The Millions Interview: Alejandro Zambra

March 18, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 2 5 min read

covercoverAlejandro Zambra is at the forefront of Latin American—indeed one could say “world”—literature. He is young, Chilean, and writes with a poetic lucidity that engages a reader from the first line. His first two novels were both published by Anagrama and placed him immediately in the international spotlight. Bonsái won the 2006 Chilean Critics’ Award; it was published in English by Melville House in a translation by Carolina de Robertis in 2008, and was shortlisted for the 2009 Best Translated Book Award. In 2010 my translation of La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees), Zambra’s second novel, came out from Open Letter press.  Both are short books—some call them novellas—and both center on middle-class Chilean intellectuals.  While this may sound dry and specialized, Zambra has an electrifying ability to underscore ambiguity in the seemingly definite—or to turn a vague outline into a bull’s eye—that makes his material feel universal.  In 2010, Zambra was among 22 writers included in Granta magazine’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.  Granta says its lists “predict talent more than spot it,” and previous predictions have included writers like Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, David Mitchell and Lorrie Moore, to name only a few. 

Zambra’s third novel, Formas de volver a casa, will debut with Anagrama in May, and from what I can tell, it deviates from his previous books in form but not in feeling (that is, in its broad emotional landscape). Formas is significantly longer than its predecessors, and is told in various, well, forms: mostly narrated in first person by a young boy, it also includes verse and non-fiction elements.  The book is set in the 80s during Pinochet’s dictatorship.  Its child narrator is the son of an “apolitical” middle-class family, with parents who avoid risk out of fear, and who protect their children from the truth of their world.  It’s the story of a little girl who asks a younger boy to spy on her uncle, and the boy agrees because, as Zambra says, “he’s a little bit in love with her.”  It’s that “little bit” that is so particularly Zambra—there are no large, sweeping emotions here, but rather complicated, contradictory, little-understood intuitions.  This is a book about Chile, and the generation of Chileans who grew up during the dictatorship.  Zambra calls the literature of his generation “la literatura de los hijos” (literature of the children), because he feels his generation came of age believing the novel belonged to the “fathers of literature”, and that history was something imposed by their forebears.  As he says in an interview in Ñ magazine, “History belonged to others, and we confronted our inheritance sometimes with rebellion and other times with acquiescence; it took a long time for us to realize we had our own history and we had things to tell.” I asked Zambra a few questions about his upcoming book, and his feelings about being included in Granta’s list.

The Millions: Now that you’ve received a fair amount of attention for your books, do you worry more during the act of writing about how it will be received?  Or does the recognition validate you, give you a sense of freedom?

Alejandro Zambra: At the moment of writing, I feel completely free.  I really don’t think you can write anything genuine when you are under any kind of pressure. What’s more, publishing a book isn’t like giving birth to it; when you publish a book you feel what a father must feel when his son leaves home: you wish him well, you delight in or suffer with his successes and failures, but you can’t do anything more for him.  And your daily work is more interesting: the next book, the child you are starting to rear.

TM: Recognizing that any list like Granta’s will be subjective, is there anyone you feel strongly should have been included, but wasn’t?

AZ: Such lists are always arbitrary, and I suppose there are a lot of authors who were worth including in Granta’s, and in the end were not.  The truth is it’s an uncomfortable subject for me, because I really don’t believe in lists or rankings.  In any case I’d like to highlight the work that younger people have been doing, such as the Chilean Diego Zúñiga or the Mexican Valeria Luiselli (the author of Papeles falsos, one of the best books I’ve read recently).

TM: Not many authors have their books published more or less simultaneously in Spanish and in English, but both La vida privada and Bonsai were.  I’m curious about how the experience is different in Chile and the U.S. How does your status as a native or foreigner affect how people read you, do you think?  Do you feel more pressure to be “representative” in some way when you are outside of Chile?

AZ: I think both novels are very Chilean, so I’m sometimes surprised that they can be read in other languages.  To me, it’s a beautiful thing that readers so distant and different can connect with a book of mine.  It’s like sending out thousands of letters, and little by little receiving replies you never expected.  I guess some readers in the U.S. or in France want to confirm some prior idea they had about Chile or about Latin America.  But books aren’t made to confirm ideas; they’re made to refute them, to question them, to put other images out there where we thought everything had already been said.

TM: Tell us a little about Formas de volver a casa—is it much of a departure from your first two books?

AZ: It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile.  It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents.  It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess.  And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.  I don’t know if it’s very different from my previous books; the truth is I feel like it’s close to The Private Lives of Trees.  In fact it starts from there, from some of the intuitions or images of the past that were in that book.  Maybe the main difference is that it’s in large part narrated in the first person.  It also includes a writer’s diary, a kind of center or heart in which the fiction breaks, and the only thing left is the writer’s voice searching for its origins.  It’s my most personal book, without a doubt, although the others were that as well.

TM: Do you get frustrated with how people associate Chile with the Pinochet dictatorship?  Do you feel a need to establish yourself in relation to it, because if you don’t others inevitably will?

AZ: It doesn’t frustrate me; on the contrary, it seems like a conventional and understandable expectation. That relationship is very important to me, also.  I grew up in a dictatorship, I said my first words in a dictatorship, I read my first books in a dictatorship.  It’s part of my experience, part of my life.  And of course, Formas de volver a casa talks a lot about that.  But I don’t believe in genre novels or in a simple relationship between literature and history.  Literature doesn’t exist to depict something that’s already given, already processed.  We write because we want to live in a different way, because we seek new ways of understanding the past, present and future.

TM: One of the things I was drawn to in The Private Lives of Trees was the way you portray the relationships between the characters, and the characters themselves.  No one makes grand proclamations, which makes Julián’s promise that “if we get out of this we’ll go, at last, to see the snow” all the more heartbreaking.   The characters aren’t exceptional, but their mediocrity isn’t emphasized, it’s empathized with.   There is no bombast, but there is so much genuine feeling. I guess what I’m saying is that when I read your books, I feel like there is room for me in them, there’s no sense of looking in from outside.  Are you conscious of this, do you have to try not to judge your characters, or to not make them more than they are?

AZ: Thank you very much for what you say.  If that’s the case, if in some way I managed to portray those lives without failing the characters, I’m satisfied.  Because that’s what I want: for there to be space in my books to share gazes, to meet up; to know ourselves as fragile and strong at the same time, as we all are.  I hope for that, when I’m writing: to bear witness to a compassionate recognition of our failures and triumphs.

is a Spanish language translator. She has translated books by Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Gonzalo Torné, Lina Meruane, and Álvaro Bisama. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, Harper's, Tin House, and McSweeney's. She lives in Chile.