In Alejandro Zambra’s short story “National Institute,” the teachers are “real sons of bitches”:
the math teacher, Mr. Bernardo Aguayo, for example—he was a total son of a bitch. And the shop teacher, Mr. Eduardo Venegas. A real motherfucker. Neither time nor distance has dampened my rage. They were cruel and mediocre. Frustrated and stupid people. Obsequious Pinochetistas. Fucking assholes.
The narrator of The Private Lives of Trees, Zambra’s second novel, chastises his stepdaughter’s teacher over an English assignment: “We don’t like English,” he says. “We’re anti-imperialists, we’re leftist people.” And in “Required Reading,” an essay from his collection No Leer, Zambra describes being assigned Madame Bovary for the first time:
I still remember the afternoon the teacher went to the blackboard and wrote the words: test, next, Friday, Madame, Bovary, Gustave, Flaubert, French. With each word the silence grew, and at the end you could only hear the sad screech of the chalk.
On test day, Zambra bases all his answers on Vincente Minnelli’s film adaptation of the novel, which he has not read. He gets a bad grade, and his teacher scribbles Vincente Minnelli! in red ink on his exam: he has been caught. “It’s a miracle,” Zambra writes at the end of the essay, “that we survived those teachers, who did all they could to prove that reading was the most boring thing the world.” The scene—and the sentiment—reappear in Ways of Going Home, Zambra’s third and best novel: “I believe those teachers didn’t really want to stimulate us, but they wished rather to turn us off from literature; they wanted to draw us away from books forever.”
Such clear, passionate attacks stand out in the work of a writer who tends to trade in misdirection and subtle anecdotes. In Facsímil1, Zambra’s newest book, the attacks are the book. Facsímil is arranged as an elaborate parody of the Prueba de Aptitud Verbal, the Chilean equivalent of the verbal section of the SATs. The book mimics the Prueba circa 1993, the year Zambra graduated from Chile’s elite, conservative National Institute (the school in the story of the same name). Facsímil is divided into five sections; four of these are made up of multiple choice questions, and the fifth contains three short pieces followed by “reading comprehension” exercises. The opening question is a play on the book’s title:
I. In exercises 1 to 24, indicate the word that bears no relation to the other words presented, or to the word used in the question’s title.
This question is followed by two similar meta-exercises:
a) Carbon copy
These questions, with their superficial wordplay and easy punchlines, read like jokes one might find in a middling avant-garde novel, and it’s hard not to think of Zambra’s big structural gimmick in Facsímil as a miscalculation—an unnecessary act of confinement. Zambra has always been wary of classification: his books are too short to be novels, too long to be short stories. They’re too plotless and self-conscious for realism, too direct for postmodernism. The pre-Facsímil novels and stories are heavy on silence and elusive in tone, cycling between seriousness and levity with an easy briskness—fleet and self-aware in their metafiction, charged in their occasional moments of political or emotional bluntness. And they’re appealingly slow: “I write sketching, with no plans,” Zambra says in another essay, “Eraser.” For his elegant navigation of these tensions, Zambra has received more acclaim in recent years than any of his Latin American contemporaries.
Why, then, would a master of ambiguity and unease turn to parody, a form that requires a narrow scope and a pummeling relentlessness? Facsímil seems at first like the settling of a personal score—a book-length treatment of a topic best reckoned with in small doses, over the span of a long career. It’s true that standardized tests are inherently ridiculous and thus ripe for satire. And it’s true, too, that the contrast between novels and exams is fertile—the best novels celebrate doubt, while standardized tests restrict experience to a set of right or wrong answers. But so what? That a topic is satirically suggestive doesn’t mean it can sustain an entire book. Fortunately, Zambra himself comes to this realization early on, toward the end of Facsímil’s first section:
As Zambra pushes back against the parameters he himself has imposed, the satirical shallowness of Facsímil’s earlier questions gives way to a richer, more capacious, more darkly rewarding kind of humor. The first of these three questions is a coded message about the regime of Augusto Pinochet: one can’t help but imagine Chilean citizens’ desperate pleas in the face of torture (“I promise complete silence!”), though there’s a second, imperative mode at work here, too (“Promise complete silence”). The latter two questions—twenty-two and twenty-three—invert the either/or logic of the multiple choice format and show that in a dictatorship, a single word can have two contradictory, incompatible implications. A longtime admirer of Georges Perec and his fervent commitment to Oulipian constraints, Zambra embraces a basic avant-garde principle in this section: one sets rules in order to be totally free.
