Today’s inclusion on my Twelve Days of Christmas countdown, comes from South America, along with central America this is where I spent most of 2016 in my reading journeys, probably because I was meant to visit Mexico and Guatemala earlier in the year and the trip was postponed indefinitely, therefore I travelled there figuratively, through the novels and poems of the region.
Every so often I come across a writer whose language personally clicks with me, a writer where every sentence just seems to seamlessly flow, where the pages easily turn and I suddenly realise I’ve been reading for hours and have finished the book!!!
This is exactly what happened when I picked up Alejandro Zambra’s short story collection “My Documents” (translated by Megan McDowell).
Here is my review from earlier in the year:
A collection of eleven short stories it opens with the title work, “My Documents” and it reads like an autobiography;
Mass was held in the gymnasium of a convent school, Master Purissima; people always talked, though, about the church building that was in the works, and it was like they were describing a dream. It took so long to build that by the time it was finished, I no longer believed in God.
“Camilo” is a story of a godson, soccer fanaticism, living in Chile under Pinochet, family bonds, maturing and forgiveness. A very moving piece indeed. Only two stories into the collection and I’m thinking that the endings are exquisite, they are powerful explosions that linger well after you’ve finished the tale.
We have wonderfully real characters, including the late night call centre worker who reads literature (as there is little else to do whilst waiting for the phone to ring) and teaches letter writing to mature aged students on the side. Or the story of a relationship told through the lifespan of a PC, in the story “Memories of a Personal Computer”. An all too realistic tale of how technology has encroached on our lives, filled with nostalgia and the past where pen and paper and unedited texts prevailed.
The personal connection came hitting home in the story “I smoked very well”, as an ex-smoker myself the angst, futility, addiction all rang true, so much so I just have to refer all my smoker or ex-smoker friends to this short story:
What for a smoker is non-fiction, for a non-smoker is fiction. That majestic story by Julio Ramón Ribeiro, for example, about the smoker who desperately jumps out the window to rescue a pack of cigarettes, and who, years later, very ill, his wife keeping a vigilant watch over him, escapes to the beach every day to unearth, with the skill of an anxious puppy, the pack of cigarettes he has hidden in the sand. Non-smokers don’t understand these stories. They think they’re exaggerated; they read them cavalierly. A smoker, on the other hand, treasures them.
The anti-hero comes to the fore in the story “Family Life”, where a house sitter tells a simple lie, has to live with the untruth and as the date of the house owner’s return comes nearer the tension increases exponentially, I found myself holding my breath as my concern for the lie-teller was becoming a reality.
As this is Spanish Literature Month, I think it is only fitting that a poem by Enrique Lihn, about Madrid, appears in the story “I Smoked Very Well”;
I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here
Old, tired, sick, and thoughtful.
The Spanish I was spawned with
Father of so many literary vices
and from which I cannot free myself
many have brought me to this city
to make me suffer what I deserve:
a soliloquy in a dead language.
A number of the stories are dedicated to well known “celebrities” including a number of writers, Natalia García, Alejandra Costamagna, Marcelo Montecinos, Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli, Gonzalo Maier, Paula Canal, with the whole collection dedicated to Chilean long jumper Josefina Gutiérrez. These dedications revealing not only a solid nationalist streak, but also a connection to likeminded writers, even if it is just because they love a cigarette!!!
A collection of stories that are cemented in the real, and although musing on grand subjects each one becomes a reality that could well occur to the reader. A very refreshing read away from some of the convoluted plots that sometimes land on my reading desk, the smaller minutiae of daily existence celebrated with aplomb.
If you want a taste of the collection here are two of the included stories available online.
“The Most Chilean Man in the World” (under a slightly different title here)
“Camilo” appeared in The New Yorker
And an interview with Alejandro Zambra about the short story “Camilo” appeared here.
Despite a couple of typos in the text, and two disconcerting instances where sentences were duplicated, this is a masterful example of the art of the short story, engaging characters, plausible plots, realist settings and wonderful endings. Blurring autobiography, essay and fiction I found all of these stories thoroughly engaging. At times collections can be uneven, I can assure you that it is not the case here. Another writer to add to my “favourites” pile and one to search out further works