To Read, Or


From The History of Don Quixote, by Cervantes, illustrated by Gustave Doré, 1906.

by Daniel Fraser

Not to Read,
by Alejandro Zambra,
London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 288 pp.

This collection of Alejandro Zambra’s essays and articles on literature (translated by Megan McDowell) arrived unexpectedly one cold morning in March. The author’s name was familiar to me from the pristine copy of his stories My Documents sitting, as yet unread, on a bookshelf in the bedroom upstairs. Arriving as it did, the new book, title printed on the spine in firm black letters, appeared as both provocation and admonishment. The negativity it proclaimed seemed to announce its own undoing, the book instead demanding to be read.

Zambra, a Chilean writer and poet from Santiago, writes much about the literature of his home country but the essays collected here cover authors from across Latin America, the USA, and from the other side of the Atlantic too, well-known figures like Cortázar, Borges, and Böll, featuring alongside less familiar names such as Josafina Vicens and Gonzalo Millán.

Their subject matter proves to be equally varied and oftentimes appears to approach the literature in question from an oblique angle: from the phenomenology of photocopies and the question of empty books to Bolaño’s questionable appreciation of football and what the location of a library within a house says about the books on its shelves, the insights the articles contain regularly arrive in an unusual manner. Coupled with this diffuse thematic material, both a key component in the odd notes struck by the articles and what unites them, is Zambra’s distinctly personal mode of writing. From the opening sentences of the first essay ‘Obligatory Readings’:

I still remember the day when the teacher turned to the chalkboard and wrote the words test, next, Friday, Madame, Bovary, Gustave, Flaubert, French. With each word the silence grew, and by the end the only sound was the sad squeaking of the chalk.

The articles are composed in such a manner that many times they articulate as much about the author’s encounter with a text as they do about the texts themselves. This is by no means a criticism: this approach never belies the passionate, critical engagement with world literature evidenced throughout. In fact, the concise, rhythmic style of Zambra’s prose is positively infectious; meaning any adequate response to the book can’t help but be partially contaminated by an echo of this romantic confluence of the autobiographical and the critical, conceptual and experiential.

One of the effects of the way Zambra writes, described by McDowell in her translator’s foreword, is that on one level many of the texts read like recommendations from an absent and eloquent friend, one still feverish with the impact the book has had, the burning impression it has made. From this position Zambra appears at once as writer, reader, and critic, his voice imbued with a zeal for the transformative potential of literature, its vital connection to life, and a wish to share it with as many people as possible. This enthusiasm is undeniable, and several of the reviews are recommendations powerful enough to fill the reader with a desire to put the book down, set out for Latin America at once, learn Spanish, and translate the works so that English readers be denied them no longer.

However, something else, both more interesting and more unsettling is at work in Not to Read, a lack or sense of loss lying in between the light, a lack felt all the more acutely, given all the more weight because of the lightness that surrounds it. Something, quite pointedly, is missing. This spectral force calcifies across the text, both disrupting and giving form to the flow of autobiography and literary commentary at its surface, questioning and re-questioning the authority of literary practice. A nocturnal thread that weaves among the three principal figures of the literary work – writer, reader, and critic – its pattern reveals a glimpse of the problem that lies between them: the problem of literature itself.

Where better to begin a search for such spectral forces than among the dead voices of Spoon River?

In his report on the Lee Masters classic ‘Chit Chat from the Hereafter’ Zambra frames the gathering of expectorations, the free verse poems giving voices to the dead, that comprise Spoon River Anthology as fragments of a ‘world half-made’, ‘stories that the author chose not to finish’. This incompleteness, of business left unfinished, of course is part of what gives Spoon River Anthology its haunting character; the departed gesturing out at life’s unfairness, its emptiness, each of them bitter and petty and melancholy; but it’s more than that too, this incompleteness, this emptiness is what lies at the heart of writing itself.

