BY-PASSING CHILE: Alejandro Zambra’s ‘My Documents’, translated by Megan McDowell

Editor Rebecca DeWald travelled to Argentina and took books of and about Argentine literature with her, a literature which is receiving more and more attention in English at the moment. In this thread, the Argentine Travelogue, which will continue over the next months, she offers travel accounts about books, Argentina and translation.

Alejandro Zambra, My Documents, trans. by Megan McDowell (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015)

By Rebecca DeWald

My journey to South America last year did not stop in Argentina but included a short 5-day detour through Chile. Having been held up at the border on our way from Mendoza to Valparaíso shortly after having passed the Aconcagua, the Western hemisphere’s highest peak, this stay was shortened by an additional 5 hours. After the vertiginous bus ride taking us down the serpentine descent from the barren Andes into lush Chilean valleys on the other side of the border, we by-passed the Chilean capital Santiago — the place from which most Chile visitors start or where they finish.

Serpentine pass

It is barely possible to escape the influence of Chile’s best-known poet, Pablo Neruda, anywhere West of Santiago, and is, in this way, the polar opposite to the way in which Borges is all but forgotten in Buenos Aires (see my first Travelogue piece). Our brief visit naturally included a trip to his flamboyant house in Isla Negra. The place is so beautiful and care-free that coasters with the image of Neruda’s view onto the noisy Pacific Ocean now accommodate the endless cups of tea which get me through my everyday computer-based life. Another souvenir — and recommended read — are Scottish-born poet and translator Alastair Reid’s translations of Neruda’s poetry collection Isla Negra (bought for an extortionate price in the gift shop since some of the 0s might have got lost in the mental conversion process between dollars, pesos, pounds, and euros. Never mind.). Our journey then continued to a tiny village on the southern Chilean coast, passing Santiago on the motorway whose silhouette only appeared as a distant, smoggy skyline in front of the backdrop of the Andes.

In comparison with the amount of Argentine books which accompanied the journey, my reading experience of Chilean literature is fairly fleeting: a chapter of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (translated by Chris Andrews) here, a few pages of Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart and The Passion According to G.H. (in Alison Entrekin and Idra Novey’s translation, respectively) there, and Alejandro Zambra’s short story collection My Documents. My point of comparison — by way of getting to the bottom of the collection — is hence my fleeting visit to Chile, and a few works of “world literature” (for lack of a better term) of which Zambra reminds me, rather than confirming the contentious statement that Zambra stands “as the dawn of a new era in Chilean literature” (back cover).Isla Negra

Zambra’s collection reminds me of Max Frisch’s diaries: the first volume unusually published at the beginning of his writing career, Frisch’s diaries offer both personal and distanced, and probably often exaggerated, glimpses into his life, and so lend themselves to be read both as fact and fiction, in true post-modern fashion – though Zambra’s is a short story collection, not a diary. Or Paul Auster (or Borges, for that matter), whose own name frequently appears in his novels and where character’s or their names and variations pop up in multiple works. Though that’s not exactly what Zambra does either: his name never pops up, neither do names of characters overlap, though they often seem to share character traits and circumstances. Zambra’s narrators are exclusively male and often seem to just get on with their distinct (often lonely) lives until another character appears on the scene to stir up the past or whatever else is bubbling under the seemingly calm (if never obviously perfect) surface.

One example is ‘Long Distance’, where a phone operator and part-time creative writing teacher has settled into his simple life, only to receive an insurance claim call from Paris which leads to private literature lessons for a very rich elderly man. Simultaneously — and as if triggered by this encounter — the operator/teacher starts dating one of his students, the Ministry of Education cancels the course (and hence his income) and a well-meant gift of food from his wealthy sponsor leads to a break-up with his writing student. Everything is connected.My Documents by Alejandro Zambra [Final cover]

The ending in Zambra’s stories is always abrupt and piercing — as if to burst the bubble to reveal what has been stewing under the surface all along. So maybe the best reference point is the collection itself. The narrator of the first story, eponymous with the collection’s title, gives a glimpse of his upbringing, which serves as guidance on what to expect from the collection:

My parents never told us bedtime stories, but my grandmother did. The happy stories would always end badly, because the protagonists invariably died in an earthquake. But she also told us some terribly sad stories that ended happily — maybe that was her idea of literature.

Every story has an unexpected twist — as all good short stories do — so while the first story appears as the most autobiographical, it is in the last paragraph that this illusion of security is questioned again, thrown up in the air in Zambra’s very matter-of-fact style:

I think about closing this file and leaving it forever in the My Documents folder. But I’m going to publish it, I want to, even though it’s not finished, even though it’s impossible to finish it. My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter. I was a blank page, and now I am a book.

And somehow the narrator’s affirmation resists being read as metaphors and he rather reveals his Gregor Samsa-esque identity to the reader.

