Alejandro Zambra’s fiction shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Metafictional tropes abound: his 2011 novel Ways of Going Home blurs the line between a narrative of a generation coming to terms with Pinochet-era horrors and a writer debating just how autobiographical he should make that narrative. The climax of his earlier novel The Private Lives of Trees is an imagined one, the central character imagining the child left in his care growing into adulthood, his own role in her life left ambiguous. That several of Zambra’s unnamed writer-narrators share certain characteristics with him create some tension when reading his fiction: are we reading thinly disguised memoir? Is the sometimes-wrenching honesty with which his narrators operate admirable on its own, or is it another device at his disposal?
Zambra’s new collection, My Documents, covers some of the same ground as his earlier books. There’s plenty of reflections on Chilean history here: the story “Camilo,” for one, encompasses several decades of history even as it traces the narrator’s sometimes-fraught history with a father and son who share a name. That Zambra was born in 1975, part of a generation for whom computers took on an increasingly significant role, also turns up here. The cover of the McSweeney’s edition features a man crawling over a landscape made of vintage computer technology, and the story “Memories of a Personal Computer” traces the history of a PC over several years.
That same story, however, ends on a harrowing note, as the protagonist suddenly reveals himself capable of a horrific act, rendering all that’s come before in a different light. A similar unpredictability runs through the collection: relationships shift dramatically; lives end suddenly; everyday happenings turn life-threatening.
In a review of My Documents that appeared in Bookforum, Michael Greenberg noted the specter of Pinochet in many of these stories, and argued for a particular literary lineage for Zambra.
Zambra is a direct literary descendant of his older, late compatriot Bolaño. He serves us black, urgent humor with a quotidian casualness, a deceptive simplicity that has no room for the fantastical, the magical, or the exuberant New World celebrations of, say, Neruda or Walt Whitman.
That unpredictability, and that historical legacy, helps to give these stories their considerable power. And perhaps it’s the looming presence of history that allows Zambra’s narrative intrusions to increase these stories’ emotional weight, rather than acting as a distraction. “I think that the story can’t end like that,” Zambra (or his narrator) writes near the end of “Camilo.” “But that’s how it ends.” It feels inevitable, rather than contrived; an ending that can’t be avoided, as much as we might seek something happier.