Alejandro Zambra Talks to Matt Nelson
The Chilean author talks about Joyce and Borges, the opacity of a good book, and why "the idea of a message is a drag"
A new book is as much an opportunity for a new conversation as it is for a new read. After hearing rumors of Alejandro Zambra’s next English-translated novel, Ways of Going Home, I knew this was my chance to start one such conversation. Ways is longer than Zambra’s normal novella length, a work detailing Chile like Dubliners details Dublin, which is to say that if you think the sole aim is geographical mimicry in either book, then you’re missing wide of the barn. Specific to Zambra’s novel’s success is how deftly and naturally it communicates to itself and the reader through intertwining sections. The reader, never told explicitly the design, makes herself aware of the doubling; as we read, we learn what exactly it is we are reading. Zambra’s writing always constitutes an experience for the reader, an experience that is enjoyable and worth sharing because of its intimacy. Through email, Zambra and I chewed the fat about last minute changes, how every life is a story, and why it’s so difficult to name his characters.
I’m sure to some Ways will be a great guide as to how to deal with the life of a writer, since the main character is writing a novel. But more importantly, Ways will be an example of how to deal with the necessary “other” in the life of wordsmiths, the readers. So if you don’t mind, this is where I’d like to begin. Who is your ideal reader?
I never visualize/imagine a concrete reader. I like Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world/ that never wrote me.” I like “that never wrote me” because it testifies to that uncertain state that leads us to write. Writing is searching, always. [Paul] Celan says it is a gift to the other, it is the looking for the other, the absolute other, who/which is at the end of oneself. Then what one is looking for is an instance of something beyond reason, in which only the text exists; the task is unfolding it, like a sculpture: You work on the stone to find the form already there.
When I write or when I publish (I write a lot of things I would never publish), I don’t think of a reader, any reader whatsoever. However, once finished I tend to share the pieces with a few friends, and their opinions are relevant to me. I enjoy that dialogue around the texts; I’ve written that way always. I’m fond of a Natalia Ginzburg text about that, called “Interlocutors.” In any case it is hard to consider a text as something finished. I used to change many things during the printing-proof-marks, causing “emergencies” among the editors of Anagrama [the Spanish publisher of Zambra].
How do you write?
I draft a lot; I have a diary and take notes on irrelevant things. I try to free the space of writing from any commitment, obligation, or duty; I do not push myself to write a poem, a story, or a novel. I do not intend to write “good writing.” I just go on, write whatever comes. Sometimes an image takes some work, but it starts to become something. It has always been that way, clearly. And when I find the book, or when I think I've found it (even though I make a lot of mistakes) I plunge into it obsessively.
You write in Ways, “That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.” How do you feel about the term “finished”? Which books do you return to with new ideas after they’ve already been published? Do you constantly think of your books? You mentioned emergency proof changes at Anagrama. What is a type of correction you’ve made during these “emergencies”?
Ten years ago I published Mudanza [Moving], a book of poems, which is in fact one poem divided into six parts. Since then I’ve been writing that book: I have around 200 pages rewriting those fifteen pages. I guess it’s unrecognizable by now.
I like to think, for instance, that The Private Lives of Trees is a correction of Bonsai, and that Ways is a rewriting of PLT. When one starts writing another book it doesn’t happen because you “must” do it, or because you are a writer (at least I’ve been aware to stay free from any commitment that could force me to publish; I publish because I want to or need to do it). Once you start to write a new book, in some way it happens because the previous book doesn’t fit you anymore.
I make all kinds of corrections. Some hysteria as well, sure. Today, above all, it seems so aggressive to conclude a book, considering all the time one spends before the screen dealing with it. My first feeling, when I have the book printed, is: This is it, I can’t add or take out anything. When I publish I detach myself from what I’ve done. I don’t think again about it, I leave it behind. To publish is not like giving birth at all (well, I haven’t given birth), but like when children leave home. You want them to succeed, to be treated well, but they are not “yours,” they really are not yours anymore. And you’re more focused on, you care more about, the one you are still raising.
Is there something beyond a moral that you want the reader to gain?
Talking about morality, I remember [Ezra] Pound’s “fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.” I deeply consider that all the phrases of a text are equally relevant, and each one of them should be precise in some way, in some sense. There you have its morality. I think also of [Walter] Benjamin when he says something about the “legality” of memories. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. Broadly speaking I think that literature conveys the complexity of the object/fact being watched/perceived; it never simplifies. That’s why I’m astonished when the expectation is to have clear-univocal messages from books. Just the idea of a “message” is a drag.
