BooksWeekend

Testing Form: Novels by Alejandro Zambra and Matías Celedón

Solely in geographical terms, Chilean culture has issued forth from a matrix of constraint. The Argentine writer Ezequiel Martínez Estrada remarked that “Chile is perhaps the most poorly located and poorly shaped nation on the planet [Chile es quizá la nación constituída peor ubicada y estructurada del planeta].” The hyperbole notwithstanding, Martínez Estrada’s statement captures the curious sense of spatial and topographical restriction that impinges upon the world’s southernmost country. Tightly flanked as it is by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Andes Mountains on the east, Chile is, on average, only about 100 miles across.

There is a certain feeling of narrowness as well in Santiago, Chile’s densely populated capital city: the car lanes are narrow, as are the sidewalks, the parking spaces, the waiting rooms, the aisles in the pharmacy. This is to say nothing of the various ideological constraints that, as in any country, exert significant pressure on social life. In Chile’s case, the effects of the military dictatorship, Catholicism, bourgeois neoliberalism, machismo, and patriarchy all conspire to constrict possibilities of thought and action. Given such conditions, it is fitting that some of the most innovative Chilean fiction writers have recently embraced unique formal constraints as their compositional modi operandi. Moreover, using such constraints allows for a powerful critique of prevailing social institutions and attitudes — from the Chilean educational system to Chilean law and bureaucracy to the persistence of historical amnesia.

Alejandro Zambra’s Facsímil: Libro de ejercicios (Editorial Hueders, 2014) is a genre-defying collection of short stories, prose poems, and flash fictions, mimicking the form of the Verbal Aptitude Test [Prueba de Aptitud Verbal], a standardized multiple choice test — somewhat like the SAT — that was necessary for applying to college between 1967 and 2003. If Zambra’s book parodically takes on the formulaic structures of pedantic test-makers, Matías Celedón’s La filial (Alquimia Ediciones, 2012) springs forth from a rigorous mechanical limitation. Celedón painstakingly created the text of his spare and haunting novel with a Trodat Typomatic stamp set, a device that allows only six lines of 3mm and 4mm moveable type and 90 characters per impression. Luckily for Anglophone readers, English translations of these fascinating works have been published over the summer under the titles Multiple Choice (Penguin Books, 2016) and The Subsidiary (Melville House, 2016). As fiction goes, they’re slim books, but both are marvels of minimalism; their charged and compact language deserves multiple readings and sustained scrutiny. Furthermore, Multiple Choice and The Subsidiary nicely fit into Chile’s vibrant tradition of neo-vanguard poetry and have the flexibility to appeal to various audiences — from fans of Latin American narrative to supporters of formally adventurous poetry.

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Based on the 1993 Academic Aptitude Test, the same one Zambra himself had to take, Multiple Choice consists of 90 questions over five sections (complete with a fill-in-the-bubble answer sheet at the book’s end). The first part, “Excluded Term,” asks the reader to select the word “whose meaning has no relation” to the other five terms though the questions are, by Zambra’s design, rhetorical. Some read like punchy list poems while others employ techniques of repetition and variation:

18. PRAY

A) please
B) praise
C) prey
D) prays
E) pleas

In #18, the reader is presented with terms that have various associations and relations: while one prays, one can praise or make pleas or say please, etc. But excluding a term that doesn’t belong with the others on the grounds of meaning will inevitably disrupt the integrity of the homophonic pairings (pray/prey, please/pleas, praise/prays). To answer the question, one is forced to demote sound while privileging sense.

