Alejandro Zambra 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.

BOMB 131 Spring 2015
BOMB 131
Alejandro Zambra Bomb 131

Alejandro Zambra and Nicanor Parra, 2003.

Translated from the Spanish by Mónica de la Torre

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 Zambria Yes, it’s a generational issue more than a personal one. In the No leeressay, 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 novel Ways 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.

DA How so?

AZ I abandon books easily. Before, especially when I wrote literary criticism, I had the urge to read books from cover to cover. If I was writing about them, I’d read them twice over. I didn’t enjoy that, in part due to the obligation to say something beyond the obvious. I don’t do that anymore; I became more impulsive—there are just too many books I want to read. Also, I stopped writing about literature, which is cool. I was bureaucratizing the space of reading.

DA You were talking about the importance of play. In some of your books it’s more apparent than in others. In Facsímil, for instance, it’s very obvious. Also in My Documents.

AZ I’ve had a good time writing all of my books, what happens is that sometimes my writing deals with tough, sad things. Provided I’m not truly aware of what I’m doing, there is always play in the space of writing.

DA Does that come from poetry? I read a lot of novels that don’t give me the sense that the author is being playful. We could say they’re bad novels, or that they belong in a tradition where there’s no pleasure, or lightness. But my friends who transitioned from poetry to fiction tend to be engaged in play.

AZ There’s a paradox. When I started writing prose, it was like a game; my poetry was very serious. Chile has a great tradition of poetry. Maybe I felt like I needed to write something transcendent. I enjoyed myself more when writing fiction, in part because I had less respect for it than for poetry.

DA Are you saying that in Chile it’s easier to be irreverent and unconventional in prose than in poetry?

AZ Maybe I am, because in poetry there’s a tradition of irreverence. Neruda’s poetry was immediately parodied by Nicanor Parra, and that generated a whole tradition of rebellion that included people like Enrique Lihn, Juan Luis Martínez, Claudio Bertoni…. In my twenties I saw that as a paralysis, because everything was preemptively parodied. There was nothing serious you could say.

DA So what happens in Bonsai is a little like that contradiction.

AZ Yes, Julio, my character, doesn’t believe in anything, but he’s looking for something—the bonsai’s form gives him a structure. I do that too, sometimes, though I’ve never employed traditional poetic forms in a finished piece. I use rhyme as an exercise, and forms become my doodles. Rhyme is complex, especially in the case of poetry. The repertoire is limited. Only with lyrics can you get away with basic rhymes; convoluted rhymes are easy but absurd. So that straightjacket you use when you’re writing an old-fashioned poem allows for your unconscious to emerge.

DA Perhaps that constraint relieves you of one aesthetic concern, which permits you to be creative in other areas.

AZ Yes. It’s similar to this lack of control, descontrol, that escapes from the stories you’re telling. That phrase that comes out and takes you completely by surprise. Of course you have this freedom because you’re speaking through the character’s mask—yet whatever comes out is something you had inside you.

You’ve probably had the experience of going to bed thinking that you’ve written something pretty good, and then you wake up and you realize it’s actually pretty bad. I’ve had the opposite experience too. I write something that I read a day later, and it’s as if someone else had written it.

DA And you like it.

AZ Yes, and I’m surprised I actually wrote it.

DA I wish that happened to me!

AZ I’m sure it’s happened to you many times. Don’t go overboard in the role of interviewer. Something really strange is happening—I should be interviewing you!

DA Okay. Can we talk about your transition from poetry to fiction? It seems very common in Chile, where if at fourteen you’re not a poet there’s something wrong with you. You wrote this hilarious essay for the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra criticizing, even mocking, poets. They went after you later—their response was rather humorless and pathetic, I have to say. You were accused of betraying your roots.

AZ Not by my friends, though. It was really all about what Etiqueta Negra asks one to do, which is to write against what you stand for. Once the essay appeared online, people distorted it—they said I’d abandoned poetry for fiction’s money, for fiction’s yachts!

DA Exactly.

AZ I’ve never stopped writing poetry. Anyone who knows me knows that everything I criticize in the essay is something I’ve done myself: edit an anthology, start a magazine, condemn the use of gerunds in poetry workshops—

DA —give interviews prematurely.

AZ Or being interviewed by a friend, like now…. My community is still the poetry community. My friends rarely read fiction; they see the novel as exaggeration, and in the end, a defeat. Like Chico Molina said, “La novela es la poesía de los tontos.” That is, “novels are like poetry for idiots.”

