No Longer Secondary Characters: CP Heiser in Conversation with Alejandro Zambra
Translations to and from the Spanish by Maruja Powys Heiser
Chilean 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 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.
 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.