Sunday, 17 January 2016

my documents [alejandro zambra]

My Documents is a collection of 15 short stories which are elliptically connected. A character charts the process of giving up cigarettes in one story and then in another another character with a different name talks about the time he used to smoke. This is just one of many latticed connections that hold the book together, lending the text a buoyancy as it unfolds. All the stories are “cotidiano” - low key, domestic, almost Carveresque tales about various individuals finding their way in the curious world of modern Chile. The spectre of Pinochet and the dictatorship hangs over the early part of the book. There’s a great description of an anti-Pinochet slogan mysteriously appearing on a school blackboard, and the teacher’s response to this. However, as in Fuguet’s text, The Movies of my Life, politics lurks below the surface, rather than on it. Much of the book deals with characters who appear subtly but almost invisibly damaged, like the child who repeats his year in school again and again, or the Walter Mitty cousin who’s house-sitting turns into a spiralling series of lies and minor deceptions. These tales are told both dispassionately and compassionately at the same time, if that’s possible; there’s no apparent sentimentality but we end up rooting for the characters the writer focuses on, largely because they are the underdogs and you always root for an underdog, even if their goal is nothing more grandiose than to give up smoking. When I started reading My Documents, it almost felt like an extension of Fuguet’s book; the opening pair of stories appear to be autobiographical and I began to wonder if all Chilean novelists weren’t secretly engaged on writing the same book. But as the stories roll out, the writer’s palette becomes more diverse, the self-referentiality less apparent. As it does so, the book starts to gather steam, taking the reader further and further into its complex Chilean world, until it gets to the final story which is genuinely nightmarish; whilst at the same time redemptive. By the time you finish the book, you feel as though you’ve been in the hands of a skilled operator, who has surgically dissected his society without appearing to have made any cuts at all. 

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