DA (laughter)

AZ Ezra Pound said the same thing to William Carlos Williams in a letter. He’s talking about his beautiful early short poems and says he’s writing “the good part of novels.” The infinite arrogance! It’s also a stylistic credo: Nothing should be wasted. Everything worth saying can be said in six lines. I don’t necessarily buy this, but I do believe in Flaubert’s wish to avoid superfluous ornament.

DA Are there aspects of your voice as a poet that didn’t survive the transition to prose?

AZ Good question. I think I became a fiction writer when I wrote Mudanza in 2003. Even though it was a book of poetry, it had an expected, prose-like flow and an unstable structure. What I wrote next had the same rhythm; it was almost as if I were writing the same poem. That’s why I haven’t published more poetry. I can’t help writing poems in that same style—it’s kind of Beckettian, totally free from representation, with a lot of free association too.

DA Do you think you’ll ever publish poetry again?

AZ Yes, probably. I’ve got some notebooks; I’d rather not put a date on their publication, though. And then the lines of poetry in Ways of Going Home do belong to a poem in a manuscript—they’re the only part of that manuscript that I like. They’re eleven-syllable lines; I associated their music with the impossibility of saying things in any other way. I guess I continue associating poetry with a certain purity, and fiction with a certain impurity.

DA A parenthesis. I share the role of padrastro (stepfather). The word in Spanish sounds so bad.

AZ Horrible!

DA (laughter) All of this to say how much I was moved by The Private Lives of Trees, and the relationship between the protagonist and his stepdaughter. It’s such a delicate relationship: the love you have for a stepchild is different from the one you would have toward your own child, in part, I think because you’re always aware that you’ve built it. You’ve had to work to create it.

AZ What a nice way to put it. It’s the book of mine I cherish the most, in part because it’s the least so-called successful.

DA Your novels are personal, intimate, about relationships, but the scope of the last three books is larger. Ways of Going Home is about a memory and a written record of that memory. And in My Documents, as well as in Facsímil, I almost see the picture of a generation. This might be too corny. You said that Julio, in Bonsai, doesn’t believe in much, but at the same time he’s searching for something. Does this apply to your generation in Chile?

AZ There’s a bit of that, yes. It’s always annoying to talk in terms of generations because it implies representing, or speaking for, others. The image of the bonsai tree seemed relevant in terms of what it could, or could not, represent. Before I knew whether it would be poetry or prose, I decided I’d title a book Bonsai. That mutating beauty, founded in pain—it’s the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Schiller says that the sublime cannot be contained, whereas the beautiful can. A bonsai is beautiful, and is contained; in fact, its limits are punishment for its growth. Trees whose growth is forced to take a particular direction, whose roots are truncated; trees tied to a broom so they grow upright— you can say as much about my generation.

DA It’s like Chinese bound feet.

AZ Exactly. Or like kids who are punished for being lefthanded. These kinds of questions, and the conceit that they might have a single answer, provide the underpinning of Facsímil. It’s complicated: authority gives you a single answer, and you rebel against it, but at the same time you’re also looking for something essential.

DA Were you surprised by Bonsai’s success?

AZ Though the novel was published in a very prestigious press, outside of Chile, initially, people from an older Chilean generation were harsh on it—I didn’t experience this as success. I was irked by all the noise and had a hard time remaining silent. It was ultimately good to not respond to the attacks. Then I realized that the novel was in tune with a larger sentiment, and was very surprised. I was also struck by the book’s long life. This had never happened to me before since, as a poet, I knew all my readers. If someone said to me, “Hey, I read your book,” and I didn’t know that person, I’d go, “Really, why? What’s the chain of personal relationships that made you encounter this book?”

But with the novel, it was like that poem by Emily Dickinson: “This is my letter to the world, / That never wrote to me.” A novel is like a letter to the world, but a letter nobody asked you to write. It’s striking when you lose control of your readership and you realize that a book has a life of its own.

DA In your writing there’s the recurring theme of men with low self-esteem pretending to be someone else. In My Documents there’s Martín’s cousin in “Family Life.” I’m reading, going, “Don’t lie to her! Don’t do it!” What is it about this darkness that attracts you?

AZ Imposture is part of our personality.

DA Our personality?