Writing and death share an interminable closeness that leaves each absent in the other’s presence, shadows of one another’s light. Zambra alludes to this when he contrasts the task of the headstone engraver Richard Bone, who is ‘paid to write a truth he himself distrusts’, with that of the author, Masters himself, who ‘on the contrary, wrote to shine light into a dark and slippery zone’. Bone is caught between repeating the worn-out rhetorical forms he is dictated, and once took as gospel, and his subjective experience which undermines them at every turn. In the end he submits himself to the ‘false chronicles of the stones’. What is real always escapes the materiality of the word. Masters on the other hand, seeks to bring light to a zone which light cannot reach. This is not merely the zone of death but the space of writing, a place where light is only required in order to show the futility of illumination. The dead cannot see its glow; instead it serves only to reveal the triviality of what came before. Literature’s darkness is so deep that all fumbling is doomed to fail.

Literature is illegitimate and null, false and futile. The departed population of Spoon River announces so at every turn, their very lives themselves being only literature, or rather an absence of writing since it is only their death, an impossible voice from beyond, which survives.  Like the ‘dark room’ of childhood in the earlier essay ‘In the Service of Ghosts’, here is a place where ‘images appear, for the first time fixed on paper, that simultaneously authorise and destroy identity’. It is only through being committed to silence that they are finally able to speak. To invoke Hamlet, the grave plays with the lie of the one who lies within it.

Having unearthed this discomforting counterfeit current, rubbing at the text’s golden colour until it wears away to the glass beneath, one can start to see its shadow lurking throughout Not to Read. Moments of erasure, missing pieces, and the fragmented evidence of literature’s tendency to escape comprehension, proliferate across the text. The titles alone are filled with ‘silence’, the title essay in the collection discusses the pleasure of not reading certain books, in another article, Zambra conceives of a story that he is sure he has read by an author even though he is quite aware she has never written it and concludes by acutely observing in her writing a willingness to talk to herself in order to write towards the unsayable. The list goes on.

In one particularly striking essay, ‘The Silence of Telling’, Zambra compares Daniel Alarcón’s novel Lost City Radio to Heinrich Böll’s magnificent short story Murke’s Collected Silences surmising that perhaps ‘we write to confirm that defeat of fiction…to demonstrate that fiction is not enough…fiction only triumphs when it fails’. The novel centres on a radio programme in an unnamed war-torn country whose presenter reads out the names of those missing, in the hopes of reuniting lost families. For Zambra, the key to Alarcón’s narrative impulse is his attempt, not to make the story understandable, but rather to ‘respect the empty zones it is made of’. Doing so allows the novel to make visible ‘the silence of those who were and are no longer’ and the ‘silence of answers that do not come’.

Here the horror that dwells in the silence beneath the word is felt most forcefully: the missing pieces recall the disappeared, the thousands of people who vanished at the hands of brutal authoritarian regimes in Latin America. If Lost City Radio leaves itself topologically uncertain it is because this violence takes place in a country that ‘is and isn’t Peru, the same way it is and isn’t Chile’. This death, where the voices whose tongues have been silenced are too great to ever comprehend, can only leave writing, in a shattered form, fumbling around in the same insignificant scrap of earth.

What place can writing, can the authoritative voice of narration have in such circumstances? Norma, the narrator of Lost City Radio, is one whose success in building an audience lies precisely in the erasure of her authority. Her voice (paradoxically) gains its legitimacy from her own status as a victim, as another who is lost. The one who gives voice to all those searching is always searching herself. Like the voice of Masters, authority must be gained through vanishment. The writer is one whose activities are forever in this double bind of the authority of the work, and the work’s repeated excavation of the absurdity of that authority.

The pieces which cover the act of reading reiterate this sense of incompleteness. In an article entitled ‘Libraries’ Zambra recalls visiting a friend’s house and observing their bookshelves for the first time. The books on display, those shelved in the living room, are ones that the friend is happy to lend, to give access to, whereas those that are crammed into the bedroom or the private study, are kept hidden, out of sight, unobtainable. The books here are also in motion, tomes are relegated or moved up depending on a variety of circumstances, and we are left with the impression that in some sense all libraries are impossible. They promise solidity and taxonomy but ultimately shift and suffer the ravages of temporality that we all must suffer. The task of unpacking remains even when the books have been shelved, the poles of order and chaos are persistently in tension. Books, and the practice of reading them, are, in a very pointed sense, absurd. And the reader just as much is the writer must too be repeatedly confronted with the idea that perhaps literature ‘is only good for interrupting life for the time the reading lasts’. This interruption of life is the very definition of a petite mort, and a solitary, secret practice, one whose most treasured objects are kept deliberately out of sight.