In this way, Multiple Choice registers the discursive constraints of an educational structure that, rather than actually educating, coerces one into unsatisfactory and unimaginative decisions. To succeed, one learns how to take tests without necessarily enriching one’s mind. This critique recurs throughout the book, such as in Part III, “Sentence Completion,” which calls for fill-in-the-blank exercises:

40. Students go _______________ university

__________ study, not __________ think.

A) to to to
B) to to to
C) to to to
D) to to to
E) to to to

Choice, here, as it often is throughout the book, is a trap or a rhetorical illusion. If going to university opens up options, as is widely supposed, it risks doing so through a ruthless process of over-regimentation. In one of the lengthier and more conventional short fictions — there are three such stories in “Reading Comprehension,” the final section of the book — a teacher named Mr. Segovia says to his former students, “They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over. You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry — you weren’t educated; you were trained.” Moreover, Multiple Choice may be a salutary questioning of what the university is supposed to achieve at a time when student protestors demanding more widespread access to higher education continue to rally across Chile.

If the questions in part I, such as #18, seem to present no obvious answer, the questions in Part II, “Sentence Order,” by contrast, appear to offer answers that are all viable. “Sentence Order” consists of combinatorial, second-person flash fictions presented in five discrete fragments. Perhaps in a nod to Julio Cortázar’s proto-hypertext novel Hopscotch [Rayuela] (1963), the reader is given the liberty to choose the answer that puts the numbered sections in “the best possible order to form a coherent text”:

31. Relatives
1. You group them into two lists: the ones you love and the ones you don’t.
2. You group them into two lists: the ones who shouldn’t be alive and the ones who shouldn’t be dead.
3. You group them according to the degree of trust they inspired in you as a child.
4. For a moment you think you discover something important, something that has been hanging over you for years.
5. You group them into two lists: the living and the dead.

A) 1 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 2
B) 5 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 4
C) 1 – 3 – 5 – 2 – 4
D) 3 – 4 – 5 – 2 – 1
E) 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

All choices, A-E, represent different narratives, different coherencies; to consider them in tandem entails reflection on the sense of an ending, the poetics of composition, and the intricacies of interpretation. The rigid testing apparatus, in Zambra’s nimble hands, becomes an illuminating metafictional frame.

Grouping and selecting, choosing whom to exclude from the list of the loved and the living: the content of Multiple Choice often mirrors the very operations required by the test. “Everyone gets erased — life consists of meeting people whom first you love and then you erase,” says the speaker of one of the longer “Reading Comprehension” stories. To erase and omit is exactly what the test taker is asked to do; and, in juxtaposing personally and politically motivated erasures, from the renunciation of family members to the “forcibly disappeared” (los desaparecidos) of the dictatorship era, Multiple Choice suggests that there is an ethics to any act of elimination. Indeed, in the section “Sentence Elimination” (which is one of the strongest of the book), Zambra gives us a story in the voice of Manuel Contreras, the son of human rights violator General Manuel Contreras. Manuel, the son, struggles to eliminate the stigmatic patrimony of his father, the notorious eliminator who was sentenced to over 500 years in prison for his crimes as the director of Chile’s secret police DINA [Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional]. Though he concedes that “the children of murderers cannot kill the father,” he resolves to at least nominally break from his familial burden: “When my father dies, then I can have a life and a son. He’ll be Manuel Contreras’s son. But I won’t name him Manuel. I don’t want to be Manuel Contreras’s father too.”

For many of Zambra’s speakers, history is a nightmare from which they are trying to wake: “You try to go from the general to the specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.” This is to say that the traumatic history of the military regime short-circuits any attempt at a normative expository sequence (general to specific). The figure of Pinochet casts a long shadow over the book, which is set in the early 1990s, just years after the dictatorship ended. One of Pinochet’s unapologetic quotes even makes a cameo in the fill-in-the-blank section:

38. I often used to lie, _________________ I wore dark glasses.

A) but
B) although
C) and so
D) but even so
E) but only when

Words of wisdom, as Zambra might say, “for a world where everyone fucks everyone over.” Ultimately, Multiple Choice is a clever, skillfully crafted, and entertaining collection while also being a stern meditation on familial and historical inheritance. It is a darkly sardonic statement of societal dis-ease and discontent. “Chile,” says another one of Zambra’s characters, “is one giant waiting room, and we will all die waiting for our number to be called.”

