Alejandro Zambra (& Ellen Jones),
on Not to Read
‘They say that there are only three or four or five topics for literature, but maybe there’s only one: belonging. Perhaps all books can be read as a function of the desire to belong, or the negation of that desire. To be a part of or stop being part of a family, of a community, a country, of Chilean literature, a football team, a political party, a rock band, or atleast a group of scouts. That’s what we write about when we’re given a free topic, and also when we are writing about love, death, travel, telegrams, or suitcases with swivel wheels. That’s what we always talk about, seriously and in jest, in verse and in prose: belonging.’
—Alejandro Zambra, from ‘The Boy who went Mad from Love’
Alejandro Zambra’s new book, Not to Read—translated by Megan McDowell—collects reviews and essays published in the Chilean press over the past ten years or so, as well as a couple of longer form pieces whose lives began as lectures. In prose that is rich with quotation and warm with personal affection, he introduces readers to many of his favourite authors from Chile, Latin America, and beyond—and to a couple of his least favourite, too.
Zambra spoke to Ellen Jones about translation, the challenges of writing different forms, and about life in Mexico City. Their conversation took place bilingually (by email) over a couple of weeks in May; Zambra’s responses have been translated from the Spanish.
EJ: The Latin American writers who populate Not to Read are not the same writers who many English-speaking readers will be familiar with. You write much less about globally recognised ‘boom’ writers than you do about Chilean writers like Enrique Lihn and Alejandra Costamagna. Which untranslated writer(s) or book(s) from Chile do you think most deserves to be published in other languages, for global readers to enjoy?
AZ: I could name fifty or even a hundred Chilean writers who I’d like to see translated into English and all the languages of this world and others. All the ones I mention in Not to Read, for a start, and many others I don’t mention in that book but still love. There are also many Chilean and Latin American writers who have been translated into French or German or Italian or all those languages and more, but have never appeared in English. I don’t really understand why. Maybe it’s just that in Italy or France or Germany there’s more interest in and curiosity about our literature than in the US or UK or Australia. Then again, my friends in New York are always lamenting the scarcity of literature in translation. In Spanish we’re lucky, because a lot is translated, and we can read writers from Europe and Asia and practically anywhere, but I know most of them aren’t available in English.
There are many of us in the UK who worry about that same scarcity of literature translated into English! But there’s still hope that the reading culture here might change. A number of new independent publishers have launched in recent years that are dedicating a large chunk of their catalogue to translated literature; publishers like Tilted Axis, Charco Press, And Other Stories, and of course Fitzcarraldo.
That’s great news! In Chile and Mexico too there’s been an enormous surge in independent publishing. It’s brilliant.
You talk about writing a novel as though you were composing the summary of a novel you had already written—that process of summarising and subtracting in order to create a ‘bonsai’ of a novel. Is that part of your process of essay writing too?
Sometimes, yes. Although, almost all the texts included in Not to Read were originally published in the press in Chile or Latin America. I liked writing to 3000 or 3500 characters. Having a predetermined, limited space to work with imposes a kind of meter—it’s like writing sonnets. And it’s a huge challenge, just like writing a good sonnet would be. I never think about the length of a piece of fiction, ever. But when I was writing literary journalism I had to hold myself to a specified length as well as a deadline. Those little essays were, in a number of ways, exactly the inverse of writing fiction. I love writing for the press, but I also like not doing it… I think it’s important to take breaks, sometimes very long ones…
Right, the boundaries imposed by journalism can be inspiring but at the same time constricting, I suppose. Part of what you discuss in the book is the pleasure of actively deciding, once you had given up literary journalism, not to read certain titles—and how that freed you up to explore other reading material. And perhaps, to explore other ways of writing, too?
Yes, although in my case I was also fundamentally uncomfortable being a literary critic in the traditional sense—that is, reviewing new national titles every week. I had to make judgements and the truth is that a lot of the time I wasn’t interested in the books I was asked to write about. It wasn’t even that I thought they were bad—they just didn’t interest me. Then I was obliged to have an opinion and, of course, after reading and re-reading, I’d come up with something. But it was too much of a chore. Extolling the pleasure of not reading is an indirect way of extolling the pleasure of reading something different. Besides, people love it when you write negative reviews. A negative review gets talked about a lot more than a positive one. There are always people saying ‘finally, someone with the guts to say it’, without even knowing whether what you’ve said is justified. If you criticise a book you’re immediately seen as brave, independent… While if you review something positively there’s always a suspicion that you’re friends with the author… And yet it’s much easier to review negatively than positively, not only because of the pleasure of writing a send-up, but also because it’s inherently easier to figure out why you don’t like something than why you do… I think attempts to explain why you like something are much braver, and that’s precisely the kind of publication Not to Read is trying to be. There could very easily have been an alternative Not to Read full of negative reviews—probably unjustifiably so, but amusing nonetheless.
The other thing is, as a critic, you have an audience, and the idea of an audience is very problematic. You’re obliged to stay abreast of what’s ‘trending’ and ‘new’. That whole thing about ‘coolhunters’—the tyranny of the new. As though there’s nothing worth reading from the past! I remember once, in Bogotá, I was asked why people should read my books. I said they didn’t have to! Or at least, I don’t see why they should. I do know that that I have to write them, but it’s very unclear to me why anyone would have to read them…
You’re the first of Fitzcarraldo’s authors to be published in both blue and white—on both their fiction and essay lists. But in Not to Read we find anecdotes, ideas, events that appear in your novels and short stories too. And elsewhere in your writing you shy away from genre designations—perhaps most obviously, though not exclusively, in Multiple Choice. In some senses this volume, despite being categorised as non-fiction, reads like a laboratory for your fiction. How do you understand Not to Read in generic or formal terms? In relation to your other forms of writing?
Yes, I love Fitzcarraldo. I admire their catalogue. Going back to the topic of translation, I just finished reading This Little Art by Kate Briggs, which is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
In Not to Read I think I developed for the first time sections of writing that would later appear properly in Ways of Going Home and My Documents and Multiple Choice. Often there would be ideas, images, phrases that would first appear in my non-fiction and later pass naturally into my novels or stories. Having said that, I don’t really feel like I actually wrote Not to Read. Not as a book, I mean. It wasn’t me who ‘envisioned’ it. This is a book envisioned by someone else: by an excellent editor, Andrés Braithwaite, and later, when it came to the English edition, by another excellent editor and translator, Megan McDowell. The last three texts in the English edition are from another book called Free Topic which in Spanish is coming out at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. Megan urged me to include them and I thought, yes, they make sense in that final section. I now see the essay more clearly as a form of ‘creative writing’.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about how Megan McDowell was involved in visualising this book’s English version; the two of you have a longstanding working relationship. What is it like to see your writing transformed by an experienced translator like Megan? And, a related question: you remark in your acknowledgements that this book ‘poses difficulties that are different and in some ways greater than the translation of other books of mine that Megan has done before’. Can you tell us what those difficulties were, and how you went about trying to overcome them?
It should be Megan answering the second part of that question, but basically it relates to what we’ve already talked about: many of the authors I quote—the vast majority of them Spanish-speaking but also some who write in other languages—haven’t been translated into English. And I quote a lot in this book. I always quote a lot. I love quoting because I love it when other people do it. I love choosing a phrase of someone’s and weighing up its power. I think there’s something quotable in every text. So Megan often had to translate not just me but also all the authors I quote.
About Megan, what can I say: at this point she is simply a great friend. I’m sure that if she wanted to she could write books much better than mine. She is, as you say, an experienced translator, but when she started translating me she’d only just started out, so in that sense we’ve made the journey together. She knows an awful lot about translation, but she is always willing to do things differently, to reconsider it all. She’s always curious, always on the look out. Working with her is a real privilege.
In an essay called ‘Novels, Forget it’, you remark that Chilean authors are writing as though the novel were ‘the long echo of a repressed poem’. That’s a wonderful description, and one that will strike a chord with many readers of your novels. How do you see the relationship between your own prose and poetry today? Has it changed over the years?
Thank you! My relationship with poetry has become quite private because although I keep writing it I haven’t published any for a very long time. Adam Thirlwell has just done a translation of my collection Mudanza, but I wrote that in 2003––fifteen years ago! I still write poetry but I haven’t considered publishing any of it. I haven’t written anything I like. Or maybe I have, but then I’ve ‘translated’ it into prose, which I prefer. I prefer the translation to the original… My sense is that there are very few things that are stable in creative work—everything is constantly changing.
You write a lot about your generation of writers in Chile—about learning to tell your own stories rather than those of your parents, who were adults during the dictatorship, learning not to think of yourselves as ‘secondary characters’, as you put it. And you are often described as the voice of a generation and characterised in relation to that generation. But do you ever think that there’s something limiting and problematic about dividing up writers by age in this way? What might it stop us from seeing?
Of course. Any idea or concept that doesn’t focus on the text itself is worthless. To deny the generational aspect of experience is absurd, because it’s the first ‘we’ of many possible ‘we’s, but if the idea of the generation is only used to classify writers and therefore to erase complexity from their work, then it’s useless. Although one amusing and enlivening thing about literary communities is that it doesn’t really matter how old or young you are. For me personally, as a reader, this doesn’t matter even remotely. Generations are constantly mixing, just like books are—literature prefers to be disorderly, no matter how many labels we try and impose on it.
The argument put forward in the final essay in this book, ‘Free Topic’ (a version of a lecture you gave at Diego Portales University in 2016), is that literature is always about belonging, whether that’s belonging to a nation, a literary community, a family or whatever else. What sense of belonging do you have in Mexico City, where you currently live? Do you feel differently about the literary community there in comparison to Chile, and what impact, if any, has that had on the way you write?
I ask myself the same questions. After the earthquake in September and the birth of our first child in December, I feel much less of a foreigner here. That’s not to say I feel more Mexican, and definitely not less Chilean, because my degree of ‘chilenidad’ is extremely high—that’s almost impossible to change… but I do feel less foreign. And also, the other thing is that I’ve lived outside of Chile before but this is the first time I don’t have a return ticket. I have no idea whether we’ll go back to Chile, or whether we stay many years longer in Mexico City. But now that we’re three, and for me this is crucial, I really like speaking in the plural. We decided to live here for a long list of reasons, none of which was literary or professional. I’ve been able to dedicate a lot of time to being a father, and that makes me very happy. I write three or four hours a day and have begun to finish the books I’ve been stuck on the last few years. Though I do miss teaching, which I spent fifteen years doing in Chile. I have friends here, that’s never been a problem—I’m almost pathologically sociable… But those friends don’t necessarily form part of a literary community. They’re just friends. Well, actually, now I think about it, some of them are writers, but we tend not to talk about literature.
Do you strive for that same high level of ‘chilenidad’ in your writing? In the book you discuss the way writers like Gabriela Mistral, Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn fought against the separation between spoken and written language and tried to find a particularly Chilean language of literature. Do you reach for that yourself in your writing?
Absolutely. I write in Chilean. I write with the same words I use every day. Each of us has our own ‘idiolect’ and writing is about finding that voice, which in my case is completely Chilean. I write and talk with the same words and with the same rhythm as a conversation.
You describe Chile as a country where books are incredibly expensive and library provisions are poor. Books have long been ‘luxury items’—‘the domain of collectors’. How does Mexico compare in that sense? Do you see things going in the same direction there? Or is Mexico a nation of readers in a way that Chile, you argue, is not?
Here books are comparatively cheaper and there are a lot of libraries, and in general there’s been a lot more concern about culture than there has in Chile. But remember that Mexico is a country that’s had decades of profound crisis. I fear I’m not really the right person to answer this kind of question. I don’t like comparing countries, it feels a bit absurd. Mexico is complex, warm, beautiful, and terrible and I could spend hours talking about why, but I’m more interested in observing and in trying to understand, although there are many things that seem to me not just painful but also incomprehensible.
Totally understandable. One final question: you talk a lot in Not to Read about the physicality of books—the necessity of travelling with certain volumes in your luggage, the particular joy of reading photocopied novels from your youth. And the impact of new technologies on writing and reading processes is something that’s particularly present in My Documents. How has your relationship to books changed in the age of digitisation?
I’ve changed in recent years. Before I moved to Mexico I left all the books I had in my house to a university library in Chile. Sometimes I miss them, for sure, but it seems like a good idea to change your library, to lose a little of oneself. And it’s also absurd to live surrounded by books, the vast majority of which you’ll never read again. I’ve become more selective, but also more ‘portable’.
Do you use an e-reader? I read Not to Read both in hard copy and on my Kindle and the experience was so different—you want to dip in and out of it because some of the pieces are so short, but it’s hard to do that with an e-reader.
It was a book not to read and you read it twice! I feel like I owe you so much of time… Yes, I love books, but sometimes you simply can’t get hold of them, and in those cases I use an e-reader. When reading in English or in Portuguese I actually prefer the e-reader—those touch-screen dictionaries are great. There’s no need to be ungrateful about technology. Touching an unknown word and immediately finding out its meaning is so much better than having to look it up in a dictionary… There are things that annoy me about the experience of reading on e-readers but also things that make me curious, like the ability to see phrases other people have highlighted. My impression is that the phrases most people highlight tend not to be the most poetic or beautiful but rather the clearest, the most declarative, the most explicatory. That’s sad.
Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean writer, poet, and critic. His first novel, Bonsai was awarded Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel. He is also the author of The Private Lives of Trees and Ways of Going Home, which won the Altazor Prize and the National Council Prize for Books, both for the best Chilean novel. My Documents, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2015 was shortlisted for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. His latest novel is Multiple Choice. His writing is regularly featured in publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House and McSweeney’s. In 2010 he was selected as one of the Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists by Granta. He currently lives in Mexico City. His new book of essays, Not to Read, translated by Megan McDowell, is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions; see here.
Ellen Jones has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and translates from Spanish into English. She is the recipient of a 2017 Writers Centre Norwich Emerging Translator Mentorship and a 2017 ALTA Travel Fellowship. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.
Jones’ translation of Mapocho—an excerpt from Nona Fernández’s 2003 novel of that name—appears in Hotel #4.