Michael Greenberg

  • Savage Detective

    The Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra was born in 1975, two years after the violent military coup that ousted Chile’s democratically elected, Socialist president, Salvador Allende. It would be impossible to overstate the shattering impact of that coup, not only on Chile but on the entire Left in Latin America. It was the darkest event in one of South America’s darkest decades.

    I was staying in Mendoza, Argentina, at the time of the coup, only 112 miles from the Chilean capital, Santiago, but separated from it by the Andes, a monolithic, glacial divide. Conservative Chileans, who had shipped

  • Sub Mission

    Come winter, when New York’s street life grows scarcer and the public parks become frozen stretches you either race through or avoid, my fantasies of suburban life are revived. They began when I was a boy, and I’ve held on to them, I think, out of a deviant nostalgia for a way of life that remains almost as alien to me as that of a farmer. The houses, as I thought of them, were like miniature castles, with their small bubbling furnaces and hideaway rooms. They seemed complete unto themselves, each set in its own apron of soil, with its inviolable border, able to contain the entirety of

  • The Road to Atonement

    “How do you feel about representing New York at our literary festival here in Frankfurt?” asked the voice on the phone in halting, German-inflected English. The voice belonged to Wolfram, the organizer of the festival. “Writers from other cities are also invited,” he said, ticking off the names of authors who would be embodying the spirits of Paris, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, and Luanda, the capital of Angola. “We call the festival Metropolitan. We are in our second year. I am thinking this will be very important.”

    Despite the challenge of conversing by cell phone in a language in

  • Givers and Thieves

    After landing in Paris, from New York, I went straight to the Gare Saint-Lazare to board a train to the town of Valognes in Normandy, a three-hour ride. On the train, I fell into a rushing sleep, then woke with a jolt, worried that I had missed my station. The carriage was empty except for an elderly couple tipsily playing cards, smiling at me in what seemed an invitation to join them. They got off at the station before mine, he with a thick carved cane in each hand, hobbling forward with a determined thrust of his hips, throwing his canes onto the platform and then climbing down, like a man

  • A Holy Fire

    My friend Matt paid me a visit to confide his anxieties about his impending marriage. “I wonder if I’m cut out for the whole thing, the enormity of it,” he said. “It’s not hesitation about the person, just a reckoning with the profundity of the challenge ahead, even in the best of circumstances.” He ticked off a list of four busted marriages among his circle of friends that had occurred during the past year. One bereft husband was currently crashing on Matt’s couch in Chelsea, with fifty bucks to his name and a vague plan to move to New Zealand. It was as if matrimony presented not the possibility

  • The Disappeared

    I met Daniel at 4:00 one August morning in 1999. It was on the roof of my building, where, in the grip of a long bout of insomnia, I would wait for first light to mark the end of another summer night. Daniel couldn’t sleep either. He was bunking with one of my neighbors—after the breakup of his third marriage, I later learned. Tall, bearded, he emerged through the warped steel fire door with a pitcher of iced coffee and a pack of cigarettes. He saw me sitting on the low brick balustrade that ran along the roof’s perimeter and said, “You look like you’re waiting for someone to push you over the

  • A Fragile Equilibrium

    Jealousy may be the closest a sane person can get to the experience of psychosis. I’m referring to the kind of florid, full-blown jealousy that strikes poor, enraged Leontes in The Winter’s Tale—a jealousy that leads to complete ruin. It is sometimes confused with envy, but the difference is fundamental: With envy you want to possess what the other person has—money, power, beauty, fame—whereas with jealousy you want to possess the actual person. Its true cousin is paranoia; both are anchored in a kind of warped, iron-clad logic. The thrill of jealousy, like that of paranoia, is that every sign

  • Crime of the Heart

    Desire is a question to which there is no answer, yet much of the time it’s the only question that matters. “Love . . . makes one little room, an everywhere,” wrote John Donne. Death, in its not-so-different way, does the same. The place of one’s final heartbeat is immense, or so it seemed to me at age eight when I inadvertently became sole witness to a murder.

    I was throwing a rubber ball against a cracked beach wall on my dead-end street in Rockaway, an improbable spit of coastland on the eastern edge of New York City. It was November 1961, and Rockaway was still in a state of ruin two months


    My friend Tom invited me to visit him in Tbilisi. He’s a fearless, openhearted man, an international aid worker who had put in hard time in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Now, he was the head of child protection for UNICEF in Georgia. “You can stay at my apartment, I’ve plenty of room. It’ll more than cancel out the price of the ticket to get here.” To entice me further he quoted a piece of graffito he had seen scrawled on the side of a building that afternoon: NO GOD, ONLY KINGS. “That’s the kind of place this is. Original. Enigmatic. Unexpected.” He reminded me that Joseph Stalin and George Balanchine

  • THE ACCIDENTALIST: A Strange Fever

    I’ve been thinking about constricted spaces lately, those crammed, no-exit corners that make us feel diminished in some way, wishing to expand, to break free. In New York, you fit yourself into these spaces daily. They have a way of dictating the very procedure of your mind: the segments, the modules, the shortcuts you think in. Adjustments are made. Your thoughts become the size of the bus seat you occupy—concentrated, balled up. In the subway we press together like guests at a doomed cocktail party, alienated from one another and acutely attuned. We grow increasingly introverted as more riders