Megan McDowell’s translation of Zambra is a bold and energetic one. She has a certain flair for transforming culturally specific references to suit Anglophone contexts while still adhering to the animating spirit of the original. For example, she creatively turns an allusion to Enrique Lihn’s “Monólogo del padre con su hijo de meses” into Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.” In “Excluded Term,” the most freely translated section in the volume — it’s more of a Lowellian “imitation” than a translation — many of McDowell’s riskier, more playful decisions pay off. #18, for example, which deftly draws on the sonic resources of the English language, is completely of McDowell’s invention, an apt tribute to Zambra’s own inventiveness.

But, as in all acts of translations, there are tradeoffs, losses as well as gains. The English version of “Excluded Term” omits references to the military junta and loses some of the historical darkness of the Spanish version. And the first two questions in the original—1. FACSÍMIL // A) copia B) imitación C) simulacro D) ensayo E) trampa and 2. RÉPLICA // A) calco B) duplicado C) fotocopia D) temblor E) súplica—have been swapped out for “1. Multiple” and “2. Choice,” which somewhat deemphasizes the central critique of carbon copy education and docile cultural reproduction. On the other hand, the fact that Multiple Choice is decidedly not a replica of Facsímil is certainly in line with Zambra’s rebellious, non-conformist vision.

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If Zambra’s book seems to bear a family resemblance to the ludic and unconventional structures of New York School and Language poetry, from John Ashbery’s “One Hundred Multiple-Choice Questions” (1970) to Charles Bernstein’s “Questionnaire” (2007), so too does it have precedents within the Chilean poetic tradition. The absurd and, at times, ridiculous problems of Multiple Choice are reminiscent of Juan Luis Martínez’s (1942-1993) groundbreaking The New Novel [La nueva novela] (1985), which includes, in mock pedagogical fashion, classroom exercises of mathematics and logic such as “Measure in tenths of a second the time required to pronounce the word ‘eternity’” and “Given that you present me with a little card file, telling me that it’s empty, and if I suddenly encounter a huge crocodile when I open it, who has lied: you or me? Guess what I’m trying to say.”

Celedón’s The Subsidiary also has notable antecedents within Chilean experimentalism, specifically Guillermo Deisler’s (1940-1995) Stamp Book (1992), a handmade artist book that was rereleased in a beautiful facsimile edition by Grafito Ediciones in 2015. As with La filial, Stamp Book archives on each page impressions of various stamps, productively blurring the boundaries between text and image, writing and printmaking.

Extract from Guillermo Deisler’s “Stamp Book (2015 reprint), Grafito Ediciones

Once can say that Multiple Choice and The Subsidiary narrativize some of the provocative neo-conceptual methods proposed by Martínez and Deisler. While literary fiction will most likely always be more popular and enjoy more exposure than experimental poetry — Martínez has been called “the best-kept secret of Chilean poetry” while Zambra has been dubbed “Latin America’s new literary star” — both Multiple Choice and The Subsidiary, consciously or not, propel an important pair of Chilean vanguard poets, who died well before their time (Martínez and Deisler died of renal failure and cancer respectively) into an interesting, twenty-first-century afterlife.

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Celedón’s The Subsidiary, translated by Samuel Rutter and beautifully designed by Marina Drukman, is a dystopian, Kafkaesque allegory made legible through a sequence of terse and scattered fragments. Within the narrative’s diegesis, a power outage is abruptly and mysteriously announced at an undisclosed location — it could be a company office or some institutional facility. After the lights go out, the phone lines are cut and the building goes on lockdown. The protagonist, one of the subsidiary’s employees, decides to use his desk stamp to bear witness to the unnerving and chaotic events that follow. There is, as he says, enough light in the office so that he can “make a record”:

Extract from Matías Celedón’s “The Subsidiary” (2015), Melville House

The narrative of The Subsidiary supposedly comes from this employee’s ledger, which, according to an explanatory note at the end of the book, was found at his workstation. Conveying a compelling tale with only a few impressions per page (the images above and below are typical of the amount of text on each verso or recto), The Subsidiary is a brilliant performance of literary minimalism. It is also a visually-striking and shrewdly designed book-object, an example of what Brian McHale has called — after the term concrete poetry — “concrete prose.”