Facsímil is Zambra’s most rigidly organized book, and it is also his loosest. (Anyone who writes for a living has to understand this paradox: assignments accompanied by specific instructions feel provocative and exciting, while the opportunity to write a book about anything you wish, in any way you want, feels about as liberating as crunching numbers in a tiny cubicle.) Zambra’s previous work is marked by careful attention to form and symmetry; this is especially true of Ways of Going Home, in which the cyclical, one-two shift between narrators at different points in time is executed with the precision of a fugue. But despite its tight structure, Facsímil is a mess: awkward, clunky, cacophonous. It leaps from poignant historical allusions to flat anecdotes; from second-rate metafiction to vivid, intimate glimpses of family life. In one question, the narrator describes being conceived during a curfew. This is followed by an oblique reference to a love affair, which, in turn, is followed by this:
IV. In exercises 55 to 66, indicate which sentences or paragraphs can be eliminated without any substantial alteration to the meaning of the sequence.
1) They detected she had breast cancer when she was sixty-five years old.
2) They had to take out one of her breasts.
3) A short time later came Alzheimer’s.
4) She couldn’t tell her children, her grandchildren, or anyone apart.
5) She couldn’t even tell who I was.
6) But she never forgot she lacked one breast.
Chekhov has a note in one of his notebooks that reads, in its entirety, “A man in Monte Carlo goes to the casino, wins a million, returns home, commits suicide.” Facsímil often feels like a compilation of such fragments and sketches, of stories and essays in latent form, condensed to the point of nonexistence. (The breast cancer story reads like lesser Lydia Davis, a master of these kinds of compilations.) Zambra packs his book with literary ventriloquism, bad jokes, decent jokes, absurdist indulgences, and extensive self-parody. It’s more diary than novel. And like a diary, Facsímil is as confessional as it is disorganized. When a writer known for his intricacy and control begins to write clunky, excitable sentences, it’s clear that we’re not far from his true obsessions. Which is why there’s something stirring about this mess. Zambra has said that he’d initially planned to write a more straightforward novel about the 1993 entrance exam, but he became frustrated with the manuscript, which resembled his previous work too closely: “I felt uncomfortable, or maybe too comfortable—in a certain way, I felt that I had already written that book.” Hence, parody. Facsímil, for Zambra, was an attempt to abandon “the protective shadow of literature,” a grand and slightly pompous phrase that doesn’t quite do justice to the book’s delirious carelessness. At its best, Facsímil has the air of something written quickly and playfully in the heat of a second try.
It is also Zambra’s most politically sophisticated book—perhaps more deeply engaged with Chile’s history than any of his earlier works. Politics and literary experimentation have always coexisted in Zambra’s writing, but the balance has shifted a bit over time. Bonsai, his first novel, recounts two stories: a love affair between a pair of bookish college students; and the narrator’s attempt, later in life, to write a novel that resembles the one we are reading. The narrator’s aloof and somewhat distant relationship with an older, more celebrated Chilean author in the second half of the narrative suggests a subtle interrogation of the country’s literary hierarchy, but it may be too subtle: this is as close as Bonsai gets to overt political content. Zambra’s interest in social forces is less opaque in Ways of Going Home, which also tells two alternating stories: one set during the 1985 earthquake in Santiago, in which a boy befriends a girl who asks him to help her “spy” on her uncle, a Communist; the other set in the present, about a writer cataloging his memories and writing a novel that, again, happens to be the one we are reading. At the book’s moral center are questions over Pinochet’s legacy—its effects on those who resisted him, supported him, and kept their distance. One Chilean critic referred to Ways of Going Home as Zambra’s “dictatorship novel,” which is an overstatement: Zambra is at his best when he evokes the specks of debris left scattered in the air, rather than exploring the dictatorship in the foreground.
