psychologist for a cat always hanging around on set.
It's really a parallel film more than a direct adaption of the story. Truthfully, when I wrote the story, I always thought of the possibility of a film. There was something in the story's feeling I wanted to see developed visually.
I acted, too. It was a heavy experience. I can be histrionic because I'm a professor. It's very strange—you don't know exactly what you're doing when you're acting or how it's going to look. I had a small role but not a cameo. I've heard many times that directors and other people involved in films often say they like the process the most. The result depends on so many factors. One good thing about cinema is there's always someone to blame.
I've always been interested in making things other than books. When I wrote Bonsai, there was a sense to make something that hadn't been made before—to explore. I don't want to be obligated to anything, like having to write a book over a certain period of time. It sounds so empty to speak of liberty in a creative sense, but what you do can't be compromised—it always has to give you a certain amount of joy.
In the United States inevitably when they talk about you they talk about Roberto Bolaño. Was his work important for you?
Yes. The first one I read was Nazi Literature in the Americas. I remember perfectly. I was in a bookstore called the Furious Toy. It only stayed open for two years because there were three owners who were all literature graduates and they didn't like to sell any crap. I remember one time an actor entered and I was there with the owner, who was a friend of mine. Always after school I headed there. This actor entered like a famous actor and said, "Hey, recommend a book for me," and the owner said, "I can't recommend anything for you because I don't know who you are." [Laughs] A bookstore with these criteria wasn't going to last very long.
So then I had the brilliant idea of writing a book with various authors, four or five friends. We'd invent a writer and interview him, etc. I wanted my bookstore-owner friend to be one of the authors and he said, "Yes, it's a good idea, but check out this writer—he's a Chilean who lives in Barcelona and seems a little like what you're thinking, plus he's super good." As soon as I opened it, I saw it was a book that parodies manuals, a book with lots of sarcasm, and with this thing Bolaño does of making worlds interesting that in theory shouldn't be interesting at all. I continued reading, and he became one of the few writers whom I read as soon as his books were published.
Later, when I was a literary critic, it was always a pleasure whenever I received a Bolaño book. I understand that there are always these comparisons. I'm a little embarrassed about them because I believe he's a great writer. It bothers me a little since I come out losing [laughs]—and I will always lose. He's a writer whom I like very much. His writing is simultaneously contemporary and classic, which is what I also like about Thomas Mann and Elias Canetti. The humor, too. He's an immense and irreducible writer. One can say, "Bolaño, Bolaño," but no one knows very well what they're really saying when they say this. " Bolaño-ian"? What's this mean? He can't be labeled. Labels are never right anyway. Garcia Márquez isn't magical realism. The Garcia Márquez novel that I like the most, No One Writes to the Colonel, doesn't have anything magical in it. It's a heartbreaking realism. No one flies. I love that they can't label Bolaño—it demonstrates the power of literature.
The comparison doesn't bother me because I understand it but, sure, I wind up disserviced in the end.
It sounds so empty to speak of liberty in a creative sense, but what you do can't be compromised—it always has to give you a certain amount of joy. —Alejandro Zambra
You always talk about childhood, about your college period, about travels, about everything related to youth. Your literature is based on your own experience?
I think all books are autobiographical. I've never understood this definitive line between fiction and not fiction, probably because no one asks a poet if their book is autobiographical. There's this misunderstanding that fiction is a lie. Many writers say it. But fiction isn't the opposite of the truth.
As far as themes go, I really never proceed with one in mind, like, "I'm going to write about this." Ways of Going Home might be my most "thematic" novel. Its origin involved writing about these neighborhoods with identical houses in Maipú (a county of Santiago de Chile) that don't have any apparent grace. And later, sure, infancy and the dictatorship—it's impossible not to confuse them and record this influence. Deep down this is the novel's theme.
Your next projects are based in the present?
I'm in a moment of out-of-control projectismo right now, but that's because I always have multiple projects underway. I always have many ideas so I don't follow through on them all. I'm writing three books. There's the one, a sort of short novel or long story called "Chilean Poet." It's about the life of an 18-year-old Chilean poet about to leave high school. He doesn't want to study in the university because he wants to be a poet. He's going to study only when the education is free because he doesn't want to go into debt. This is his excuse, but he's very passionate about Chilean poetry. It's about the myth of Chilean poetry in Chile. All things related to Chilean poetry are odd. It's filled with half-eccentric figures. No one reads poetry, but it occupies a place in the collective imagination because we won two Nobel Prizes. The genesis of this book or long story is odd because it occurred to me as a television series. I'm a Louie fanatic, but in Chile they don't see Louie. It's not on TV. But with Louie, the freedom impresses me so much. He does what he wants. That's how this story occurred to me. Seinfeld, which has nothing much to do with Louie, also involves a guy in a similar scenario. In my case, it's poetry readings. So I imagined a series about this poet. It seemed entertaining to pitch this project to see if it could be made. For the treatment, they said, "Write it like it was a story, without worrying about scenes, like telling a story." I liked the prose that appeared, so I kept writing. I pitched it, but they didn't take the project. What I liked most about the project was showing people and places I know well. It's where I'm from and I'm very interested in showing how life unfolds there.
The second project is a novel with a working title of Dream Exams that's very much set in the present. And the third project, Personal Cemeteries, is about libraries. I don't know what it really is yet—an essay with a lot of fiction and stories mixed in. The story in part tells about why a certain book wasn't returned. They're real stories—it's fiction, but not in the sense that these stories never occurred. The feeling and the pulse of the story are important, what the presence of the various titles triggers. I thought one book would take precedence over another, but there are days I write a little on one and a little on another. I feel like it's a problem, but really it's stupid to think this way. It would be a problem if I were trying to write and nothing ever came.
Translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein.
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