‘The story is another’
Valparaiso, Chile. Photograph by Chris Goldberg.
by Jessica Sequeira
Not to Read,
by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018
In Santiago there’s a stereotype I’ve heard many times, that while most Argentines are ‘big readers’, Chileans ‘don’t read’. The Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra repeats both ideas in his collection of literary essays Not to Read [No Leer]; the piece with the same name as the title is devoted precisely to rattling off a number of anecdotes about Chilean ‘non-readers’, who were either caught out claiming to read a book that they hadn’t, or boasting about this very fact. Yet perhaps such non-reading is not as shameful as it sounds. ‘Not to read’ is a decision to do something other than read; it is, perhaps, a decision to live, think or write. ‘Not reading’ begins the moment that one puts down a book and starts to remember things from the past, daydream about possibilities in the present, or scribble ideas for a book to be published in the future.
The title could equally have been Not to Write, for Zambra doesn’t necessarily like the idea of baroquely-structured tomes either, with their intricate language built up over hours of careful word pushing. The essays in this book mostly discuss a certain kind of fictional writing that is loose, semi-autobiographical and open-ended. Zambra tends to prefer a kind of anti-style that is simple and natural, written in order to make sense of the personal, from some inner necessity; his way of reading seeks within literature the non-literature, the vitality beyond words. Zambra praises books for qualities that are not purely aesthetic, particularly those books that attempt to offer not brilliant closed analyses but complex, ambiguous thoughts on precise situations. He does not look for works that contain, but that open. Discussing Clarice Lispector, for instance, he writes that there is ‘a fact that is, for me, essential: that to make literature it is necessary to not make literature’.
The word ‘involuntary’ repeats often, not only when Zambra mentions his own good ‘involuntary memory’ and role as ‘involuntary witness’ to some of Nicanor Parra’s interviews, but also when he defends the creative messiness of ‘involuntary writer’ Manuel Puig against the polished formality of professional writer Mario Vargas Llosa, or when he says that Roberto Merino’s book of columns on Santiago is ‘an involuntary book, composed of texts written against the clock, minutes before a deadline’ (just like this very collection, Zambra seems to wink). He regards Edgar Lee Masters as the ‘involuntary author of a masterpiece’, and in a story by AM Holmes he calls attention to ‘the very involuntary father who vacillates between accepting his daughter and erasing her completely’.
Although Zambra does defend solitariness and time spent reading and writing, he holds a somewhat romantic view of moments that just happen, and texts that write themselves. The moment or the book, he suggests, is already there somehow, as if a divine presence were working, and the author must patiently wait for it to appear. One involuntary idea of a book, for Zambra, is that it emerges like a carefully-pruned plant from a mass of branches. This idea is what gave the name to his short novel, Bonsai: ‘Writing is like taking care of a bonsai, I thought then, I think now: to write is to prune the branches until you make visible a form that was already there, lying in wait; to write is to illuminate language so the words say, for once, what we want to say; to write is to read an unwritten text.’
Zambra talks about his ambiguous relationships with certain books, which he liked as a child and not as an adult, or the reverse. Of course it is perfectly alright not to hold strong fixed views, or to change one’s views when need be. Yet it is rare to find a book critic, which was Zambra’s role when he wrote many of these pieces, who is so free of arguments. Zambra seems more keen on quoting from texts than offering an explicit guide to reading them. Writing can be a way to consolidate the passive thoughts formed while reading into clear ideas, but Zambra does not hold many critical views. He writes about strong personalities, but the failure to encapsulate a strong identity of his own is ironic, as this very gathering of texts is primarily of interest because they were written by the well-known novelist Zambra.
What does the collection as a whole have to say? There is a glittering quality to the book; ‘gem’ is a word that Zambra repeats. Not to Read can be seen as a gleaming collection of reviews, and each review can be seen as a gleaming collection of quotes. The unity of the book, though, lies not in arguments but in tone. Zambra talks about books in a warm, intimate way, mentioning what lines he finds interesting or beautiful, which he implies that you might also. His essays find non-obvious points of entry, coming in at an angle. His process of writing, the seams of construction, are evident. Zambra will mention a book, talk about something else for a while, then come back to it.
‘Something’s gone awry with this essay,’ he says at one point, and this admission of error, this hesitancy, is part of the essay’s charm. But imperfections and hiccups are something Zambra himself admires in the work of others. On Ángel Parra he writes: ‘Every once in a while the author apologizes for the jumps and the gaps in his story, since he moves forward capriciously, as though speaking aloud, as though discovering along the way what he wants to say. Those hesitations lend the narration an enormous warmth.’ And elsewhere he notes: ‘That’s how we are in Chile: we distrust fluidity, the ease of words; that’s why we stammer so much. It’s not a criticism, just a description. We distrust writing, as well. We stammer, as well, in our writing.’ (A hat-tip here to Megan McDowell for nimbly translating both the fluidities and the hiccups of the work.)
