I’m trying something different this time and writing a review not for a novel, but for a collection of short stories by award-winning writer and poet, Alejandro Zambra entitled, My Documents.
This collection was originally written in Spanish. The version I read is a translation by Megan McDowell that was published in 2016 by McSweeney’s San Francisco. You can purchase the version I read here: My Documents. I actually read a couple of short stories beforehand as they were featured in Harper’s and the New Yorker, so it was very nice to just read them all at once. A little background about Megan McDowell, she’s translated a bunch of Alejandro Zambra’s work and continues to be his translator for his new books, such as Multiple Choice (2016), Ways of Going Home (2013), and The Private Lives of Trees (2010). She’s won several awards for her translations, and as far as I can tell, does a fantastic job with this collection of short stories. Zambra has been quoted saying in a 2015 Skype interview with VICE, “I think Megan McDowell’s translations are very good. English is the only other language I can more or less read well, so I have an opinion, but it’s not my language. I work very closely with her. We talk a lot about the translations, the intended shade of a phrase, its various meanings, which is tremendously nourishing for me. In a sense, it makes me think one really reads the book I wrote.”
As for Alejandro Zambra, he was born in 1975, two years after the coup in Chile that brought down President Salvador Allende and installed the dictator, Augusto Pinochet. To say this political change of power has an influence on Zambra’s work is an understatement, almost all of his novels and short stories revolve around the scary and confusing dictatorship of Pinochet. Typically his novels and short stories involve children growing up in Santiago (much like Zambra) who are observing and reacting to adults who are overcome with fear and silence during an incredibly scary time in Chile. This trauma and plot point has been used in his two books of poems and three novels, Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees, and Ways of Going Home. It is also used in this collection of short stories and also in Multiple Choice (another collection of short stories written in the from of a multiple choice test), which was translated and published in English in 2016. Another reoccurring theme he uses is protagonists as writers who are dealing with fleeting and seemingly random memories. These protagonists talk about literature, the act of writing, being a writer and how the profession of writing affects their exterior view of the world and their interactions with others. This is another plot point that is used excessively in My Documents.
So, let’s begin. There are 4 parts in My Documents that come with 4 different images that begin each section. The first image that begins the short story collection is a computer (see above). The first story is called “My Documents” and begins with the protagonist describing how his father is a computer and his mother is a typewriter. One is modern and uses the computer for work. The other does not get paid for any of her typing work and just types as a hobby or as a favor to her mother. The story then flows into a child describing his life growing up in Santiago, Chile. Comical and sometimes sad, there are moments with friends, lying to everyone about being an altar boy, dealing with Pinochet’s dictatorship, growing up and finally coming to the conclusion that the protagonist is a writer. He says, oh so poetically,:
“It’s nighttime, it’s always nighttime when the text comes to an end. I re-read, rephrase sentences, specify names. I try to remember better: more, and better. I cut and paste, change and enlarge the font, play with line spacing. 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.”
We then move on to the second section, which begins with the image of a soccer ball. The second story is entitled, “Camilo” and is another tale told in first person by a young boy recalling his childhood in Santiago, Chile and his mentor and friend, Camilo. This short story deals a lot more with soccer and relationships between adults and children. The other stories in this section vary: a professor working as a phone operator, a man dealing with his growing son and some cats, a man and woman’s romantic relationship revolving around a personal computer (that becomes quite…violent). All of the characters have similar male protagonists that have a apathy to life that I read so frequently by male writers…these men are cool, middle-class, don’t have a lot of ambition, get women and eventually lose women by not understanding them or becoming apathetic. They literally could all be the same characters.
The third section includes one of the most intense and well-written short stories, “I Smoked Very Well”, about a writer who is trying to quit smoking. The story is long and lovely, with beautiful quotes littered through this haze of a man trying to quit smoking, while he relapses, tries to figure out if he can read, let alone write, if he does quit and quotes from famous authors who loved smoking as much as this protagonist does. One of the best quotes of the entire collection is in this short story:
“But yesterday, at the office, Jovana and I were playing around with Excel, and we got caught up in some dangerous accounting. Now I have the approximate calculation of how many cigarettes I’ve smoked in my life. And the total amount of money I’ve spent on cigarettes. I’m keeping this notebook out of a kind of therapeutic intention, but I don’t dare write those numbers down here. I’m ashamed. I do a little division and determine that the monthly amount I’ve spent on cigarette, for years now, is roughly equivalent to a mortgage. I am a person who has chosen to smoke rather than have a house. I’m someone who has smoked a house.”
There is also a very touching story entitled, “National Institute” about another young protagonist and his time at the Instituto Nacional General José Miguel Carrera, a school which Zambra attended when he was a youngster. The story, riddled with scared children who are surrounded by pro-Pinochet teachers, feels nostalgic, just because everyone can remember being in lower school.
The fourth section is rough. The title image is of a picture frame. I honestly hate to say this, could have done without this section, especially the last story “Artist Rendition”. These stories were a lot more graphic, dark and violent than the previous collection. “Thank You” involves a couple, who will not admit they are a couple, being robbed in Mexico City after absentmindedly getting into a taxi in the middle of the city. “The Most Chilean Man in the World” tells the story of a man who decides to go to Belgium to meet up with an ex-lover without telling her beforehand. He then ends up wandering the streets of Belgium, broke, alone, and injured, only to make friends with random men at a bar. “Family Life” probably the best story in this section, and a new movie that just came out this year (written by Zambra and directed by two Chilean directors), tells the story of a 40-year-old man who is house-sitting for his cousin and creates a web of lies in said house. I honestly don’t even want to get into “Artist Rendition” because it was so graphic and unnecessary that it was a horrible way for me to end this collection. It left a terrible taste in my mouth. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that I really can’t stand sexual abuse, rape, or incest and this story is riddled with it in graphic detail and no resolution. I actually dislike this book a lot more than I would have because of that particular story.
These stories are all different, yet they all share the same kind of protagonist and the same types of stories. These stories all center around Chilean men, distant, yet completely aware of what is going on around them but still making mistakes. All of these characters could very easily end up in each other’s stories, that’s how similar their personalities are…that these stories can stand up alone, but they also sort of mesh into each other. We have unreliable narrators, who all smoke, who live in a weird, self-aware fantasy that is also filled with apathy. All speak directly to the reader, so we don’t know if he’s speaking to himself or to us. There’s also a grittiness apparent in all of the stories that makes the reader a bit uneasy. Whether that be a reference to post-Pinoche violence, sexual violence, or just the standard disregard for children and women. There’s also a coldness that lingers in all of the stories, which is true about everyone’s life. If we try to remember everything from our childhood, there is bound to be an objectively cold moment that makes us all cringe – that’s what Zambra invokes in this collection. That moment we would all rather disregard, but will pop up in our memories eventually.
So, would I recommend this collection? I would…I would skip the last section with the graphic violence and apathy, but at the same time, maybe we should read some things that make us uncomfortable. Not every story has a tidy ending. Not even story ends happy or resolved.