Top menu

No Longer Secondary Characters: CP Heiser in Conversation with Alejandro Zambra

No Longer Secondary Characters: CP Heiser in Conversation with Alejandro Zambra

Translations to and from the Spanish by Maruja Powys Heiser

ale_zambraChilean novelist, poet, and critic Alejandro Zambra (b. 1975) has had three novels published in English: Bonsai (Melville House), translated by Carolina De Robertis, The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter), and most recently Ways of Going Home (FSG), both of the latter translated by Megan McDowell. As Adam O’Riordan writes in the Telegraph, “Zambra cannot simply be pigeonholed as a ‘Spanish-Language’ writer“—he already belongs to world literature. CP Heiser and Alejandro Zambra corresponded in March 2013, just after the American publication of  Ways of Going Home. DS

For people who don’t know your work, I tell them they have to first rethink the traditional implications of the novel, because your books—in their overarching structures and concerns—are closer to poetry.  What does the idea of the novel mean to you?

Thank you.  I hope there is some of that in my books.  For me rhythm is very important. I put a lot of work into the rhythm.  And I think that in a novel, no sentence should be simply informative.  Nor should any one sentence be essentially more important than another. In any case, when I write, I always think ”book” more than “novel.” I remember that sensation in Bonsai, which is nothing more than a collection of 30 pages in Word.  But when I was working on that collection, I knew it was a book, or at least I wanted it to be a book.  Which is to say that if it were ever to be published, it should be published alone, however short it would be.

The Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero often says—seriously and as a joke—that a novel  “is whatever goes between the front and back covers.”  I believe a virtue of the genre is that indeterminacy, and of all genres.   I think that literature is not a field of certitudes but of searching. There are no rules.  What there is are a set of signals that resemble rules, but they exist only in order to be questioned, to be subverted.  Whenever I notice a rhetorical turn in what I am writing, I try to take a parallel road—of course that shouldn’t become convention either—and in truth there are many parallel roads.

Ways of Going Home [Formas de volver a casa] features a romance between the characters of your narrator’s novel-in-progress.  It is defined by a brief childhood intrigue in the mid-Eighties, during the Pinochet years, and a reunion as adults post-regime.  These meta-characters are children of very different parents – people who chose different paths while living under the Pinochet regime.  This rift of time and space between them signals a bigger fissure, in which identity (for both the protagonist and his own fictional creations) is a fragile construct, secondary to those of the parents.

I think that many of us grew up with the sensation that we were secondary characters:  the novel had happened to our parents and to our grandparents; we were just children playing in a corner while the novel was taking place.  We were there and we were not, we lived and we didn’t.  And maybe, to our generation, the loss of innocence was a particularly hard process, both for the children of the left and for the children of the right.  Besides, our adolescence coincided with the Transition and adolescence is a transition in itself.

For your generation, is it a question of rights? Who is entitled to tell stories of a certain kind, and who isn’t, in a country where the people who know the most never speak?  Or is it a project of reclamation?

I think that any reflection about Chile’s past should consider these questions.

To start with: who tells the story?  We, who were children then, apparently do not have the right to tell the story, even though yes, there were some things we glimpsed or witnessed  our parents living through.  I think it’s necessary to reclaim territory, but also to inhabit consistently, responsibly, the territory that we already have, that belongs to us.

With respect to the idea of responsibility, what do you think about the recent success of the [Oscar-nominated Chilean film] No.

I think that the movie deals with some very interesting issues.  It is powerful for Chileans to watch certain images, seen a thousand and one times throughout their life, suddenly intermingle with fiction.  That manipulation of the past, that game, is very challenging—above all because it creates the illusion of objectivity. And, of course, it would be preferable to have dozens of movies about the “No” instead of just one, films that showed the complexity, the spirit, the different angles of that period, so that it’s not simply perceived as a triumph of Coca Cola over Pepsi.  It seems to me, anyway, that it is a relevant picture; here it has been very much praised and discussed.  That is extremely important—it has generated a beneficial debate.

The true Great Conspiracies in this world are those of the family.  What do you think? 

I agree.  The complexity of family relations is astonishing.  I think that one of the principal themes of this novel is the sense of legacy.  Because the characters are leaving behind being children and are beginning to be, or to want to or not to want to be parents.  My generation, at least in Chile, was the last that grew up with a fixed, more conservative  idea of family.  The children of separated parents were stigmatized at school and suffered very much.  Now, that’s all normal.

On a lighter note, you cite real music throughout Ways.  How does music play into your narrative? 

It seems to me that the text opens a second horizon onto the reading and I love that.

I like to imagine how the text gets connected and intermingled with the memory of a melody.

Family bookshelves recur in your work, not just in Ways, but in your previous novel, The Private Lives of Trees (La vida privada de los árboles). Do you have a strong recollection of the family bookshelf?  (For most Americans of the same generation I would hazard to guess that memories of the family’s VHS collection would resonate more powerfully than bookshelves.)