AZ Chileans’. Mine too. I’m very interested in the path going from white lies to those big lies that we’re responsible for, or we’re complicit with. And also in how those little lies end up falling upon you silently until they destroy you. In Bonsai, Julio lies. Neither he nor his girlfriend have read Proust; they pretend to be rereading him when they’re reading him for the first time. Julio is also pretending to be transcribing a famous writer’s novel. He can only write a novel by faking it. And Martín, in “Family Life,” lies in the same way that Julio does inBonsai, although his lying has consequences. Both he and Julio fear that if they tell the truth they’ll end up alone. But Martín crosses the line: he damages others. The arc from Bonsai to “Family Life” has to do with the level of damage. Julio damages no one, but Martin, in “Family Life,” does lots of damage. His behavior is unexplained: yes, there are excuses, theories, hypothesis—but no explanations.

DA And you see this as being particularly Chilean?

AZ In Chile we’ve incorporated a bunch of hang-ups into daily life. Chilean Spanish is especially prone to the use of all kinds of euphemisms. I mean, Latin American Spanish too, in general, except for Argentina’s. Spaniards seem so aggressive to us for their use of the imperative. We use diminutives, and soften everything. Consequently, Chilean Spanish is full of these little lies that can bring us together or apart—it’s an important part of my writing.

Beyond that, as a reader I always prefer a literature in which nobody is glorifying themselves before others. I find heroic literature boring; I’m not interested in an assertive I, but rather in one that delves deep into its own uncertainty.

DA This kind of literature seems particularly apt for your generation, having grown up under Pinochet. The shadow of dictatorship looms large, particularly in your last three books.

AZ We took refuge in the idea that history had happened to our parents. We’re a shielded generation but, at the same time, a brave one. We weren’t the ones having to tell a story, but the ones having to listen to it. We had this generalized sensation of being secondary characters.

DA You could also argue the opposite, couldn’t you? That because your generation was the one that experienced the dictatorship as a daily lived reality, that because you were steeped in it, from birth, amid that tension and those silences—you could argue that no one knew it better than you did.

AZ Yes, also because the dictatorship lasted past its official ending. It really began coming to an end in 1998, when Pinochet was arrested in London. The Chilean process was very strange. Imagine a dictatorship in which the dictator ends up posing as a great statesman by handing down power to his successors. We were fifteen when the No Coalition won. Changes seemed big, and they were, but to effect real change took a long time. Human rights violations, for example—people thought they could be dealt with by decree, without having to confront them. The dictatorship effectively ended once Pinochet had died.

So, as a generation we grew up thinking that we couldn’t talk about what we hadn’t experienced. Then, when I chose to study literature, the sense was that we couldn’t speak about what we hadn’t read. Everyone knew more than we did. We hadn’t lived. We hadn’t read.

DA You would have had to go mute.

AZ Of course. That’s why Julio and his girlfriend pretend to have read Proust.

DA I very much liked the relationship between the rich, right-wing older student and the professor in My Document’s “Long Distance.” It takes a while for the protagonist to realize that his private student is a tourist of sorts who wants to experience so-called bohemia. I wonder if this might be a metaphor for a type of Chilean cultural transaction?

AZ That’s a story about class, about a man whose world is totally different from the protagonist’s, who is theoretically middle-class. The professor is not poor, although he seems so to the older man. In turn, the professor is sleeping with one of his other students, an older woman whom he kind of looks down on, though she has certain powers over him.

DA The professor thinks of himself as a wise guy who’s figured out how to get money out of the older man. In the end, it turns out the joke’s on the professor. Does this have anything to do with the oligarchy and its relationship with younger generations? Are you saying that, no matter what, the rich always end up on top?

AZ The short answer is yes. The long answer is the story. I was drawn to how the title works there. If “Long Distance” weren’t overused, it would have been the collection’s title. It has to do with the character’s job answering long-distance calls, and with these apparent proximities that conceal very long distances with regard to class, self-awareness, and love relationships.

DA I’m glad you mentioned the title. My Documents is a very funny one. It’s obviously an allusion to the computer, to that empty folder on my desktop that I never use …

AZ Sure. Since my dad is a computer guy, we were surrounded by computers very early. For me writing was handwriting, though. When I first encountered a “Windows Environment,” I saw the folder called “Mis Documentos.” It struck me, because it wasn’t mine—this was my dad’s computer. I used it because I liked the idea of combining singular and plural entities in the title of the short-story collection. I was also drawn to the idea that this folder is in every single computer, signifying singularity and ownership.