Facsímil is all debris, and its historical and political allusions are varied and unexpected. Zambra refers to disappeared leftists and aging murderers, to the student protests that roiled the country between 2011 and 2013, and to a Chilean law that forbade divorce until its embarrassingly belated repeal in 2001. In one section, a question and its sequence of possible answers are written in the voice of Manuel Contreras, son of Manuel Contreras, Pinochet’s infamous number two. There are no manifestoes here and little preaching, but Facsímil reveals—more clearly than Zambra’s earlier work—that the self-conscious writer of metafiction needn’t shy away from history and the polity. The inward and the outward gazes can coexist.
In the opening sentence of his 2000 story “Mauricio (‘The Eye’) Silva,” Roberto Bolaño delivers a kind of generational argument:
Mauricio Silva, also known as “The Eye,” always tried to avoid violence, even at the risk of being considered a coward, but violence, real violence, is unavoidable, at least for those of us who were born in Latin America during the ’50s and were about twenty years old at the time of Salvador Allende’s death.
There is an ominousness to much of Zambra’s fiction that reflects his generation’s experience of the post-Pinochet years, but it’s a vaguer, more diluted ominousness than Bolaño’s, which is always palpably present. Zambra’s generation exists in a kind of double limbo: its members are old enough to know what it is like to be trapped between past and present—indeed, old enough to know that one cannot escape violence—but too young to actually write about that past and that violence with any kind of authority. The years of the dictatorship don’t belong to them.
Zambra captures this tension beautifully in Ways of Going Home. The narrator describes a memory from the early 1990s, shortly after the country’s return to democracy. (Zambra has confessed—rather uncharacteristically—to pulling this incident from his own life.) One morning, a handful of police officers give chase to two robbers, who run into the school’s main quad as a group of high school students sit in history class. The officers fire two shots into the air, and the students duck under their desks, terrified and excited by the commotion. They get up a few moments later, once the shock has worn off, and are startled to see their teacher still lying on the floor, clutching his ears, crumpled and crying. The students offer the teacher a glass of water, but he refuses, and it takes a long time for them to finally calm him down: they explain that what he heard was just a scuffle, not the military returning to power. Some days later, the teacher approaches the narrator to thank him. “I can tell you know what I lived through,” the teacher tells him.
Of course I knew, we all knew; he had been tortured and his cousin was taken prisoner and disappeared . . . He asked me if I was politically active, and I said no. He asked about my family, and I told him that during the dictatorship my parents had kept to the sidelines. The teacher looked at me curiously or disdainfully—he looked at me curiously but I felt that his gaze also held disdain.
This is a more complex and empathetic depiction of teachers and schools than what we’ve seen elsewhere in Zambra’s work. But it’s the deep and complex generational resonance of the scene that makes it so exceptional. The student cannot know what his teacher went through, even though he’s familiar with the story. One of his strongest memories from the end of the dictatorship is how, on certain afternoons, the somber old man in a flashy military uniform interrupted the scheduled programming on TV to make long, boring speeches. This is all he can know of the recent past; the rift is total.
Generational anxieties cannot be sorted out at home, if they can be sorted out at all. Zambra’s work is full of bare rooms and empty gardens, packages of bad pasta and cups of Nescafé. These are the dull, melancholy symbols of middle-class life in Santiago in the midst of a historic shift—first on the cusp of Chile’s transition to democracy, then in the wake of it. If this shift can’t be noted in the stiff, oblique conversations parents and children engage in in Zambra’s stories, neither can the dark era that preceded it. I’m familiar with that reticence, having grown up in Brazil, which also endured a long period of military rule. I remember one, maybe two times when the dictatorship was brought up at meals or family gatherings, and even then, the topic was dispatched rather quickly, with the mumbling swiftness one reserves for topics as unpleasant as—well, the dictatorship. These subjects are first broached at school, rather than at home. It is at school that we—those born in Latin America after Salvador Allende died—learn about history and about our parents’ generation.
