How is it that Alejandro Zambra’s books feel so new, so enjoyable, despite the fact that in them one finds almost nothing but writers and adolescents — overused and often annoying quantities? It’s true, his characters are champions at wallowing in their problems, but their depressive, romanticized stories escape triteness. This is partly due to Zambra’s thick characterizations and healthy sense of irony, but also to the continual presence of tragedy — sometimes of a personal nature, sometimes transmitted via allusions to the dictatorship of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet. Here, for instance, see how effortlessly he takes us into the turmoil of a woman in the midst of breaking up:
She closed the e-mail, went to sleep at dawn, intoxicated with rage more than wine. She woke up in the mid-afternoon and she was alone. Lethargically, she walked to the computer — to the room next door, though to her it seemed like a long way — but instead of turning it on, she stared at the glare of the sun on the monitor. She closed the blinds, wishing for absolute darkness, while tears flowed down her neck and disappeared in the furrow between her breasts. She sat down on the ground and took off her shirt; she looked at her alert nipples, her smooth soft belly, her knees, her fingers firm on the cold floor. Then she got up and wiped the screen clean, or, rather, she dirtied it with her fingers, which were wet with tears. She smeared her fingers angrily over the surface, as if she were scrubbing it with a rag. Then she turned on the computer, wrote a short note in Word, and started packing her suitcase.
In addition to all that, the other thing saving Zambra’s fictions from the charge of dreamy triviality is that they are exceedingly well told. He called his first book, the 80-page Bonsai, “a very simple story whose only peculiarity is that nobody knows how to tell it well” — and, indeed, what makes that fable of a failed love affair original and arresting is its intricate, Escher-like layering. Similar things could be said of Zambra’s short second book, the 90-page Private Lives of Trees, and the comparatively large Ways of Going Home, 140 pages.
Zambra’s use of compression, his desire to take fable-like plots and squeeze them like an accordion, makes his latest book — his first-ever collection of stories — of great interest. What might his elegant miniatures look like if they were compressed even further? Yet My Documents might also be Zambra’s longest novel yet: by a careful arrangement of recurring tropes — computers and cigarettes, continual references to the World Cup, kites, and, of course, Pinochet — he encourages us to see links between these eleven stories, as though they tell the thirty-year evolution of a certain entity from 1980 to the early 2010s. Like the recent Hypothermia from Álvaro Enrigue, and the even more recent Faces in the Crowd from Valeria Luiselli (both of whom have a story dedicated to them in Zambra’s latest), My Documents forces a reader to contemplate what makes a novel cohere, and where we draw the lines between autobiography and fiction, author and subject.
The book begins at the dawn of the computer age, with the narrator of the titular first story stating that “the first time I saw a computer was in 1980, when I was four or five years old.” Before long, he tells us, “my father was a computer and my mother was a typewriter.” The story moves briskly through episodes of his childhood, from dreams of being in the marching band to lying about his first Communion, the 8.0 earthquake that shook the northern coast of Chile in 1985, and the attempted assassination of Pinochet in 1986. With the end of childhood in 1988 — “at the same time, democracy and adolescence arrived” — the story “My Documents” picks up pace, covering two decades in just two pages: 1994, his studies in literature at the University of Chile; 1997, as a graduate; 2008, the death of his grandmother; and finally, 2013, the completion of the story we’re reading, saved in his computer’s My Documents folder.
The fragments that make up this opening story are, like anyone’s memories of childhood, an eclectic mix of the weighty and the trivial. They are the unchosen things that remain from youth, the things you one day realize have created your sense of the world and your idea of yourself. Zambra’s story “My Documents” is startling because it reminds us how haphazard this education is — like the day when the narrator is unexpectedly brought to a home for mentally challenged children and experiences true suffering face-to-face for the first time. It is also an apt beginning because it encourages us to see the book My Documents as a collection of computer files that someone is drawn to browse through — as though the author wants to recount and shape the legacy of his childhood.
If that is Zambra’s intention, then it’s appropriate that the divide between the problems of children and the problems of parents is keenly felt in the stories here. In the excellent “National Institute,” the narrator is a seventh-grader at Chile’s prestigious National Institute of education during Pinochet’s ’80s. One day, a few lines defaming the dictator are found on a chalkboard, and the deadly words are quickly erased by the rattled science teacher. When the naïve students persist in discussing them, their teacher snaps, “I’m the Natural Sciences teacher. I don’t talk about politics.” For the children, the problem is one of not comprehending the world; for the teacher, comprehending it too well.
Later in the story, in a section composed solely of loose remembrances mostly beginning with the words “I remember,” Zambra effortlessly sketches the most affecting moments from his schooldays — the suicide of a peer, the teacher who wrote a Henry Miller quote on the blackboard. The effect is to hammer home how charged these events were for the children, how mundane they were for the adults.
“National Institute,” ends with the narrator’s graduation and a final disenchantment: just before the ceremony, an abusive teacher degrades the class for no reason and tells the narrator, “I’m going to tell you something that you will never in your whole life forget.” “I forgot it immediately,” he muses, instead only remembering the indolence with which he faced down this last encounter. This tense scene points to what Zambra does so well in My Documents: he makes us feel the blinkered perspective of childhood, even as he makes us equally aware of all the grown-up things children miss. To paraphrase Zambra, as children we are typewriters, as adults we are computers: in the former phase, we simply experience the world, and, like a typewriter, we have no stored memories to draw on and evaluate. As adults, however, we have a hard drive full of a lifetime’s experiences — most of us will spend much time dipping through our My Documents folder and obsessing over what we find there.
As Zambra’s own encounter with his My Documents folder continues, the characters get older and older, and the hopes of youth give way to the realities of adulthood — failure to quit smoking, a brutal mugging in Mexico City, a disastrously failed love affair, a lying house-sitter who wrecks the home he is entrusted with, and a woman who must come to terms with having been serially raped by her father as a child. Even though the plot lines grow harsher and more high-stakes, these stories feel no more somber than the earlier ones, which says something about how Zambra deals with the trivia and joys of childhood. If there is a change, it’s that as the burdens grow fuller and more persistent, the narrators mature from “writers” to writers — in Zambra’s world the understanding permitted by art is one of the few compensations for the loss of resilience that comes with the passage of youth.
My Documents is a satisfying step forward in Zambra’s promising career, but its inconsistent. Yes, the author’s effortlessly supple prose is in full evidence here (translated expertly by Megan McDowell, who has done two of his other books), but there is too much that feels good enough, as though he was satisfied with his second-best effort. My Documents’ weaker stories — among them “Thank You” and “Long Distance” — quickly fade from memory and only really have value as ligaments connecting the collection’s muscle tissue. In these stories, Zambra’s masterful capacity to draw idiosyncratic, willful characters in just a few lines is lost, leaving us with cutouts moving through dull plots to easy revelations.
Overall, the effect of My Documents is similar to Zambra’s previous book Ways of Going Home — in that book Zambra also tried out new and interesting things, but it too lacked the freshness and cohesion that made his debut, Bonsai, such a revelation. With all that said, however, there is much to like in My Documents; when Zambra is on he is very good, delivering aperçus like, “Cigarettes are the punctuation marks of life. . . . I would like to smoke with the elegance of a semi-colon.” His approach to the nostalgia of adulthood is like nothing I have seen anywhere else, and similarly original is his examination of the dictatorship of Pinochet via fictional stories, Finally, his best plots move with the complexity of a poet’s intuition. If My Documents shows that Zambra is a writer who needs to work harder to achieve a consistency and innovation that are equal to his considerable talents, it also shows his relevance and his worthiness of the world stage those talents have thrust him upon.