It’s like fiction within fiction. I usually don’t like it when authors make their professional woes their writing material – it looks like an easy way out, not looking for a theme to explore other than oneself. But Zambra’s novel is a very clever one, in that reading it felt like looking at an optical illusion where you can’t figure out where one surface ends and where the other one begins.
This is what the blurb says: “A young boy plays hide-and-seek in the suburbs of Santiago, unaware that his neighbors are becoming entangled in the brutality of Pinochet’s regime. Then, one night, a mysterious girl appears in his neighborhood and makes a life-changing request.”
Well it’s much more than that.
Because the protagonist was an author, I identified the narrator with the author and had this urge to look up his picture on the internet. While looking for him, I came across this review that describes his previous novel Bonsai as a “bloodletting” in Chilean literature. That’s a very interesting way of praising a novel, and this was the first piece of Chilean fiction I read.
The translation was enjoyable. There were certain phrases and sentences where I felt the translator was flaunting her creative abilities – like
“Or maybe it’s just that I like working on the book. That I prefer writing to having written. I’d rather stay there, inhabit the time of the book, cohabit with those years, chase the distant images at length and then carefully go over them again” (39)
“I was expecting a meeting heavy with silences, a series of disconnected phrases that later on, like when I was a child, I would have to put together and decipher” (80)
– but I think this sort of appreciation is mostly based on my conception of what would be difficult to translate from my mother tongue into English. It’s likely that other phrases from the book actually proved tough for Megan McDowell to translate from Spanish into English. I think I tend to underestimate translation between languages from the same language family (a way of venting my frustration about Turkish-English translation perhaps) but I’m sure she had to perform more than a few contortions to reach that level of flowing translucence. Speaking of translucence, the translation gave me glimpses of in what contexts Chileans use the f-word 🙂 Jokes aside, there were poems in the book, they must have been challenging.
The plot is simple but in an interesting way of course, it reminded me of Out Stealing Horses, which was also based on childhood memories told by an adult but from the narrative perspective of a child. As a child, you can’t figure out what’s going on in the turbulent world of politics, you have a whole different set of concerns. Only when you grow up you start bringing together the pieces to grasp the seriousness of the situation – that’s what makes these two books engaging. I found the female protagonist Claudia whimsical, like she’s been trying too hard to be sassy. But I like what she says about guilt, and her older sister’s fantasies about virtue, on pages 90-91 – I’m not going to give spoilers. I also found the airport scene touchy (96-97). The narrator is a nice guy, but towards the end I observed him to be inclined to overthinking, a habit that I indulge myself often. I found the dialogue with the doctor interesting (56-57).
Another bit I like from the book:
“Now I think the best thing I’ve done in recent years has been to drink a lot of beer and reread certain books with dedication, with an odd fidelity, as if something of my own beat within them, some clue to my destiny. Apart from that, to read morosely, stretched out in bed for long hours and doing nothing to soothe my burning eyes – it’s the perfect pretext for waiting for night to fall” (41).
I wish I had such time! The protagonist teaches at a university, but in a novel, an academic doesn’t get to do a lot of grunt work I guess.