I hear what you’re saying. The whole idea of some “message” is kind of a slap in the reader’s face. To force onto them something they may or may not agree with or need (as if you can determine what a reader needs) is to skew the balance between reader and author, and it puts the narrative in the advantage of having the final say re: conclusions. Not a message, Ways feels more like an opportunity for experience. There are often sentences in your other books that give the reader a look into the world of an author. But Ways enters something new or different. I felt like there was a moment of aha! when I figured out the mirror between narrators and it made me think about how I read—and what, textually, made me think about how I was reading. What do you hope a reader of Ways thinks of while reading, and then, after completing the book?
Yes, I agree, the reader completes the whole thing. I’ve also felt that sense of "being gently maneuvered," which is a sort of initiation to a certain thought or an action that involves us as human beings, vitally speaking. And, at last, I believe the book is open to any kind of appropriation by anyone. As a reader one steals the book from the author, allowing the book to say many things at the same time. One explores its meanings, its layers. That’s what I enjoy as a reader and as a writer, and that’s why we re-read books. I reckon, answering your question, that a reader of Ways would likely wonder similar things to the ones I wondered when I was writing the book; then he/she fills the empty spaces with his/her own experience. I like the idea of that happening. I like the idea of literature as something that pushes us constantly to check our convictions. In any case, thinking of those books that have moved me above all, I think I have never got them, understood them, utterly, really. In good books you always find a sort of opacity; they have margins of illegibility. So it is odd to see those attempts to simplify literature. I remember a note about PLT in which the critic stated that the novel was good even though it was not "truly" Latin American literature. Funny idea, that of understanding Latin American literature as a literary genre. The expectation that one doesn’t write novels, but “Latin American” novels. And, in any case, what is that? What does it mean?
In all of your books there are secondary characters.. Often you won’t give a name, or the name isn’t stable at first, or it seems arbitrary. Any way you put it, a hierarchy is established. It’s like you’re telling us, don’t pay too much attention to these people; they’re just secondary characters, even though they come back and affect the story. This is indicative of the way information is given as well, combining the specific with the ambiguous. Why not tell us all the information up front at the beginning?
I like the idea that all my characters are secondary ones. There’s nothing heroic or “spectacular” about them. It happened, and it still happens, that to name them is extremely difficult. It was absurd, I felt ridiculous choosing names for them. Considering that in a book the relevance of a name is utterly different from the meaning of a name in “real life.” I never conceal that sort of trouble; I try to use names, to give characters a sense in writing. It was hard to focus on social conventions; it’s still hard to do, and I’ve decided to take advantage of that discomfort. This is quite clear in Bonsai. It is, in many senses, a novel written against the rhetoric of novels, and in favor of those odd books I’ve always enjoyed by Macedonio Fernandez, Felisberto Hernández, Juan Emar, and in some other way by José Santos González Vera, Adolfo Couve, and María Luisa Bombal. And evidently Borges’ advice about writing like drawing up a summary of a text already written. I considered his idea a luminous one to attempt in my writing. I like the metaphor of the iceberg, of course. Reading many novels I thought it would be better if I avoid telling everything, prune some paragraphs, some hundreds of pages. I think that comes from all the poetry I started to read before all this, Ezra Pound, or Japanese poetry, or, in Chile, the work done by Gonzalo Millán, masterpieces of concentration and synthesis. I was deeply impressed by that, by far more than the “big” rhetoric or grandiloquence you see in Pablo Neruda.
There is a moment in Ways when the narrator’s sister asks if she is going to be in the new novel. The narrator says no, he is protecting her by keeping her out. Later in the novel, the narrator visits a young author and brings up a piece of dialogue in the young author’s book that must absolutely be straight from life, due to it’s uniqueness. These two instances are very different examples of reality’s intrusion into what we write. How do you feel about writing from life? Do you censor yourself in terms of certain people? How do people close to you react to your work?
I have no interest in telling my life. If asked what I write about, I would never answer “about my life.” I write about things I know, about spaces/scenarios I know well as I’ve inhabited them. I write about spaces/scenarios I know and that know me; there are coincidences, sure, but they have no relevance at all, because my life is not extraordinary. The story told in Ways is the story of many Chileans of my age, and I guess those tensions between parents and their children are present in the life of almost anybody.
Of course I care about people I love, but not by self-censorship. As I said before, this is not referential. Anyway, sure, there are reactions and confusions, but the people I love tend to be people who love me and they accept and understand that this has nothing to do with being literal.