Perhaps in Chile the VHS videos are more important, too.  But I always paid attention to books as objects and to bookshelves, but not because they were family bookshelves, on the contrary As a child, tthe few times that, I was in a house that had a library I was fascinated.  Later, at home, there was a collection of popular books and I dedicated myself to reading each one of them. I care very much for libraries, especially personal ones, above all in these times in which, apparently, little by little, books are ceasing to exist.

This novel is interspersed with your narrator’s poetry and it signals a kind of ongoing tension with the narrative itself.  In crucial places, your protagonist and narrator reverts to poetry, abandoning the project of the novel all together: “It’s better not to be in any book” the poem in the novel goes, “for the words not to try to protect us.”  I found this to be a profoundly angry comment, or at least bitterly sarcastic.  Is it?

It could be.  I hadn’t thought that it was sarcastic, but of course, it could be.  And, also, there could be a certain melancholy.  It is strange: suddenly you decide to tell, to write, to become present in this way.  But I don’t know if it is the best way to become present.  It is the one we adopt and take on or accept or invent as destiny.  Sometimes I have thought directly that it would be better not to appear in any book. Fogwill[1] used to say that one writes in order not to be written about by others.   And maybe sometimes it would be better neither to write nor be written about or anything.  Does writing protect or expose you? I think this is a question throughout the whole book.  The same goes for more general ideas of security and defenselessness:  the house as the protected place from where you want to escape, and yet to which you want to return.

Ways of Going Home is framed by the experience of an earthquake.  My mother grew up in Peru, and I was raised listening to stories of “terremoto” and the profound terror that it caused in a place and time when earthquake preparedness amounted to running outside as fast as you could and praying your apartment didn’t collapse.  In your novel, rather than provoking real terror, the earthquake seems to compel people outside to come together and be assured.  It results in a beautiful ending for your novel.  Do you know, or understand your endings, when you begin a book?

Thank you.  Maybe I glimpse something but the truth is that while I write I know little of the novel, about the end, about the beginning.  I think that writing is, above all, a process of discovery—that you write in order to discover something.  With this book it was particularly so.  In fact, there was a previous ending, an ending that I liked but I wrote it before the 2010 earthquake.  The earthquake corrected my novel—helped me understand things that I didn’t know about the book that I believed to have already written.   It made me learn that it was another book, that I should make important changes; that I ought, almost, to write it anew.

March 2013

[1] Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, who normally went only by his surname, Fogwill, was an Argentine sociologist, short story writer, and novelist.

CP Heiser writes short stories in Los Angeles. He is Publisher of Phoneme Media and Ricochet Books, and Editor of Special Projects at the Los Angeles Review of Boooks.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 Responses to No Longer Secondary Characters: CP Heiser in Conversation with Alejandro Zambra

  1. torebki listonoszki July 19, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    Unquestionably believe that which you stated.
    Your favorite reason seemed to be on the web
    the simplest thing to be aware of. I say
    to you, I definitely get annoyed while people
    think about worries that they plainly do not know about.

    You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal.
    Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

  2. download anime x tv August 1, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    excellent submit, very informative. I’m wondering why the other specialists of this sector do not
    realize this. You must proceed your writing. I am sure, you’ve
    a huge readers’ base already!

  3. skup aut uszkodzonych August 7, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    What’s up to all, the contents existing at this website are
    genuinely awesome for people knowledge, well,
    keep up the nice work fellows.

  4. August 9, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Link exchange is nothing else but it is just placing the other person’s web site link on your page at appropriate place and other person will also
    do similar in support of you.

  5. transport gdynia August 11, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    Hiya very cool web site!! Guy .. Excellent ..
    Amazing .. I will bookmark your web site and take the feeds additionally?
    I’m satisfied to search out numerous helpful information right here
    within the put up, we want work out more strategies on this regard,
    thanks for sharing. . . . . .

  6. ask a doctor online free chat August 15, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    Thanks on your marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you will
    be a great author.I will always bookmark your blog and may
    come back very soon. I want to encourage you to definitely continue your
    great posts, have a nice evening!

  7. Los Angeles food PR agency Crier PR August 29, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

    It’s really a cool and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you just shared this useful
    information with us. Please stay us up to date like this.
    Thanks for sharing.

  8. tree cutting service prices September 4, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    I was suggested this web site through my cousin. I’m now not
    positive whether this submit is written by means of him
    as no one else understand such special approximately
    my trouble. You’re amazing! Thanks!

  9. nauka angielskiego dla dzieci September 4, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    You could certainly see your expertise within the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not
    afraid to mention how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

  10. car dent repair Sheffield September 15, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

    Stunning story there. What occurred after?

  11. September 16, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    I’m gone to say to my little brother, that he should also
    go to see this blog on regular basis to get updated from hottest gossip.

  12. skup starych samochodów warszawa September 20, 2014 at 6:36 pm #

    It’s very easy to find out any topic on net as compared to textbooks, as I found this piece
    of writing at this web page.

  13. Fredrick September 23, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Greetings! I know this is kind of offf topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you
    usinhg for this website? I’m getting sick annd tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and
    I’m looking att alternatives for another platform. I would be awesome if you coulod point me in the direction of a good

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes