“I abandon books easily. Before, especially when I wrote literary criticism, I had the urge to read books from cover to cover. If I was writing about them, I’d read them twice over. I didn’t enjoy that, in part due to the obligation to say something beyond the obvious. I don’t do that anymore; I became more impulsive—there are just too many books I want to read. Also, I stopped writing about literature, which is cool. I was bureaucratizing the space of reading.”
Alejandro Zambra explains that he became a chaotic reader, abandoning books with ease. Atypically I persisted with Fonseca’s book and with Zambra’s My Documents and was rewarded in both instances by a series of stories that got steadily stronger.
The final story in Zambra’s collection, Artist’s Rendition, is all the more chilling for being so calmly told. A narrator presents a short brutal story about abuse, involving a reader directly with the sort of restricted metafiction that often signals tired and facile writing, but Zambra treats his subject earnestly and succeeds in raising questions about the arbitrariness of meaning and truth.
There is a fair variety to the stories in My Documents, which develop in strength and intensity throughout this collection, echoing themes of memory retrieval, abnegation and envy. After the first two sections I felt mildly bored and wondered whether to abandon the book. I began National Institute, the first story of the third section and was immediately and magnificently absorbed. It was so satisfying that I swallowed the remainder of the stories without getting up from my chair.
My Documents (translated into English very ably by Megan McDowell) is the first book I’ve read by Alejandro Zambra. If you enjoy his work, please recommend something else of his to read.
I have an unhealthy need to finish books when I start them so I’m pleased to hear you were rewarded on this occasion. It’s true that some books I would have given up on have stayed with me – though on other occasions I would perhaps have been wiser to stop. The three books (that’s right, three) I didn’t finish still haunt me!
I’ve never felt that guilt, but perhaps I ought as this and the Fonseca book have rewarded my persistence.
Recs? All except the most recent one – for me, ‘Multiple Choice’ is rather gimmicky…
All the others are fairly playful and mess around with meta-fictional aspects, but if I had to pick one, perhaps ‘The Private Lives of Trees’ (if you’re interested, all reviews can be found in the usual place).
Thanks, Tony. I’ll check them out. I’m a little bored with tricksy metafiction but I might try another Zambra.
You kind of need to read Bonsai before Private Life. They’re connected; not so overtly that you’ll be confused, but it’s the enrinching to experience the whole thing (I think).
Thanks, Justin, that is good to know.
I haven’t tried him yet. I have this and it’s useful to know that it starts a little slowly, since I have no issues at all these days with abandoning books and it can be handy sometimes to have heard in advance that a book is worth persisting with.
Meta-fictionality can get rather tiresome. A game of catch all the references.
Zambra stays the right side of tiresome, just.