Alejandro Zambra Posts

Tuesday Reads (Vol 1): 11 June 2019

Dear Reader,

There are so many exciting new books being published that sometimes it is a tad challenging writing about them as fast as one is reading them. I have truly enjoyed reading the following books. Each one has had something special to offer.

The Remainder by Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán and translated by Sophie Hughes is a darkly comic road novel. It is about an unlikely trio in an empty hearse chasing a lost coffin across the Andes cordillera.  Felipe, Iquela and Paloma are the three friends who are in search of Paloma’s mother’s coffin. It was “misplaced” in the journey from Germany to Chile. Paloma’s mother passed away overseas but wanted to be buried in her homeland. It is a bizarre journey they embark upon, narrated by Felipe and Iquela. The three were young children and often refer to the referendum night of 5 October 1988 when the people voted to topple Pinochet. At one level the journey can be perceived as a bildungsroman but it is also a coming-to-terms moment for the three with their past. A dark past that cast a long shadow upon Chile. Alejandro Zambra has called such novels belonging to ‘the literature of the children’. It is probably pure coincidence but it oddly parallels a Bollywood film called Karwan in which too an unlikely trio go on a road trip to sort out a coffin mix-up that occured at the airport. The Remainder was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 and was the winner of a PEN prize.  It is a remarkable book!

Another translation that I read but would possibly exist at the other end of the spectrum from the frenzied The Remainder is the quietly meditative The Forest of Wool and Steel by Japanese writer, Natsu Miyashita. It has been translated by Philip Gabriel who is better known for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Set in small-town Japan, it is about Tomura who is charmed by watching the piano tuner working on the school piano. He is convinced that this is the career he has to pursue. It is impossible to offer a gist of this beautiful novel. Suffice to say that a million Japanese readers who bought the book could not be wrong! Hitsuji to Hagane no Mori won the 2016 Booksellers novel and was also turned into a film. The English translation was published recently. It offers the confidence of one’s convictions to pursue a career that is out of the ordinary. The Forest of Wool and Steel is stunning for its peaceful stillness in an otherwise noisy world.

Saudade by Australian Suneeta Peres Da Costa is an equally gripping coming-of-age novella. It is set in Angola in the period leading up to its independence from Portugal. The young girl who narrates the story is of Indian origin. Her parents are Goans. Her father is a labour lawyer, working for the Ministry of Interior, preparing workers’ contracts. Her mother is a housewife. Saudade is a novel about domesticity and the impact the outside socio-political developments on the family. Saudade is also about the relationship between mother and daughter too. Caught between the different worlds of Portugal, Goa and Angola, the little girl, is finally packed off “home” to Goa by her mother. The little child experiences what her parents were never able to articulate — a sadness, a saudade, a lostness, a feeling of not having a place in the world. Saudade is a memorable story for it wraps the reader in its wistfulness, its sadness, its pain and it is not easy to extricate oneself from it for days after. Suneeta Peres Da Costa is a young writer worth watching out for. Hopefully one day she will write that that big inter-generational novel spread across continents. Let’s see.

More in the next edition of “Tuesday Reads”!

JAYA

11 June 2019

My Best Reads of 2018

Lists are subjective. Reading lists are even more difficult to cobble. Today my list consists of the following books. A few days later it may change ever so slightly. But these are the books that have stayed with me over the months.

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness 

Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived 

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa

Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine 

Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents 

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies 

Ranjit Hoskote Jonahwhale 

Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation

C G Salamander and Samidha Gunjal’s Puu

Khaled Hosseini Sea Prayer

Nazia Erum’s Mothering a Muslim 

Jarrett J Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo

Henry Eliot’s The Penguin Classics Book

Cordis Paldano The Dwarf, the Girl and the Goat

Mohammed Hanif Red Birds 

Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell Art Matters

T M Krishna Reshaping Art 

Alan Lightman In Praise of Wasting Time

Alejandro Zambra’s “My Documents” and “Not to Read”, translated by Megan McDowell

It’s unhealthy to get stuck in the past. 