One of Zambra’s few explicit arguments is that literature is always written about belonging. This belonging can also extend to the desire by the writer and reader to fit into a community. Zambra’s own desire to belong certainly exists, and this is another reason for his reluctance to hold strong opinions à la Nabokov. He prefers to read generously, non-emphatically, noting the elements of authors in which he finds an affinity, constructing a lineage for himself, marking out his literary ancestors. Zambra comes off as a ‘nice guy’, and this collection of his occasional materials can be read as a kind of socializing.
Another ideal that Zambra mentions, not boring the reader, is linked to this; it is the same ideal that holds for a good angst-free conversation over lunch. Zambra reads all authors as ‘secondary characters’, as if they are people he can talk to, on the same plane as himself, reflecting-chamber versions. His doctoral thesis was called ‘The pretense of the self in the poem: Theoretical study and analysis of Sermons and homilies of the Christ of Elqui by Nicanor Parra’; this book of reviews and speeches is in a sense an extension of that work. Not to Read was originally published in Spanish in 2010, but it has been updated with new content several times for its re-editions in Argentina and Spain. In the English version, the most recent piece is from this February, Zambra’s reflections on the death of Parra. In Santiago, hours after news of Parra’s death spread, black T-shirts with images of the writer’s phrase Voy y vuelvo stuck over a cross were already being hawked outside the cathedral; Zambra’s tribute is far more subtle.
Two writers about whom Zambra writes with perhaps even greater tenderness, however, are the Peruvian Julio Ribeyro and the Italian Natalia Ginzburg. What Zambra says about Ribeyro could apply to himself: ‘Even in the most confessional pages of his diary, an impersonal mood persists that keeps him safe from exhibitionism or anecdotalism.’ He quotes Ribeyro: ‘Each new writer cross-checks his work with that of the writers who came before, not with the world. In this way we reach a rarification in the novel’s material, which could be confused with esotericism.’ And he quotes Ribeyro again, when he says that new writers ‘try to make of their work not the personal reflection of reality, but rather the personal reflection of other reflections.’ Finally, here is the way Zambra describes Ribeyro’s ‘Silvio in the Rose Garden’: ‘a beautiful story about the slippery art of reading the world.
As for Natalia Ginzburg, she has found ‘a perfect writing device: put phrases together, contextualize them minimally, and then go on telling those stories. Almost anyone who follows that procedure with any constancy would end up writing a book.’ Zambra argues that: ‘She knew that it was impossible not to be original. That any family, any person looked at from up close reveals their singular condition. Or doesn’t reveal it, but also doesn’t deny it: they show their opacity, their impossible recesses, the evidence of their secret.’ He finds in Ginzburg a model for any person who wants to write: ‘There are books that provoke in their readers the desire to write, and others that block that desire instead. Family Lexicon belongs, without a doubt, to the former group. It is impossible to read it without imagining that other book of our own that does not yet exist but that we must, out of pure gratitude, write.’
This idea that anyone can write, that literature is not the exalted thing it has been made out to be, but rather a form of communication and way of understanding the self in the world, is attractive, even if one does occasionally miss the spark of more combative critics. Zambra wants to be a friend, not a fighter; there is a sense of complicity with his readers, in the idea that we are not necessarily geniuses, but rather secondary characters in a story we do not quite understand.
In that sense, there is also a strangeness to writing a review about a book of reviews that don’t seek to be prescriptive. Zambra’s writing does not ask for a critical response; it invites you to start writing your own fictions and telling your own stories. ‘The great and secret theme of Chilean literature is that abyss between what is said and what is written,’ he says. On the Chilean writer Alejandra Costamagna, he adds that: ‘At first we let the story carry us along and we think we recognize it, and for a while we even feel at home and walk securely around those territories we think are familiar, but suddenly we discover a shade, a discreet lilt, a mark we couldn’t foresee. Then we understand that we had not understood, we realize that the story is another, that we are and aren’t there.’
This is the secret moment we are waiting for as readers — the moment when a second story emerges from the one on the page, the moment when the story becomes our own. Perhaps this kind of picking out of the material that means most to us, that holds beauty, that helps us through our life, is to be a bad reader, one who searches in literature for friendships and self-discoveries. Perhaps it is a way ‘not to read’.