What emerges is one of the most powerful aspects of Not to Read, namely, Zambra’s ability to use the role of the ‘voracious reader’, full of recommendations and the appetite for words, to show that for literature to have any real meaning at all, it must always resist this fetish, must undermine the reader’s self-identification, and reveal the fruitlessness of the meal itself. In ‘Erasing the Reader’ Zambra creates a moment of tension, questioning his own perceptive faculties, when he notices that the hand that has written copious disparaging notes in a second hand book he has purchased remarkably resembles his own. This agitated reader, one who is bored by the book but compelled by some unknown force to complete it, disparages the book’s ‘truncated scenes that only insinuate communication’. Zambra concurs, adding that the book is made of ‘fragments and silences’, but then he and the absent reader clash over whether the book’s mode of narration is one seeking to illuminate the darkness or to render it more obscure. The double bind reasserts itself. When Zambra confirms that the ghost-reader is in fact not himself but ‘an other’ he erases the marks, one reader removing ‘the contagious traces of another reader’, pronouncing the act as constituting ‘a happy ending’. The happy act of reading here is comprised by the re-establishment of identity, and the removal of the contaminating trace of otherness, the vitiating external force, but only after the fact, after the loss of self-certainty brought about by the work.

Where does this leave the role of the elusive ‘third term’, the critic? Not merely some kind of phenomenological interpretation of the encounter with the text or autobiographical reflection, a reader’s report in the most direct sense (though this of course is part of it). The critic must, keeping the tools of each trade close at hand, fail to be both writer and reader but in doing so draw attention to the movement between the two effected by the work. Here the brevity of Zambra’s style, as well as its personal inflection, work to their fullest, dispersing the coagulating unrest of authority whilst cumulatively pointing towards the problem of literature which remains its cause.

Literature then is something eternally left unfinished, Babylonian, a hanging disjunctive conjunction. It is the glittering gold whose provenance is continually called into question. Literature moves between the human instinct, the natural tendency, for form and cosmic formlessness, producing an awareness of this process of becoming (and becoming-nothing) in writer and reader, and cartographically circumscribed by the critic. To return to Spoon River, the final utterance of W. Lloyd Garrison Standard puts it most beautifully: ‘the pyramid of my life was nought but a dune, barren and formless, spoiled at last by the storm.’ Crucially, this formlessness of life can only be deduced retroactively, post forma, in the full face of that event whose impending certainty is what produced meaning in the first place: death. Literature only reveals its powerlessness after the fact, only through an extreme display of power, and in doing so can only forever leave both open to further questioning. The three figures move about in isolation from one another, connected by an object that itself appears impossible, an object that continually re-emphasises the isolation of those it brings together.

Not to Read, with a lightness and deftness of touch that at times is genuinely moving, testifies to literature as a project of incompleteness, of the recurrent questioning of literature by literature, and the reflective, spectral movement of this questioning force through the practice of reader, writer, and critic. Zambra’s essays are concise and sharp but also deeply suffused with a concern for the power and powerlessness of language that lifts them above a mere erudite engagement with the written word and towards a theory of reading and literature that fascinates and unsettles in equal measure.

The ‘Acknowledgements’ section which Zambra adds to close the book is a fitting final gesture which appositely demonstrates much of what I have been trying to draw out (while crucially failing to capture it in its entirety). It is written with a disdain for the very form of its own making and comes to an abrupt end where the author thanks his son Silvestre and his mother ‘or more than thanking them I ask their forgiveness, because I was typing these lines very loudly and have just woken them up’. This abruptness, an awareness of the impossibility of writing a satisfactory end, gently recalls a Rabelaisian headache or the failed foreword of Don Quixote, alive with the playfulness of literature, with its self-referential concern with its own practice, its necessary separation from life and its potentially detrimental effect on life, and of course, above all, the need for silence.

Literature: that is the question.

About the Author:

Daniel Fraser is a writer from West Yorkshire, England. His work has featured in the LA Review of BooksGorseBerfroisMusic and Literature, and 3AM Magazine among others. He is an editor at and lives in London. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag.