Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean writer, poet, and critic. He currently teaches literature at the Diego Portales University in Santiago. His first novel, Bonsai, _was awarded Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel. In addition to Bonsai, two other books of his have been translated into English — Ways of Going Home and The Private Lives of Trees. Zambra has also published two poetry collections, Bahía inútil and Mudanza, _and a book of essays called No leer_. He was selected in 2010 as one of the Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists by Granta.
McSWEENEY’S: So how did you approach the idea of writing a crime story? Did you start with a character, or a particular situation, or something else? Did you think about it differently than you would another sort of story?
ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA: Actually, when you asked me for a crime story, I was already writing “Artist’s Rendition,” the story that ended up in the issue—it’s also the final piece in my new book, My Documents. It is not properly a crime story—in a way, it’s more of a sad and satirical story about “professional writing,” about how writers deal with memory. The original title in Spanish is “Hacer memoria,” a beautiful but untranslatable expression that has to do with trying to remember something. Most of all, though, “Artist’s Rendition” is about people fighting, silently and anonymously, against everyday violence.
McSWEENEY’S: We asked you for a story set in Chile. How much did you think about that, as you were working on this? Do you think a story like this can tell us something about a particular place, or a particular country?
ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA: Well, most of my texts take place in Santiago de Chile. I’m interested in exploring the streets and people I see every day. I care about the world more broadly, but I am most interested in the way in which the world is reflected in this particular place.
I also wanted this story to play with the expectations that foreign readers sometimes have. I’ve noticed that many of them think of Latin American literature as some kind of uniform genre—once an American reader told me that he liked my novels, but he didn’t think they sounded like Latin American literature. I thought that was very funny.
McSWEENEY’S: Is there a Chilean author, or a particular Chilean book, or even a movie or a TV show, that you think takes on the crime genre particularly well?
ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA: Many. Some of the novels by Ramón Díaz Eterovic come to mind, as does a TV series, Los archivos del cardenal, which is about crimes committed during the Pinochet dictatorship. It’s in its second season now.
McSWEENEY’S: One of the things you touch on in your story is the idea that certain types of stories can’t be written anymore, or can’t be written in the same way—readers react to certain details differently, now. Can you talk about how that influenced your approach, here?
ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA: Yes, I think about that a lot, although I don’t know if I have a theory. I always try to discover the things that are best conveyed through the medium of prose—as opposed to through film, for example. And that is a search that is constantly evolving.
McSWEENEY’S: Why are there so many more poets in Chile than novelists? I once met a Chilean poet who had a very complicated answer for this, which had something to do with the geography of the country, how narrow it is. What’s your opinion?
ALEJANDRO ZAMBRA: Chile is full of poets, this is true. Novelists here are lonely people. A Chilean poet named Eduardo Molina once said that "novels are the poetry of fools.” We have such a strong poetry tradition, and “we” won two Nobel Prizes because of it. Poetry is the only sport in which we’ve ever won any kind of a World Cup.
I think it has something to do with our way of approaching language. We swallow lots of sounds—we prefer to make detours and speak softly. We don’t know how to give orders, we never want to sound imperative. So we tend to use metaphors and elliptical forms. Maybe we just don’t like being fully understood… Or maybe we always want to say too many things at the same time. I’ve always thought of J. Alfred Prufrock, that Eliot character, as a Chilean.