‘Not to Read’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

Despite being relative newcomers to the literary scene, Fitzcarraldo Editions have quickly become a go-to publisher, and several of their distinctive blue-cover fiction books have been recognised by prize juries, including this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlisted title, Flights.  However, the publisher is just as known for its series of white-cover non-fiction works, such as Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time or Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, so I was immediately sold when I heard that one of their fiction writers would be contributing to the essay series, too.  Who?  Well, come this way, and we’ll find out – and see what he has to say about (not) reading at the same time 🙂

I’ve covered several of Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s books (including My Documents and The Private Lives of Trees), but Not to Read (translated and edited by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) marks the first time his non-fiction work has been translated into English.  The collection consists of a variety of essays, ranging in length from five-hundred words or so to longer pieces stretching to more than fifteen pages, but while there is also variety in the subject matter, the common thread running through the selections is reading, and the writer’s views on authors and books.

The first section brings together a number of short texts Zambra wrote for a weekly newspaper column, and several of these draw on the writer’s own experiences (familiar, perhaps, to those who have tried My Documents).  His wry touch is evident when he discusses his first encounter with Madame Bovary at school, with just a week to get through the novel:

That’s how they taught us to read: by beating it into us.  I feel sure that those teachers didn’t want to inspire enthusiasm for books, but rather to deter us from them, to put us off books forever.  They didn’t waste their spit extolling the joys of reading, perhaps because they had lost that joy or had never really felt it.  Supposedly they were good teachers, but back then being good meant little more than knowing the textbook.
‘Obligatory Readings’, p.22 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

There are several other personal touches in this section, with glimpses of the writer’s personal reading history in the form of a photocopied personal library and musings on marginalia he discovers in old books (and promptly disagrees with).

Many of these short essays then see Zambra move away from his own history and explore the wider world of literature.  The writer does talk about books he likes, but he’s just as likely to focus on those he doesn’t, and in the collection’s title piece, he goes Bartelby on certain books and authors he’d prefer not to be exposed to.  Later, we find several prominent names, in particular Pablo Neruda and Mario Vargas Llosa, summarily dismissed on several occasions, meaning Zambra is certainly not a man afraid of speaking his mind.

When we get to the longer pieces, however, there’s far more of what does inspire him.  An examination of Roberto Bolaño’s poetry is followed by a rather personal eulogy to Nicanor Parra, with memories of time spent helping the older writer edit his work (including a translation of King Lear).  Another of these essays describes Zambra’s literary pilgrimage to Italy to visit Cesare Pavese’s hometown on the centenary of his birth.  Interestingly, though, the trip brings doubts as to whether Zambra is as enamoured with Pavese’s writing as he used to be…

Not to Read introduces the reader to a whole range of literary names, with Zambra casually discussing writers you might not know, but suddenly wish you did.  When he likes an author, he’s invariably generous and inventive in his praise, as when he discusses Alejandra Costamagna:

Now that I think about it, it’s not hard to imagine one of her characters watering or carefully pruning plants.  I feel like I’ve read a story by Alejandra – a non-existent story that I still feel like I have read – about a character who gets up at four in the morning and instead of drinking a glass of water or smoking a cigarette, goes out to the yard, starts to water the garden, and as the water falls and soaks her slippers, starts to feel something like happiness.  I’ve never read that story of Alejandra’s because Alejandra hasn’t written it, but I think she should.  I think it would be a beautiful story, one that only she could write.
‘This is Like a Story by Alejandra Costamagna’, p.55

He goes on to mention (among others) Manuel Puig, Hebe Uhart, Josefina Vicens, Daniel Alarcón and Dino Buzzati, taking us on a literary tour of Latin-America and beyond.  In many ways, Not to Read is reminiscent of a couple of other books I’ve tried by Spanish-speaking writers, Andrés Neuman’s How to Travel without Seeing and Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight.  What these two have in common with Zambra’s book is the way they tempt the reader to go out and track down the work of the writers mentioned in the book.

The final section of Not to Read sees a return to more personal themes, with the inclusion of a number of lectures focusing on Zambra’s own experiences.  ‘Notebook, File, Book’ is a lengthy discussion of the effect of the digital age on writing while ‘The Boy Who Went Mad from Love’ has Zambra opening up a little more on his reading life.  Then there’s ‘Free Topic’, in which he happily discusses some of his own writing, including pieces that didn’t turn out exactly how he wanted.

Perhaps the most interesting of the final set of essays is ‘The Novel I Lost’, which looks at Zambra’s early work Bonsai.  The writer discusses the inspiration and genesis of the work, but also the uncomfortable process of seeing his work adapted for the big screen:

I like to think that when we publish books, they are like children leaving home: we wish them well, but there is little or nothing we can do for them.  And we are much more interested in the book we’re writing now, the one we are raising now.  That afternoon, sitting on the curb, I thought that from then on my novel would live very far away,and that maybe it was on its way to becoming one of those ungrateful children who never call home.
‘The Novel I Lost’, p.220

Happily, he comes to realise that while he may have lost his ‘child’, a whole new audience has been granted access to the story he developed.

Most of Zambra’s work has been translated by McDowell, all of it excellent, and she’s done another great job here, with a role that includes editing (I suspect this means choosing and arranging the pieces and *not* editing her own work…).  In addition, she also provides an excellent short foreword which sets the scene, and explains where the texts were originally published.  The original Spanish-language version has actually undergone several changes over the years, and I suspect that it’s a work that will continue to grow as Zambra speaks more about his reading and writing.

For those unfamiliar with Latin-American fiction (virtually all of us…), it’s true that Not to Read has its slow moments – if you’ve never heard of any of the writers discussed, you may need to read this over a longer period than usual to avoid literary overload.  However, overall it’s a wonderful read, with Zambra’s gentle, (self-) mocking style rarely failing to draw the reader in.  I suspect that most who try this book will be keen to try some of his fiction, but having already sampled everything of Zambra’s that’s been brought into English, I’m drawn in another direction.  On the strength of this one, perhaps it’s time for me to try more of Fitzcarraldo’s non-fiction offerings, too.  I’m afraid Not to Read only made me want to buy even more books…

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