I first learned of the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra when I came across his short story “Family Life” in Harper’s earlier this year. It’s a charming and unassuming story about an apparently unemployed forty-year-old named Martín who is housesitting the family home of a distant cousin, his beautiful wife, and their young daughter. While they’re away in Europe, Martín spends much of his time smoking, watching TV, and doing little else until the cat goes missing, at which point he meets a woman named Paz and pretends that both the cat and house are his, that the picture of the beautiful woman on the wall is of his recently separated wife and that she’s keeping their daughter away from him. Things get complicated after that, both with Paz and with the mounting lies out of which Martín sees no exit. At the time I made a mental note of the story and its author, and so when the collection My Documents recently came out—to a great deal of buzz—I made sure to order a copy. I’m glad I did.
My Documents is a reference to that folder in Windows of the same name and is also the title of the opening story which, fittingly enough, begins with a recollection of the first computer the narrator saw when he was a little boy in 1980, a big mysterious machine in his father’s office that stood in sharp contrast to his mother’s manual typewriter. Less of a story than it is a prologue for the collection as a whole, the narrator reflects on his life, touching on many of the subjects and themes that will come up again throughout the collection: popular music (in this case, his mother’s love for Simon and Garfunkel), the role of the Catholic church, being a student at the National Institute, growing up under the Pinochet dictatorship, and of course the people (and the computers associated with them) that have come into his life. The story ends with the words, “My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter. I was a blank page, and now I am a book” (33). And here is the book, a collection of 11 “documents.”
On one hand, Zambra’s prose style is not the kind that I’m usually attracted to. Ordinarily (especially after reading Colin Barrett’s stellar collection Young Skins) I’m much more drawn to a more lapidary style, writing that also challenges the reader and is loaded with words that sizzle on the page. But Zambra’s style isn’t at all like that. Yet his simple, casual diction and informal tone, plus his love of girls, soccer, smoking, getting high, reading—all of it is so very artless and genuine that you can’t help but like the guy, even at his weaker moments.
The story “I Smoked Very Well,” for instance, is probably the weakest in the collection. Less of a story than a self-described series of diary entries, the piece is a first-person account of the struggles of quitting smoking and the role it plays in the narrator’s relationship with reading and writing. At times the piece wallows in self-pity. Zambra writes: “I am a person who now doesn’t even know if he’s going to go on writing, because he wrote in order to smoke and now he doesn’t smoke; he read in order to smoke and now he doesn’t smoke. I am a person who no longer creates anything. Who just writes down what happens, as if it would interest someone to know that I’m sleepy, that I’m drunk, that I hate Rafa Araneda with all my soul” (157). The irony of the preceding passage falls flat, and here, in the following one, the narrator comes across as simply indolent: “They say it’s the same fruit, but it’s hard to believe. And I don’t want to look online” (159).
The story “National Institute,” is also somewhat problematic. About the mostly unpleasant aspects of life as a student at the prestigious National Institute, the piece begins with a very promising Kafkaesque setup in which the students are known only by their number in the roll call and are terrified by the spectre of failing. Mysteriously, knowledge of who will pass or fail is only known by #34, a student who has failed twice already and will fail again. But then the second half of the story is a long series of “snapshots,” each beginning with the words “I remember.” In this part the students have names now, and after the boys get into a brawl the story ends with the Inspector General admonishing them with words he says the students will never, ever forget. Naturally, the story ends with the narrator saying that he has forgotten whatever those bombastic words might have been, but it’s his “I sincerely don’t know what Musa told me then” (133)[my emphasis] that makes the reader in fact doubt the sincerity of those words. Although each half is interesting in its own right, these are two stories inelegantly fused into one.
And then there’s the story “Memories of a Personal Computer.” Incredibly, halfway through the piece we learn that Max, the story’s protagonist, has a son. Zambra writes: “Yes, it’s true, he should have come up sooner—over two thousand words had to go by before he came into play—but the thing is that Max often forgot about the child’s existence” (103). That kind of laziness is something most writers wouldn’t be able to get away with. And yet, somehow, Zambra does get away with it, probably because the ending is not only affecting but there’s something about Zambra that makes him and his various male protagonists so affable that we easily trust him and follow along where he leads us. It helps too that the other stories in the collection are really good, especially the last four: “Thank You,” “The Most Chilean Man in the World,” “Family Life,” and “Artist’s Rendition.” The latter in particular is a real tour-de-force. In this metafictional story, the male protagonist, known simply as “the writer” has been commissioned to write a detective story and finds material in the memory of a girl he once loved and who had an abusive relationship with her father, a man she fantasizes about killing but only does so in the fictional story the unnamed protagonist writes. In terms of both structure and emotional impact, it’s a fantastic piece that demonstrates deft control in withholding information and is full of surprises right until the end.
Mention of the detective story will immediately draw comparisons with that other great Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, and I think it would be fair to say that the influence is clear. Both share a predilection for explicit descriptions of sex (and the apparent ease of getting it); both share a similar prose style; and, maybe more significantly, many of the characters that populate their works are often writers and poets, which, in Zambra’s case especially, lend many of his stories their metafictional quality as self-conscious pieces of writing—as documents. However, while Bolaño’s world is much vaster in scope (simply by the sheer volume of his work and the breadth of his novels) and often darker and more violent, Zambra gives us a slightly more contemporary, recognizable universe, familiar in its quotidian struggles and conflicts, especially in the age of the computer (and its by-product the Internet) and the solitude such supposed interconnectedness can produce.