What Went Missing: My Documents by Alejandro Zambra
Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra was a boy during most of Pinochet’s dictatorship — a 17-year reign during which thousands of suspected leftists were tortured and killed, and thousands more were “disappeared.” In Zambra’s 2011 novel, Ways of Going Home, a young woman remembers attending a comedy show at the National Stadium, one of Pinochet’s makeshift prisons during his 1973 coup:
“Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in… Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.”
The stories in My Documents, Zambra’s first short story collection, tend to be haunted by the destruction of Pinochet’s regime, by friends and relatives who were silent, complicit, went missing, or left. In the story “Camilo”, for example, the title character’s father has been living in exile in Europe for most of the young man’s life. Midway through the story, Camilo announces to the nine-year-old narrator that he’s going to go to France to see his dad. He visibly buzzes with excitement.
The story then vaults ahead 22 years — jumping over the night in ’94 when Camilo was hit by a car and killed — and the narrator runs into Camilo’s dad in Amsterdam. They sit down together to watch a soccer match in a restaurant. The narrator asks about Camilo’s last visit. He listens to how the complicated resentment over the dad’s exile boiled over. Camilo’s father says, “He said horrible things to me. I said horrible things to him. And it became a contest, a competition of who could say the most horrible things. And I ended up feeling that he had won. He ended up feeling that I had won.”
Zambra’s stories are disarmingly casual in their delivery. Similar to Chilean predecessor Roberto Bolaño, Zambra has enormous skill for conveying lush emotional landscapes with stripped and distant language. Zambra’s characters tend to be sensitive, brooding, and sharp witnesses, and they navigate the interior landscapes of their situations in ways that are fluid and impressionistic. As Camilo — stretched out by the pool in “full-on photosynthesis” — says to his young friend, “The important thing is to express your feelings, to show yourself as a passionate, interesting man, maybe a bit fragile, someone who isn’t afraid of anything, someone who accepts his feminine side.”
My Documents consists of stories that hit the sweet spot between meandering and meticulous. In many stories, Zambra delays and complicates the slow-building tension — past opportunities for traditional endings — to arrive in uncharted territory. In “Family Life”, for example, the protagonist, Martin, takes on an extended housesitting gig at his cousin’s place in the country. Martin soon loses the family’s cat, and he has a shared lost-pet interaction with Paz, a neighborhood single mom. He slips into a long-con relationship with Paz — encouraging her to believe that his cousin’s house is his house, and that the pictures on the fridge are of his daughter, and his wife who left him.
Martin’s sadistically compelled to keep doing what he’s doing, yet he also hates that he’s doing it. “There are hours, maybe entire days, when Martin forgets who he really is,” Zambra writes, “He forgets he is pretending, that he’s lying, that he’s guilty. On two occasions, however, he almost lets the truth slip out. But the truth is long. Telling the truth would require many words. And there are only two weeks left. No! One week.” Martin soon stops answering Paz’s calls and a few days later she shows up on the doorstep of the house. “What do you want?” the cousin’s wife answers the door. Paz looks at this woman — the one from the photographs — with understanding and sadness. “Nothing,” Paz says, and the door swings shut.
Zambra’s protagonists are lost and faulted men, sometimes even thieves and philanderers. One of them seduces a student in his college class. One of them surprises his ex-girlfriend by showing up in her town, in Leuven, Belgium, with no forewarning. In “I Smoked Very Well”, the narrator struggles with quitting his cigarette-habit. “Another relapse,” he says in one vignette. “The details aren’t important. I was desperate and smoking didn’t solve the problem (because the problem doesn’t have a solution).” The characters in My Documents are terrible at finding solutions, even when they do exist. Instead they tend to wander off to unexpected places in terms of their thoughts and decisions. In that manner they’re incredibly familiar, and it feels comfortable to keep them company, to sit with them as they think and speak. As Zambra says in the final story of the collection, “…this was the way people get to know each other, by telling each other things that aren’t relevant. By letting words fly happily, irresponsibly, until they reach dangerous territories.”
Zambra’s stories are reflective and indolent, brash and quiet. In “National Institute”, our narrator describes one of his teachers as a “total son of a bitch” and the other as “a real motherfucker.” He says of them both: “They were cruel and mediocre. Frustrated and stupid people.” Yet when a dangerous gag against Pinochet is scribbled across the board during gym-class, we see the manner in which every character is involved with the perilous political situation in Chile, every brute subservient to another brute.
Late in the story, the narrator risks serious trouble, risks his future, when he tells a beast of a teacher to shut up. The teacher reprimands him with the same words over and over again, telling the narrator that he’s not going to expel him, he’s not going to keep him from graduating, but he’s going to tell him something that he will never forget in his entire life. He repeats these words three times.
“I don’t remember what he told me,” says the narrator. “I forgot it immediately. I sincerely don’t know what Musa told me then. I remember that I looked him in the face, bravely or indolently, but I didn’t retain a single one of his words.” Everything in this book is political — even trying to forget.