Savage Detective

My Documents BY Alejandro Zambra. McSweeney's. Paperback, 200 pages. $15.

The cover of My Documents

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 themselves over to Mendoza because they loathed Allende’s government, held impromptu Masses in the public squares, thanking God for General Augusto Pinochet, their savior. Less than a month later, most of them had returned to Santiago, while exiles from Pinochet streamed across the Andes: not only active supporters of Allende but almost any government workers (including a man whose job had been to organize teenage soccer matches, who stayed with me for a while), fleeing for their lives.

In an orgy of state terror, the military tortured and executed unknown numbers of citizens. The number of arrestees by most counts was at least 130,000. The national soccer stadium in Santiago was turned into a huge detention center, with tens of thousands of prisoners corralled at gunpoint in the bleachers and in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath them. The new government’s aim was to eradicate the Left by killing off anyone who dared to support it.

As a result of the 1973 coup, the seeds of a stark generational divide in Chile were sown. There are those who came of age before the coup (e.g., the novelist Roberto Bolaño); those, like Zambra, who were born during Pinochet’s rule; and a younger generation that grew up after 1990, “under democracy,” as the local saying goes. This divide provides the energy, the current, and the covert state of mind for almost every one of the stories in My Documents.

Zambra’s characters have no faith in politics and little faith in love. They are in the grip of a frantic malaise, stoned on pot and ever proximal to a spasm of impotent anger. The specter of Pinochet and his culture of mediocrity and obedience permeates their psyches. It is as if they are in mourning for a world they never experienced or knew. The immediate past—of free elections and expression—has taken on the quality of a mythic, prohibited past that has left almost no traces of its existence. Pinochet is like a detested stepfather, to be mentally resisted, if possible, and always feared. His presence leaks into the most intimate aspects of their lives; when they make love, it’s as if he’s in the room with them.

In the story “National Institute,” the narrator, a student at an elite all-boys public school in Santiago that graduated seventeen presidents, pauses to let us know that his teachers “were some real sons of bitches. . . . Neither time nor distance has dampened my rage. They were cruel and mediocre. Frustrated and stupid people. Obsequious Pinochetistas. Fucking assholes.” Later in the story, he defends a fellow student against the arbitrary malice of one of their teachers. “I felt indestructible. Rage made me indestructible. . . . I spoke softly, but I was strong. . . . I speak softly, but I’m strong. . . . I never shout but I’m strong.” In the repetition of the word “strong,” the insistence of “indestructible,” we can hear the shaky inner fortitude required for him to take even this modest stand.

Zambra is a direct literary descendant of his older, late compatriot Bolaño. He serves us black, urgent humor with a quotidian casualness, a deceptive simplicity that has no room for the fantastical, the magical, or the exuberant New World celebrations of, say, Neruda or Walt Whitman. The single thread of belief for some of Zambra’s protagonists is literature itself and its ability, through plain, naked language, to present life as it is felt and lived. Zambra is an antiromantic. The poet Enrique Lihn, also Chilean, is a hovering, beneficent presence, appearing in these stories as a kind of ethical compass, a reminder of the uncompromising sensibility that the artist must possess. Lihn, who died in 1988 and is virtually unknown in North America, wrote, “No to magic. Yes as ever to the ever-deceiving proof of what is.” These words could serve as Zambra’s guiding artistic principle.

The late Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti is another crucial point of reference for Zambra. A committed modernist born in 1909, eighteen years before García Márquez, Onetti was regarded, when I was in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, with a sad reverence. He was astutely pessimistic, with a Joycean interest in internal monologue and roundabout fictional structures. In 1974, the Uruguayan junta forced Onetti into an insane asylum for having served as a judge on a panel that awarded a prize to a short story critical of the military mentality that was terrorizing Uruguay at the time. After he was released, he fled to Spain.

Like Bolaño’s, many of Zambra’s stories have the aura of autobiography. The subject matter is personal—involving love affairs, children, pets, computers, e-mail, and childhood memories, among other things—but the protagonists measure their lives by national political events. For Zambra, these events are like touchstones: the attempt to assassinate Pinochet in 1986; the referendum of 1988 that voted “No” by 56 percent to allow Pinochet to extend his rule; the election of 1990 that followed (in which Allende’s Socialist Party was prohibited from taking part); the 1998 arrest of Pinochet in London for human-rights violations committed during his dictatorship.

In the story “Long Distance,” the narrator notes that a personal change in his life occurred in March 2000, “a few days after Pinochet returned to Chile like he owned the place.” He adds, “I’m sorry for these reference points, but they’re the ones that come to mind.” The narrator is a writer (single, without attachments) who supports himself with a solitary night job answering calls from Chileans overseas for a travel-insurance company. An unusually “nice” client repeatedly phones from Paris to talk about his daughter, his grandchildren, and “a world that sometimes seems so strange nowadays, so different.” The two men become late-night intimates, invisible to each other.