DA The title implies that these are your documents, so when reading a story such as “National Institute,” or even the titular “My Documents,” I can’t not think that I’m reading something autobiographical, with fictitious stuff mixed in too. And yet, aren’t these any writer’s documents? A hodgepodge of autobiographical stuff, memories, fiction…

AZ I ask myself these questions all the time. When is a piece singular? When is it plural? Should it be in the first person or in third person? I sometimes think these are the most relevant questions to ask. Everything else is secondary. When I started, like everyone else, I wrote surrealist poems. Then I wrote impersonal poetry—I understood that the first person was forbidden in poetry. Paradoxically, for me prose did allow it, perhaps because of its seeming lightness, which we spoke about earlier. I vividly remember the feeling of having nothing to say in poetry. Prose, on the other hand, had to do with my wish to tell stories, even if their worth wasn’t clear to me.

DA I remember being twenty-five and thinking that my life was so boring I’d never have anything to write about. And then, at thirty, I felt that my life at twenty-five had been fascinating, and that it was a real shame, because now my life was really boring. Then, at thirty-five I had a similar feeling, and so on. Maybe what you think is material worthy enough to write about is all a matter of perspective.

AZ It’s the delay effect. But beyond that, feeling that I had nothing to say was noxious for me. There was a haze, a sense of impropriety, or of lack of legitimacy— related of course to imposture.

As to your earlier question, it’s difficult to separate my fiction from my nonfiction. If autobiographical traces appear in the writing, I’m not interested in confirming them: “Did this really happen, or not?” This division is always exaggerated, and has more to do with genre. I find it funny that there’d be such a thing as “creative nonfiction.” It must be the result of the transformation of literary genres into consumption markers.

DA I’d be remiss not to ask you about technology after reading My Documents. What is your relationship to computers, to social media, and all these new ways to communicate with others?

AZ It’s love/hate. The first story in the book deals with this. I write much faster on the computer than by hand, but I often switch from one medium to the other. Then sometimes I transcribe something from the computer to handwriting. It doesn’t seem that illogical to me.

DA When I was young and single and had plenty of spare time, I’d do the same. I’d type in the morning, then I’d go for a bike ride and sit at a café and try to remember what I’d written earlier without looking at the typed version. At night I’d compare both versions and would realize that I tended to remember only the good stuff.

AZ Great method! I’m reading Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, such a brilliant book. The typewriter initially seemed so impersonal to people. Montage, the emblematic procedure discovered by the avant-gardes, is today, for anyone who writes on a word processor, completely ordinary—it’s cut and paste. I find our relationship to cut and paste very interesting.

I write taking into account all the tools I have at hand. For example, I frequently record myself reading out loud, sometimes entire books. I need to know how they sound. All writing needs to pass the test of sound.

DA Luckily your books are short, man.

AZ Maybe that’s why they’re short! I have the habit of attending poetry readings. It’s brutal—if you’re bored by a piece that means it’s boring, not only rhythm-wise, but in the full sense of the word. Anyway, I switch formats a lot. I go from the computer to writing by hand, to recording myself. I switch fonts too.

So going back to your question about social networks, I’ve gone through periods in which I’ll immerse myself in them to fully understand them, until I tire out. Facebook, in particular, interests me not as a writer but as a reader. I can spend hours online looking at people’s pictures and posts. On the other hand, I’ve always kept a journal, which to me is the opposite of a blog or a post on Facebook, with their instant dose of self-reflection, which in truth, is rather fictional. But I quit Facebook and Twitter. Maybe I just wanted to have a look, learn how it worked, and that’s it.

I approach my journal in the old-fashioned way, honoring the saying that “paper can withstand all,” to get things off my chest. I have no pretensions. If I knew I were about to die, the first thing I’d do is burn my diaries; that’s the space where I criticize people and am totally inarticulate. The habit of writing, for me, is linked to this. I write every day, yes, but sometimes only in my journal.

DA Is there something special about the journal? What makes it different from other kinds of writing?

AZ The space of writing is weird. I need to think that nobody will read what I’m writing in order to be able to write. Each time I think someone will read it, I become paralyzed, and imposture begins. A lot of the pieces in Facsímil, which are the most recent, were written following the logic of exercises. I had many more than I needed. The pieces I chose to keep are the ones I didn’t write for the book. This perhaps is my most personal book—though it doesn’t seem like it. It was almost like therapy for me. I threw myself into it; it saved me. Oddly, it’s the most experimental thus far.

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Originally published in

BOMB 131, Spring 2015

Featuring interviews with Rosa Barba, Soon-Mi Yoo, Agnieszka Kurant, Tatiana Bilbao, Alejandro Zambra, Tom McCarthy, Matana Roberts, and Barbara Kasten. 

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BOMB 131