Interview with Alejandro Zambra

Jul 16, 2013 Comments Off on Interview with Alejandro Zambra by

Text by Álvaro Moliner

Translation by Jessica Sequeira

Alejandro Zambra (Santiago de Chile, 1975) is one of the new voices on the Chilean literary scene. In his novellas Bonsái (2006), La vida privada de los árboles (2007), and Formas de volver a casa (2011), his characters show a generation of Chileans that they face problems which are inherited from the past and are leading them towards an uncertain future, in a world in which personal relationships have been transformed definitively. At the Cervantes Institute of London, Ventana Latina had the chance to talk to Alejandro Zambra about the themes of his work and his vision of contemporary Chile.

Ventana LatinaYour first novel Bonsái, awarded with the Critics’ Prize, appears to have begun as a poetic project. Had you previously considered venturing into the terrain of the novel?

Alejandro Zambra: I don’t think that writing fiction and writing poetry are so different. Poetry has a very direct relationship with the reader, because it comes out in limited editions, while the novel has a wider scope, which to me also seems beautiful because you do not know the readers. A novel is like sending ‘my letter to the world’, as Emily Dickinson puts it, and that’s the intention, to send a letter without knowing who will receive it.

VL: In Formas de volver a casa, a series of the protagonists’ memories are narrated which could well be those of Alejandro Zambra himself. In all of them we find an absolute absence of the fantastic, and an imagination that has been reduced to casual encounters that are plausible and totally realistic. Are reality and memories your sources of inspiration?

AZ: I’m interested in writing about common and ordinary people, without exalting an individual experience too different from that of everybody else. In that sense, the question of whether things have actually happened or not isn’t too relevant. In particular, with respect to the last novel, what’s important is that the events it relates have happened to many other people, not just to one.

VLIn your novels, plots are woven around personal relationships saturated by incommunication, chronic insatisfaction, and the impossibility of arriving at culmination, and therefore happiness…

AZ: I think that for my generation and those following it, relationships have been transformed into something uncertain, that is, there is an element of uncertainty we accept and consider part of the matter, and this is true as much for relationships of love as for those between parent and child. The horizon of affections has changed. It does interest me to talk about that; I don’t know if I’m right or if I have a conception of how it happens in my book, much less in reality. La vida privada de los árboles tells the story of a family constructed with other values and with a certain inherent fragility. It’s not the traditional family we’ve accustomed ourselves to think about; it’s one based on another model that I’m interested in understanding.

VLThis year, forty years will have passed since the military coup in Chile. In Formas de volver a casa you address that historical period from the diverse perspectives of those who suffered it, those who were harassed, those who supported it, and those who simply remained indifferent. Patricio Guzmán, whom you talk about in the novel, says that Chileans are incapable of remembering. How do you evaluate the nation today after forty years?

AZ: I think that many things have changed, but that the dictatorship continues being present. Since 2011 was the year of the student riot, and other kinds of riots, someone might think it is something very contemporary [disconnected from the past]. But the protests of the youth are linked with what the dictatorship did to Chile, and any change to the state is linked with the constitution, the same constitution drawn up by Pinochet and his collaborators. The country is attempting to put itself together again, rather than trying to cling to an account of the past, yet questions of the present still have to do with the dictatorship. Pinochet destroyed Chile in every imaginable sense – for example, people now say that they want to remove the IVA [value added tax] from the price of a book, because in Chile the book didn’t have an IVA before Pinochet. Things like this go hand in hand, and move progressively. It seems to me that Chilean society is always in that transition, and what Patricio Guzmán says I share, that there is not a generalised desire to remember with precision. But it does seem to me that literature, and in particular the kind of documental cinema which he makes, or which younger directors are making, like El edificio de los chilenosActores secundarios, and La ciudad de los fotógrafos, is helping Chileans to want to remember.

VLYour books always make numerous references to other books, by Proust, Flaubert, Auster and a long list of others. If you had to leave home never to return, what book would you bring? 

AZ: It’s very difficult to answer the question of the desert island; I can’t answer it. I think I owe a great deal to literature, because to me it seems that literature has permitted me to understand things I wouldn’t have understood any other way. But the idea of pulling out a book when the world is ending, or when one has to go to a desert island… despite all that I love literature, it wouldn’t occur to me to pull out a book.


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