Just as Multiple Choice replicates the dry documentality of the standardized test, The Subsidiary presents a bureaucratic mise-en-page:

Extract from Matías Celedón’s “The Subsidiary” (2015), Melville House

Each impression captures both the cold authority of the institution — its power to cancel, register, or approve — and the precarity of the protagonist’s makeshift effort to appropriate a small bit of the bureaucratic apparatus in the service of testimony. The accumulation of such impressions surely contributes to what Tal Pinto, in a blurb for the Spanish edition of La filial, calls the “overwhelming oppression” of the book’s calculated mise-en-scène [“La mise en scène es, a mi juicio, perfecta. El efecto de opresión: abrumador”].

Throughout The Subsidiary Celedón progressively tightens the screws and ratchets up the threat of persecution and violence. Two days after the power outage, dogs are set loose to hunt and terrorize the subsidiary’s employees. The protagonist sees an announcement that “the outage will be extended indefinitely.” Some of the employees barricade themselves in a bathroom. There is, throughout the narrative, a taut, inescapable atmosphere of menace, not unlike that of a film by Pablo Larraín (think Tony Manero or Post Mortem).

the-subsidiary
(click to enlarge)

The Subsidiary is essentially about subjection and heteronomy, about being at the whim of arbitrary authority. “All personnel shall comply until further notice,” as one of the announcements says. A “subsidiary” is, after all, a “body or organization, which is controlled by another.” In addition, the book trades on an extended conceptual pun on the word “power” — as in, according to the OED, a “supply of energy, esp. a public supply of electricity” as well as “control or authority over others.” Such power is made even more insidious by the fact that the employees of the subsidiary are all disabled: there’s a blind girl, a deaf girl, a man with one arm, a cripple, a mute, a man missing an eye. The narrator himself is color-blind. Celedón seems to draw on such characters not in order to aestheticize disability (in the way, for instance, Alejandro Jodorowsky elevates the beauty of deformity over what he calls the monstrousness of normality) but to emphasize the vulnerability of their bodily constraints in the face of absolute duress. At times, the two notions of power — “control” and “electricity” — converge in frightening ways; the narrator recounts, in a curious analeptic memory, undergoing electro-shock therapy, subtly echoing the dreaded electrocution torture (la parrilla) used by DINA.

By the book’s end, there are clear casualties. The blind girl is dead. “The hallways [are] stained with blood.” Equally upsetting is the matter-of-fact denouement after power is finally restored: “Routine — Years go by — persist. The personnel indifferent at their respective workstations.” The order of the cubicled space goes on without any discussion or interrogation of the past atrocity. Given this ending, it is hard not to read The Subsidiary as an indictment of the culture of silence surrounding the dictatorship, of post-fascist disavowal and apathy. In 1995, Pinochet proclaimed, “It is best to remain silent and to forget. It is the only thing to do.” The last of Zambra’s “Excluded Term” problems — it reads as a kind of compressed concrete poem (a politicized rendition of Eugen Gomringer’s 1954 classic “Silencio”) — bluntly captures this compulsion to silence:

24. SILENCE

A) silence
B) silence
C) silence
D) silence
E) silence

Silence, as Pinochet would have it, is quite literally the only option here. In a blurb for The Subsidiary, Zambra calls Celedón’s book “powerful, beautiful, and haunting…both timeless and painfully, undeniably contemporary.” Perhaps the pain inheres in the very timelessness of the haunting, its powerful persistence even after years have gone by.

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (2016) is published by Penguin Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary (2016) is published by Melville House and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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