At the same time, the narrator takes a second job, teaching writing to adults at a Technical Training Institute. He senses that his classes are boring and with this comes a feeling of “desolation.” He resolves “to tackle [it] head-on.” The one thing he possesses for certain, after all, is “a love of certain stories, certain phrases, a handful of words. But it was clear that, up to that point, I hadn’t been able to communicate anything.”

He begins an affair with one of his students. Before they make love, she gives him five thousand pesos, and when they finish he gives the money back to her. The exchange becomes a ritual, the exclamation point of their essential estrangement. Meanwhile, the nice long-distance caller at his night job offers to pay him for private lessons in literature. He returns to Santiago and they meet regularly in the narrator’s spartan apartment. So, another monetary exchange is established. The narrator fails to grasp the man’s erotic interest in him and the relationship ends. The woman then breaks off from him, too, believing that he has taken her for a whore after he offers her some of the absurdly luxurious food that the “nice” man had showered on him as a parting gift. He is completely alone again and, having quit his night job and lost his position at the Technical Training Institute, unemployed. None of this makes the narrator especially unhappy. He laughs bleakly at himself; life must change, but he still has his writing. A chronic sense of detachment is his cross to bear.

The title story, “My Documents,” is a fascinating high-wire act of converging elements that include computers, the military, Catholicism, the pop star Paul Simon, and the moment when the narrator, as a boy, “started to believe, naively, intensely, absolutely, in literature.” Literature is the only thing that can, possibly, supply him with a purpose. The “power of language,” Zambra writes elsewhere, its ability to “influence reality,” provides him with a dim but reliable faith.

In “Family Life,” the protagonist, Martín, forty years old, unmarried and unemployed, cat-sits for a friend while he and his family are abroad. The cat runs away. Martín ransacks the house looking for a picture of it to post in the neighborhood. As he roots through their belongings, evidence of the family’s rich existence throws him into a void. He feels that he has raided the house, like the police from the days of Pinochet’s dictatorship would have done.

Martín becomes an impostor, first imagining that he is the owner of the house, the possessor of a girlfriend and daughter, and then actually playing the role. The imposture is so pathetic, so impulsive and psychologically entangled, so opposed to any motive for material gain, that we follow it with a kind of sorrowful horror.

Martín finds a photograph of the girlfriend and hangs it in a prominent place in the living room. He takes up with a much younger neighborhood woman who thinks of herself as liberated, uninhibited, without hang-ups, because she was “born under democracy.” Martín tells her that the woman in the photograph is his wife, who has left him with their child. Their relationship deepens, and so does the lie, dooming it. For Martín, perhaps, their closeness is possible only because of the lie, which allows him to play at being in love. When the time comes for the real family to return, Martín flees.

The finest and most original story in My Documents isArtist’s Rendition,” a failed crime story that turns into a kind of aesthetic statement. A writer has been commissioned to produce a detective story and has only one day to complete it. “What they want from him is simply a blood-stained Latin American story.” To get himself going, he uses the life of a girl he knew when they were both fourteen. He decides “to move the protagonist down in class, because the middle class—and he thinks this without irony—is a problem if one wants to write Latin American literature. He needs a Santiago slum where it’s not unusual to see teenagers in the plazas cracked out or huffing paint thinner.” Almost all Zambra’s characters, it should be noted, are middle class; the joke here is that, by this definition, he does not—and cannot—write “Latin American literature.”

The story moves from the real girl to the one he is going to turn into a murderer for his crime story to the writer himself, buying kerosene, eating asparagus soup, rushing the story along so he can meet a friend at a Peruvian restaurant that has just opened near his apartment. In the process, he ruminates on (and rejects) the traditional manipulations of fiction, the mechanical cultivation of mystery that, “fifteen or thirty years back . . . didn’t seem immoral to writers,” as it feels to him now. What is not immoral is the uncontrived and fallible realism that Zambra strives to achieve.

On the face of it, Zambra’s concerns are quite common: prolonged adolescence, chronic indecision, the desire to care yet an inability to do so; the randomness of experience and the muffling gauze of marijuana and alcohol that surrounds it. We’ve seen a lot of this in contemporary fiction. But Zambra’s work possesses a historical sadness that has no time for the gloss of nostalgia. It’s a literature that believes in itself, even when it’s mired in despair.

Michael Greenberg is the author of Hurry Down Sunshine (2008) and Beg, Borrow, Steal (2009; both Other Press).