There are also multiple recurrent themes in the collection, serving as anchors and reference points and potential helpers to get to the bottom of what lies behind these average Chilean lives. In ‘Camilo’, the boy narrating the story meets his father’s godson Camilo who subsequently spends most of his time with the family and teaches the narrator essential life skills, like how to talk to girls. The story, however, grows into recounting Camilo’s life from an outside perspective, trying to explain Camilo’s relationship with his absent father who left for Europe during the Pinochet regime, and, though they stayed in touch, has trouble connecting with his son.

lush Chile

In a recent feature on must-read Latin American authors, Valerie Miles, founder and editor of the Spanish edition of Granta, says about the contemporary generation of note-worthy Latin American that “they […] have in common a formal audacity.” Simultaneously, as opposed to the boom — whose anxiety of influence they all need to face — “politics becomes something more intimate that comes out from the daily life with the partner, children… not from the state.”[1]

While Zambra makes repeated reference to Pinochet — certainly the defining political figure in recent Chilean history — these go hand-in-hand with football as a chronological marker for the time a story is set, and both are necessarily tied in with the disconnect between fathers and sons. This is the main or underlying theme in ‘Camilo’; ‘True or False’ about a divorce and shared custody; ‘Memories of a Personal Computer’, where the estranged father attempts to bond with his son over a laid-off computer; and ‘Family Life’, a story in the vein of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Wakefield’, where a house-sitter takes on the identity of the house owner just to abandon his partner and new-born child without explanation once the employment comes to an end. Football and the Pinochet regime both unite and divide. Camilo, for example, is a bad football player while his father and best friend (Camilo’s godfather) bonded and fell out for life over a football incident. Football even comes up in conversation between the kidnappers and the kidnapped Argentine and Chilean in Mexico City (in ‘Thank You’) where it becomes the ultimate reason the kidnappers decide to let the couple go.

So while it is helpful to have a basic understanding of 1990s Chilean politics, it is ultimately recurrent themes and a comparable voice which keeps the collection together; it is the voice of the repressed, not the historical facts, which unite and divide. Before My Documents (though unfortunately her name does not appear on the book cover), Megan McDowell had previously translated Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter 2010) and Ways of Going Home (Granta/Portobello, 2013), which was winner of the 2013 English PEN Award for Writing in Translation, an excerpt of which featured in Granta’s ‘The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists’ in 2010. Her style often emulates Zambra’s syntax and word choice (the Granta edition appeared in both English and Spanish, so I had the rare pleasure of reading both in parallel) and she peppers a chatty, often colloquial American, yet precise tone with the odd Chilean expression left in Spanish, which creates a combination enhancing the often brash and direct content, and particularly the endings, of Zambra’s stories. Like the stories (and the excerpt from his novel Formas de volver a casa (2011) in Granta) themselves, Zambra is both direct and elusive. McDowell’s translation matures from the Granta excerpt, which remains very close to the source text in its syntax and word-choice, though line breaks have been structured differently (which might be the work of the editor) — and bearing in mind that the excerpt in all likelihood constituted an earlier draft of the published book from 2013, a way of “play[ing] around with the word order”, as McDowell says in an interview for English PEN.[2] The short story collection retains the directness and simplicity of language but lets a distinct voice emerge. This voice is what ties the collection together — achieved through an editing process which “pull[s] tight the thread that connects the translation to the original”, as McDowell says — and also what adds to the convergence of the individual stories which almost appear as a novel recounted from various perspectives and points in the lives of a related set of people. In this sense, it gives the collection this somewhat postmodern aesthetic of verging on short story, memoir and writing exercise simultaneously.

Chile border sign

As I was finishing my review — now over a year after I visited Chile — I Skyped my friend who had recently moved from Valparaíso, where we visited her (and where McDowell picked up her Chilean Spanish), to Santiago. When she showed me her view from the 25th floor, I mistook the misty grey wintery sky, full of rain (which washes the smog out of the air) for a less colourful version of Valparaíso. It also made me think of New York, though the backdrop formed by the Andes did not quite match my mental image. I am sure a visit to the capital would have enhanced my understanding of Chilean politics. As McDowell says:

When you’re there, you come to realize that everyone has a story, that Chile’s recent past has affected everyone’s life in some way or another, though not necessarily in ways that you read about in books.

For now, I remain on the margins, where Zambra puts me, trying to understand what is at the heart of it by interpreting the lines drawn by mountains and skyline from the distance, wondering when I’ll get a chance to delve deeper.


[1] Maria Sanchez Diez, ‘These are the Latin American authors you should be reading this summer’, Quartz, 28 June 2015.

[2] ‘Genuine, intimate, provocative – a word from the translator with Megan MacDowell [sic]’ , English PEN, 9 September 2014. In this interview, McDowell also captures what draws translators to their job, countering the sometimes expressed assumption translators were failed writers: “I really believe that translation is an engaged, creative or critical way of reading. My love of translation doesn’t stem from my urge to write, but rather my urge to read.”