My Documents is a collection of short stories by Alejandro Zambra, the award-winning Chilean writer, that are constantly playing with the idea of memory, truth and fiction. Whereas the recently released Not to Read is a collection of his non-fiction writings that can be loosely termed to be a literary autobiography while sharing his theory of reading. Like the many who have written before him, he too is of the opinion that reading and reading is what matters the most. There is a lovely anecdote he recounts of being able to read to his heart’s content when he was unemployed and seeking a job. He would spend the morning distributing his resume but would hurry home by late morning, so that he could then have an entire day to himself to read at leisure. Later when he did get a job he was fortunate enough to be appointed a telephone operator at an insurance company which meant he worked nights and there were hardly any calls to attend to. Once more giving him ample time to read. The joy of uninterrupted time, solitude and silence — the perfect mix to allow one to sink into the book.

My Documents, published in 2015,  consists of short stories. A short story collection can become predictable and monotonous in tenor but this is certainly not true of My Documents where each story is unexpected. It is not just in tenor but also in the form. It is impossible to tell whether it was like this in the original language too but in the hands of an incredible translator like Megan McDowell, there is a gritty texture that comes through each story. It is also difficult to discern what is fiction and what is a memory being shared of living in Pinochet’s era. The reader who is unfamiliar with the local cultural landscape is immediately immersed into it, it is like being transported to Chile in real time and witnessing the action. The stories, the people, the peculiarities, the conversations etc. Alejandro Zambra achieves this without any longwinded descriptions. My favourite story is “I Smoked Very Well”, a meditation on trying to give up the habit of being a smoker but at the same time in his characteristic style meanders into the literary space, making excuses that his inability to get off his nicotine habit is also the root cause of his writer’s block!

Not to Read is a collection of short essays previously published in the newspaper. So these are really short reads of about 2-5 mins. And yet so opinionated and loads of fun to read. He creates a literary landscape that is so incredibly detailed if all the 60-odd essays are read together, it makes you yearn to have a library handy of all the books and authors Zamba mentions! It’s also rare to find an essayist like this nowadays who is so immersed in his work that that is all he wishes to talk about. He is not distracted by anything else. His writing style is simple and lucid and yet within it are embedded vast banks of knowledge and strong opinions. Take for instance his essay “In praise of the photocopy” where he talks about these “fake books” as he defines them, the photocopies he and his friends used to access literature.

Essays by Roland Barthes marked with fluorescent highlighters; poems by Carlos de Rokha or Enrique Lihn stapled together; ringbound or precariously fastened novels by Witold Gombrowicz or Clarice Lispector: it’s good to remember that we learned to read with these photocopies, which we waited for impatiently, smoking, on the other side of the copy-shop window. As citizens of a country where books are ridiculously expensive to buy and libraries are poorly equipped or non-existent, we got used to reading photocopies, and we even came to find it charming. In exchange for just a few pesos, some giant, tireless machines could bestow on us the literature we so desired. We read those warm bundles of paper and then stored them on shelves as if they were real books. Because that’s what they were to us: rare, beloved books. Important books. 

Later he argues for making books available at an effective price:

The discussion around digital books, incidentally, is at times overly elaborate: the defenders of conventional books appeal to romantic images of reading (to which I fully subscribe), and the electronic propagandist will insist on the comfort of carrying your library in your pocket, or the miracle of endlessly interlinking texts. But it’s not so much about habits as it is about costs. Can we really expect a student to spend twenty thousand pesos on a book? Isn’t it quite reasonable for them to just download it from the internet? … Editors, booksellers, distributors and authors unite occasionally to combat practices that ruin business, but books have become luxury items and absolutely nothing indicates that this will change. 

Alejandro Zamba’s last point is controversial since this is exactly what is at the core of the various legal battles in various book markets but he does make a strong argument. All his essays in the book are as simply written with a single idea shared pointedly. Whether you agree with his viewpoint or not is immaterial, reading the essays is pure joy.  Two extracts from the book can be read at Harpers on “Literary Customs” and on the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions website about “Obligatory Readings”.

Ideally one should read both the books in quick succession then it is perfect. The two volumes of fiction and non-fiction writing compliment each other beautifully. If you have not as yet discovered the rising literary star of Chile, Alejandro Zamba, then you have a treat awaiting you thanks to the wonderful translations by Megan McDowell.

Both the books mentioned are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. 

3 September 2018