Right, children – pencils out, phones off (and in bags). Please listen very carefully. You have about ten minutes to read the following post, after which you will be tested on the content (and as to whether the book is worth buying). How will you be tested? Well, isn’t it obvious?
Alejandro Zambra’s books rarely follow the simplest route from A to B, but with his latest work, the Chilean writer has outdone himself. Multiple Choice (translated, as always, by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of Granta Books) is a shortish work full of Zambra’s usual observations on life in his home country, but with one major difference. The book is designed in the format of the Chilean High School exam, the Academic Aptitude Test, mirroring the exam in all its sections (right down to the sheet students use to answer the questions, helpfully included at the back of the book).
If that sounds bizarre, it most certainly is, and when I first received my copy and flicked through, I had some misgivings. The first few sections were noticeably light on text, with paragraphs few and far between. Despite glowing praise on the back cover from the likes of Stuart Evers and Daniel Alarcón, I was unconvinced that this would be anything more than a gimmick. However, Multiple Choice is very cleverly designed, and once you get through the early sections, there are even a few decent-length short stories to enjoy.
Section I, Excluded Term, provides a word and then asks us to choose the word with the least in common from five options. Zambra here uses wordplay to subvert the test, and while some of the questions are sensible, others (for example, number 25 – Silence -, where all five answers are the same as the question…) are not. The third section calls for sentence completion, with clever twists and language not seen in real school tests, such as describing the Chilean Constitution as “a piece of shit”. What comes across here is a sardonic tone, providing veiled commentary on a country under repression, where the only means of coping is sex, drugs and (very) dark humour.
In Section II, the reader (or candidate…) is required to put sentences in the best possible order, with the emphasis of meaning shifted slightly depending on your choice. A nice example here is Question 36 (Scars), which consists of eleven sentences, mostly flippant:
You try to go from the general to the specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.
p.24 (Granta Books, 2016)
It’s only when we get to the final sentence that the mood changes, with a clever twist casting a pall over the ‘story’.
While these shorter parts are clever, the joke can wear thin after a while, so I was grateful for the last two parts, where we finally get to read some longer texts. In Section IV, Sentence Elimination, we must decide whether removing sentences from the brief stories would improve them. There are often several stories within stories, and removing sentences can change the gist completely. One of my favourite ones here begins:
(1) In Chile, no one says hi to each other in elevators. You get in and pretend you don’t see anyone, you pretend you’re blind. And if you say hello, people look at you strangely, sometimes they don’t even return the greeting. You share your fragility in silence like a sacrifice. (p.45)
By choosing one of the options given at the end, the story becomes an anecdote told at dinner, a childhood memory or the story of a passion barely restrained. It’s up to you how it pans out – it’s your test, after all…
The final section is the Reading Comprehension, where we encounter three longer texts, expanding on the themes alluded to earlier in the book. The first of these looks at the test itself, with a retired teacher telling some former students all about how exams and real life really work:
“The National Institute is rotten, but the world is rotten,” he said. “They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over. You’ll do well on this test, very well, don’t worry – you weren’t educated, you were trained.” (p.71)
The other two stories cover some familiar Zambra ground, the first a tale of marriage and a lack of divorce, the second a confessional piece from a father to his son. In case you were wondering, there are some questions, but they tend to be fun and flippant rather than testing, occasionally blurring the line between writer and reader.
But does Multiple Choice work? At times, very much so. A lot of effort has obviously gone into the design of the text (and I’d have to give a special mention here to the Granta book designers too as my UK review copy looks amazing). The later longer pieces are excellent vignettes, and even some of the shorter questions can be thought-provoking, turning from sarcastic to poignant in a matter of words. In truth, though, for all the unique structure, the actual content is very similar to what was covered in his collection of stories, My Documents (but just with a lot less of it). Again, we explore the writer’s childhood, family life, school days and several difficult relationships – there’s nothing really new here.
While I’m not totally convinced by Zambra’s idea, however, I’m full of praise for his translator. In addition to her work on the stories, which read excellently, she’s done a wonderful job on the questions. Spanish and English have a lot in common structurally, so translating longer texts shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but at a word-to-word level it’s a very different story. Many of the shorter questions rely on word play, and I suspect this translation is very different to the original in parts. Full marks (!) to McDowell for making this a book that never feels forced or stilted, despite the concept.
A+ or F-? A work of genius or the Emperor’s New Clothes? I enjoyed it, but I’d understand people who swayed in either direction. Multiple Choice is a nice idea with some more excellent writing, but it’s not the first place I’d be sending newcomers in search of Zambra’s best work. I suspect the book would resonate more with the original readers (who probably suffered through the test themselves…) – for this Anglophone reader, it doesn’t quite make the grade.
OK, pencils down – how did you go? 😉