Literature as Religion: Alejandro Zambra’s ‘My Documents’

mydocumentsA few weeks ago, I changed a setting on my notation app. It now allows me to save all of my notes to a journal file, a long scroll of text that records each stray thought I enter into any device. This master file, I’ve been thinking lately, has become the document of my life, my soul, if you will. It’s a shitty version of a soul to have, but, along with what I write here and elsewhere, it’s also the best approximation of my self. And at least I can track and change it voluntarily.

“My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter,” Alejandro Zambra writes in My Documents, “I was a blank page, and now I am a book.”

The narrator’s now-absent parents — or Zambra’s, it’s impossible (and useless) to distinguish — are artifacts that can produce a book. Zambra is himself the book that he writes. My Documents, a collection of stories that combines fiction and autobiography, is a version of Zambra, his soul. I’ll say it again: the oeuvre is now the soul.

The ever-growing feeling that our selves are now trapped or dissolved a stream of text and images, things produced by us or someone else, is so pervasive that art and fiction have been responding in kind. The feeling that we’re constantly being documented or recorded, too, permeates contemporary fiction. Given that art often finds new ways of circumventing, or caving into, automation — etymologically speaking: self-guided action — it’s not a surprise that we’ve come upon a new era of autofiction, which is nothing but a new way of taking control of the self.

One part of taking control of the self is possessing one’s own memory, and so much of Zambra’s book is devoted to first-person stories that recollect episodes from his life. Only, what we too often forget: the further a writer presses into memories of the past, the more likely he is to invent, to create fictions. The write can become guided, as Zambra writes, by the “scent of memory”:

“Stories are boring. Poetry is madness, poetry is savage, poetry is a torrent of extreme emotions,” he said, or something like that. It’s difficult not to start inventing, not to let myself be carried along on the scent of memory. He definitely used the words madness, savage, and emotions. Torrent, maybe not. I think extreme, yes.

Since his first novel, a strange little artifact called Bonsai, called for “the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in [Chile’s] letters,” Zambra’s work has proven itself the neatest, and at times most elegant, example of the autofictional impulse in international fiction. In My Documents, this inclination is snipped and refined, like the author’s famous bonsai tree of the self. But this impulse or inclination means that the author must notify you of his snipping and refining:

It’s nighttime, it’s always nighttime when the text comes to an end. I re-read, rephrase sentences, specify names. I try to remember better: more, and better. I cut and paste, change and enlarge the font, play with line spacing. I think about closing this file and leaving it forever in the My Documents folder. I’m going to publish it, I want to, even though it’s not finished, even though it’s impossible to finish it.

The cultivation of the oeuvre, of the author’s soul, in the example of Zambra’s My Documents — which is also his best book — results in a collection of eleven stories, or documents, spread over four parts. It all begins with a kind of ars poetica, a document called “My Documents” that outlines the life of his family during the Pinochet years in Chile. The story is one the purest and most innocent examples of the new autofictional impulse I’ve seen, primarily because it gets shorter and more clipped as it comes to an end: the easier it is to remember something, the less time and space you need to remember it.

Remembering, for Zambra, is always about dealing with Pinochet, and one begins to wonder if his quiet mania for drawing elegant ellipses in his life has to do with circling in and out of the pain of those years. In “Camilo,” the collection’s second story, the narrator becomes close friends with his godfather, a crazy teenager named Camilo whose own father is exiled in Europe. It’s a poignant example of a Zambra tale wherein politics proper is knowingly traded for the politics of culture or sport, as when the men routinely fight about Chilean football. The takeaway, for better or worse, is that Zambra often seems like a non-writer’s writer: his existence is predicated on a basically middle class lifestyle that precludes many writerly travails. He’s very accessible, in other words.

Not all of the stories are told in the first-person, but when they aren’t, they typically feature clever plays on the true/false or memoir/fiction dynamic. In “True or False,” a young child of divorce named Lucas echoes the sentiments of many readers by playing a game with language. His mother’s house becomes his “true house,” his deadbeat father’s home becomes his “false house.” And the collection’s final story, “Artist’s Rendition,” is a poignant metafictional noir that could easily feature in worldwide anthologies.

But My Documents is at its best in the first-person, when it thrives on literature as religion. “I never had, in any case, those rational meditations on the existence of God,” the narrator writes in “My Documents,” “maybe because that was when I started to believe, naively, intensely, absolutely, in literature.”

The best expression of this impulse is the excellent “I Smoked Very Well,” which is one of the greatest stories ever told about smoking cigarettes (outside of Italo Svevo). Any part of it is worth excerpting:

I am a person who doesn’t smoke due to the invasive effect of a chemical that ruined his spirit and his life. I am a person who now doesn’t even know if he’s going to go on writing, because he wrote in order to smoke and now he doesn’t smoke; he read in order to smoke and now he doesn’t smoke. I am a person who no longer creates anything. Who just writes down what happens, as if it would interest someone to know that I’m sleepy, that I’m drunk, that I hate Rafa Araneda with all my soul.

If this reads like a stream or rant, it’s meant to. But it’s no more disorienting than reading a Facebook or Twitter stream. (It’s much better, in fact.) Think of it this way: if Zambra really has traded in religion for literature, if My Documents is the book of his life — his soul — than the reader has become the new St. Peter. How’s that for taking control?