‘My Documents’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

IMG_5236While Fitzcarraldo Editions haven’t released many titles as yet, it appears that they’re going for quality over quantity, with an interesting range of fiction and non-fiction tied together by the French-style plain covers.  Today’s post looks at the second in the blue-cover series of fiction works, and while the title, referring to computer files, belies the traditional exterior, the contents are very much an example of classic writing 🙂

*****
Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (translated by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of short stories by a Chilean writer already well known in English for short works such as Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees and Ways of Going Home.  The book contains eleven stories, each running to somewhere in the region of twenty pages, and while most of the pieces are fairly restrained in terms of plot (there are very few major events here), each of them manages to catch the reader’s interest and hold it throughout.

The stories making up My Documents contain a wide range of themes, but there are a few which are repeated throughout the book.  One of these, particularly in the earlier stories, is childhood, with the title piece one of the standouts.  This story is a cool, calm reminiscence of the writer’s childhood days, showing us an eight-year-old in 1980s Chile, a boy whose days are filled with music and religion.  Gradually, due largely to his grandmother’s influence, his interests change, and he sets off on a path towards the literary future awaiting him.

If ‘My Documents’ is a fairly happy tale, ‘National Institute’ takes a somewhat darker look at the writer’s formative years, a whirlwind account of six years of tough schooling.  While there’s fun in the playground, there’s also the intense pressure of competition and cruel, sadistic teachers attempting to bring the students down:

‘I’m not going to keep you from graduating.  I’m not going to expel you, but I’m going to tell you something that you will never in your whole life forget.”
‘National Institute’, p.122 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015)

It’s the students who have the last laugh, though, as the teachers’ influence ends the moment the boys’ school careers are over:

“I don’t remember what he told me.  I forgot it immediately.  I sincerely don’t know what Musa told me then.  I remember that I looked him in the face, bravely or innocently, but I didn’t retain a single one of his words.”

Cool and defiant to the last…

A further theme covered in the collection is relationships, usually in the sense of how they develop and implode.  A good example of this is the story ‘Memories of a Personal Computer’, a diary of sorts centred on a computer a man buys shortly before meeting a woman.  The relationship is chronicled in terms of how they use the PC: sex reflected in the monitor, photos of their holidays stored and arranged, then hidden notes on the collapse of their love.  In addition to examining the way people living together can grow apart, the story shows just how ubiquitous computers have become.

Another story of a failed relationship is told in ‘Family Life’, in which a middle-aged man house-sits for a distant relative who has been posted overseas with his family.  As he wanders around the house, the lonely man sees evidence of the kind of life he has been unable to build for himself:

“He imagines going into the living room, where a very beautiful woman, a woman who is Consuelo, or who looks like Consuelo, hands him a mug of coffee, raises her eyebrows, and smiles, showing her teeth.  Then he goes and makes that cup of coffee for himself, which he drinks in quick sips while he thinks about a life with children, a wife, a stable job.  Martín feels a sharp jab in his chest.  And then a word that was by now inevitable looms and conquers: melancholy.”
‘Family Life’ (p.190)

With the house’s owners in Europe, Martín decides that this is an ideal opportunity to build a fake background for himself, one which will enable him to move on with his life.  The problem is that when the family comes back, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do…

Above all, though, My Documents is a work which looks at authors and writing, with the majority of the stories touching on the theme.  One of my favourite stories, ‘I Smoked Very Well’, a smoker’s account of his struggles to quit, gradually turns from the topic of tobacco to its necessity to the process of writing.  Little did the protagonist think when he made his decision to give up cigarettes that it would have an effect on his writing too:

“Cigarettes are the punctuation marks of my life.  Now I live without punctuation, without rhythm.  My life is a stupid avant-garde poem.”
‘I Smoked Very Well’ (p.145)

It’s a wonderful story, with most pages containing quotations I was tempted to copy down.  As the story unfolds, the writer comes to realise that he may have to make a difficult choice – a healthy life without inspration or a shorter existence full of good writing.

The final story, ‘Artist’s Rendition’, continues the theme as a writer with a job to complete uses events from his youth to flesh out a story, cannibalising and altering history.  It’s a story within a story, one of abuse, heartache and sadness, and as the writer frantically attempts to get his piece in before the deadline, the reader is shown the truth between the lines, a truth that has been waiting decades to be revealed…

There’s a lot more to My Documents than what I’ve touched on above; another reviewer might, for example, touch on the insights given into Chilean society (usually alluded to rather than explicitly stated).  Most stories, rather than focusing on one issue, draw several ideas together, leaving the reader to ponder what the main point is.  Different readers will have different focuses, all perfectly valid, but slightly divergent.

Given the focus on writing, it comes as a relief that the style is effective and smooth, not flashy, but wonderful to read.  McDowell has done some excellent work here, catching the tone and voice of Zambra’s protagonists, mainly jaded, late-30s writers looking back at their lives.  On a more personal note, I was very happy with the way ‘football’ is the word of choice throughout – once a cursory mention of soccer is made, football is referred to constantly (and it’s another topic that crops up frequently in the background).  Perhaps this was just done for the UK edition, but believe me – it makes a *huge* difference 😉

My Documents is a book I’d been meaning to get around to reading for a while, and I’m very glad I found time for it – this is a book most of you (my erudite, well-read, digital acquaintances) will enjoy 🙂  Like a lot of good literature, it’s not always about the ‘what’, but the ‘how’.  A good example of this is in ‘The Most Chilean Man in the World’, a story where the title is based on a joke and a linguistic mix-up; in the end, like many things in life, the story (and the joke) is all about the journey, not the destination.

It’s a journey that  definitely appeals – perhaps I should try some more of Zambra’s work soon…

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11 thoughts on “‘My Documents’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

  1. This sounds very tempting indeed – I know so little about Chilean literature (other than Pablo Neruda, obviously – we all go through that teenage phase when we are endlessly quoting him, right?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marina Sofia – No, I was never into poetry, so Neruda hasn’t ever crossed my bookshelves (one day, perhaps). Bolaño, on the other hand, I have tried 🙂

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  2. I’ll be reviewing this soon for me the childhood stories I enjoyed also like you happy that most football references where to football not soccer not sure if that is what he would want let’s face it only americans call it soccer

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  3. If I have another #TBR20 after my current one, I intend to put pretty much everything by Fitzcarraldo on it. This sounds great, and very much in their focus on seriously high quality but less well known works.

    Love the second quote from National Institute.

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