But school isn’t enough. “After so many study guides,” Facsímil’s last section begins,
so many practice tests and proficiency and achievement tests, it would have been impossible for us not to learn something, but we forgot everything almost right away and, I’m afraid, for good. The thing that we did learn, and to perfection—the thing that we would remember for the rest of our lives—was how to copy on tests.
The sterile high school classroom is no place to tussle with the past. Didactic textbooks present torture and murder in grave, solemn tones, and years of repression are conveyed through graphs, mottled maps, and faint black-and-white portraits. One learns how to cheat, and just as quickly, one learns how to speak eloquently about a past one doesn’t have access to. I’m sure I first heard the names Stalin, Hitler, and Pinochet when I was in school, but that’s all they were: names in the midst of various other ones. At home there is silence; at school, noise. A standardized entrance exam seems like the perfect way to show that though schools can put two generations in touch, they can also ensure that students squander any possibility of true understanding.
School, then, is a landscape of disappointment—a locus of the impossible. It is also a space of perennial tentativeness, where everything is always on the verge of happening. There’s something of this tentativeness in all of Zambra’s books, as if the writer were constantly writing a draft of a bigger novel still to come. “Let’s agree that his name is Julio and her name is Emilia,” the narrator says in Bonsai’s first paragraph. In The Private Lives of Trees, the narrator muses that when his wife returns, “the novel ends. But as long as she does not return the novel goes on.” And in Ways of Going Home: “I like that my main characters don’t have surnames. It is a relief.” These incursions, which may strike some readers as annoying or too cutely postmodern, reflect a stark uncertainty: for writers like Zambra, the unease that comes with building the “literature of the children” hasn’t receded. As “those of us who were born in Latin America during the ’50s” give way to a younger cohort, Zambra’s generation finds itself faced with the daunting task of becoming main characters in their country’s history. Whether the leap is possible is unclear.
Bolaño is often cited as one of Zambra’s main influences, which probably has more to do with biography than with prose—both are talented Chilean novelists; both were quite unknown in Britain and America until they were noticed by a famous Anglophone critic (Susan Sontag and James Wood, respectively). More than anything, Bolaño’s peripatetic settings, his fevered prose and occasional cockiness, the vague sense of militancy that pervades his emigré maximalism—all of these offer a striking contrast with Zambra’s approach, which is diffident, authoritative (through its very rejection of authority), melancholy, minimalist, and stubbornly local (Zambra almost never sets stories outside of Santiago). Bolaño is the wanderer, the persecuted exile; Zambra the quiet child who stays at home. His realm is that gray, lukewarm zone, the uneventful late 1980s and early 1990s in which he grew up—his calm settings a counterpoint to the spilled blood and tragedies that dominate the literature of his parents’ generation.
Zambra, a polite, somewhat reserved interviewee, has occasionally shown a faint displeasure at being compared to Bolaño, brushing off the comparisons with either good humor, deference, or a combination of the two (“no one likes comparisons that they will always lose”). More recently, when asked again about the influence, he was both more and less direct: “Bolaño is irreducible,” he said. The sentence is cunningly reminiscent of a phrase Bolaño himself used once, when asked about Borges: “Borges is inexhaustible.” But the difference between “inexhaustible” and “irreducible” is a telling one, and Zambra’s unease with the comparison might owe less to a youthful resistance to pigeonholing than something more serious: the fact that, whenever he writes, he is often trying to show not only that he and the dead sage are not and can never be the same, but that, most of the time, they can barely meet halfway.
Still, in its imperfections and offbeat confessionalism, Facsímil does point the way toward something new. Zambra trades his acute awareness of symmetry and form (an awareness also honed by his work as a critic, much less known outside of Chile) for a sort of raw sincerity, an unabashed political and historical awareness. It’s not gratuitous that, after telling his teachers to fuck off so many times, Facsímil’s dedication page reads: “to my teachers Juan Luis Morales Rojas, Elizabeth Azócar, Ricardo Ferrada, and Soledad Bianchi.”
This review is based on the original version of the book, in Spanish (titled Facsímil). The English translation (Multiple Choice), by Zambra’s long-time translator, Megan McDowell, contains significant alterations in some of the questions and answers presented in the original. ↩