I really like this answer. You mentioned self-censorship and the idea of spaces/scenarios. I wonder if the spaces/scenarios dichotomy institutes an objectification of the spaces/scenarios. Spaces are geographically objects, so we can ignore those. But scenarios are often shared or affected by others in real time. Hypothetically, pretend you aren’t writing a character or a scene in reference to someone you know or an event that affected you or someone you know, but you start to notice that the scene or the character would be recognizable by the real person. Is it more important to change certain arbitrary facts to guarantee that those close to you do not get hurt, or is it better to go with your first instinct, even if your character is named Herbert and your real- life friend who has the same eye color is named Hamilton? I’m sorry if I’m not making this clear.
I understand your question perfectly, and I think that in every case, with every text, the answer would be different. It is one of the many things for which there are no rules in literature: There are directions, but no rules. If you use first-person singular and talk about your mother, sure, the text will deal with that tension, always, with that possibility, but there are searches which need precisely that tension. As it is not “easy” to be a writer, it is not “easy” to be the husband, mother, or child of somebody who writes because a writer, in some way, will be always “writing you,” even when he/she is not talking about you. That’s a major issue in WBH, if writing protects you or exposes you instead, as in the episode concerning the main character’s sister. I thought it was interesting to question the narrator’s authority; the narrator is always authoritarian, even when he/she doesn’t want it, because he/she feels the right to tell a story. From Author, “authority,” “authoritarian.”
Who has been your most fully formed character?
Mmmmm. Sincerely, I have no idea.
Sorry, that was a cheap shot because I didn’t define “fully formed.” So instead: What is a fully formed character? What characters in the books you’ve read (not written) stay in your mind?
Well, it’s still a hard question. The character must look like everybody, anybody, and nobody. (You know, yes, of course you know: “Here Comes Everybody.” Joyce tried— tons of pages poetry included. Did he succeed?)
How important is the perspective of the narrator? Is there a connection between perspective and truth? Bonsai and PLT are both in third-person, while Ways is in first. Why the change?
I like to think of the difference between the novels considering the distance between the narrator and the main character, which is decreasing; as in Bonsai, the narrator looks at the characters with more distance. That allows him to laugh at them a bit, to judge them, and also to help them, forgive them, love them. In PLT I think the narrator is closer; what’s going on there hurts (the narrator) almost as much as it hurts Julian, to the point in which the third person seems false: Someone is talking about himself using the third person. Well, in Ways, you have a first-person narrator; the distance dissolves, although there you have two narrators or one double narrator.
From my point of view that’s the most important decision: the voice. And I think the only method is by trial and error. There were also versions of Bonsai and PLT using first-person, the same way in which I wrote this third novel. I’m interested in it as an exercise, although I knew that this novel would be in first-person, to write it completely in third-person just to see how it goes. That’s the advantage of writing short novels; you can type many tries.
This is great. I agree. But even a short novel takes time. The “error” half of “trial and error” assumes that you know what an error is. How do you know you’re writing something wrong? I guess I’m trying to get the order of the writing. Do you compare the writing of different voices, or do you work in one direction, feel falseness and then try something new?
Mostly the second way: I transcribe the stuff written, to feel it again (a bit esoteric, but it is what it is), and I try hard to feel, to detect, any trace of falseness. Almost always you know better what you don’t want than what you want.
The narrator at one point sees a woman reading a book, her face between the pages, and he notes that reading is a way of hiding, in this case physically, but also mentally from reality. Are books just trees to hide behind? Or are they something else? And what does that make writing? Particularly about the past?
I think books allow us to know ourselves better. I have no doubts about that. To know ourselves intensively so we lie less to ourselves, and then we can admit that the best and the worst of ourselves are intermingled. It is like staring at a glass that is sometimes a mirror, sometimes a window. Then you lose the notion; you’re not sure if you’re watching yourself or someone else. Sometimes we feel we open ourselves, or that we hide, but writing is not exactly to open or conceal oneself. It overcomes that dichotomy. To write is to admit we need to search into the mystery we are. In spite of the ego, we are not more complex than anybody else. If we really knew how to read we would know that: Anybody’s life is a complete, terrible, and joyful novel.
When writing I feel I’m looking for answers to the oldest questions, the impossible ones. You don’t find answers but sometimes their faint air, or imminence. I like Borges’ expression: “the imminence of a revelation which does not happen.”
I don’t get that about the past. I think we always write about the past. We always arrive late to the actual present.
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Photo by Natalia Espina
Alejandro Zambra is the author of Ways of Going Home, The Private Lives of Trees, and Bonsai. He lives in Chile where he teaches at the School of Literature at the Diego Portales University in Santiago and, and writes criticisms alongside poetry and fiction. Last year he was named one of Granta's Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists.
Matt Nelson is the co-founder and librarian of Mellow Pages Library in Brooklyn. He is also the Assistant Editor of The Literarian.