Literary Hub

Can the Establishment Embrace its Critics?

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Alejandro Zambra, author of Not to Read and Preti Taneja, author of We That Are Young.


Preti Taneja: Reading you I had this sensation, I’d almost call it relief. The feeling you get when a book offers answers to the questions you hadn’t even admitted to yourself you were asking. Not to Read expresses doubt in the status quo of critical culture by being open, generous, erudite, funny and most of all, intertextual about books, writing and writers. You are a poet, novelist, essayist, and you worked as a book critic on a Chilean newspaper before you left that world in order to read differently, and write differently about books in the essays collected here. So—tell me about the joy of saying “no” to things. How does it feel to do that?

Alejandro Zambra: You feel very free. I am usually more the kind of person who seeks and who looks for things. At first this “Not to Read” saying was a kind of joke. But I think books say no to many things in order to exist. Books wouldn’t exist—if you just followed the patterns of the system and of society you wouldn’t write at all, because writing implies isolation. At the same time, the subject of all books is belonging. All books. Even though they don’t seem to be about that—for example, if you say “no,” then you belong to a group of people that says “no.” I think every book ever written can be read following that pattern of belonging: to a couple, to a country, belong to a continent, to a rock band or the church; there’s always the tension of wanting to belong, or not wanting to belong. I like that way of reading. People always say oh—your novel is about love, your novel is about death—but the only certain thing is that your novel is about belonging—I don’t have to read it to know that, because it’s what we talk about the whole time.

PT: True. But when we critique the system, as both of us do in our writing—should we expect the system to embrace our work?

AZ: Yes—because this is the way you move things forward. For me, criticism goes after self-criticism: I think that is really important. You have to look deep into yourself to find what bothers you from the outside, and to find what of it is inside of you as well. I think this is particularly important today because we are surrounded by a perpetual mis-en-scene of opinions and thoughts, and existing seems to mean having this or that opinion, and that defines you in a very literal way, all the time.

PT: There almost isn’t space to be a reader—to find the silence that it takes to be a reader.

AZ: Yes—and silence is an option and a choice here—the boundaries between being silent and being silenced are of course really different things. Reading is the good silence.

PT: That’s very evocative.

AZ: I always liked that about reading. But also the ways of sharing your readings with other people—the communities around that. I love those little communities of two, and two of your friends, and there is something powerful going on there—even though we are talking about a few people: a group, and a group and a group—you realize that there are many people that are discussing books and that flows in an unexpected way.

PT: Reading your book feels exactly like that. When a friend recommends something because they have to, because they love it. So was it a chance to get away from review culture, to search for that literary community, that lead to this book?

AZ: Yeah, when I was reviewing the “Book of the Week,” which was before these pieces, there was a moment when I realized I was getting into having power; I started liking it. In Chile the press is tiny, a couple of newspapers and that’s it. I had a position there as a critic, as an “authority,” but I kind of suffered it. There was something I did like about that feeling of power but I didn’t like liking it. So by the time I left, I felt I could easily become the enemy.

PT: (Laughs.)

AZ: I hated being “the” critic—you know? Same thing happened to me as a teacher. When I teach I always have this criteria. I love teaching, but I’m always aware of the danger of becoming the enemy. It’s so easy to become the teacher you hated as a kid, so I don’t want that. I mean I like literary criticism, and I tried to do the best job I was capable of but it still was this . . . finger up /finger down thing.

PT: But if you have that power and everyone follows you in that power, who is going to say “no” to that?

AZ: I didn’t refuse power itself. It was the way you were supposed to impersonate it. Like, that one voice, that one opinion that makes a book. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like writing about bad books. That was something I was able to do and I admit there was some pleasure in that. But at the same time it’s so easy to say why you dislike things. And it’s so hard to really say why you do like things. After I left, I kept being a literary critic, I kept talking about books that had just been published, but I was able to choose the books I talked about and take some liberties.

PT: When you make that decision to say “no” to certain kinds of reading you get to spend time writing about other radical thinkers; the ones who bring their own sense of anarchy to the page. For example the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. I was very moved to find that when you were 30 you worked closely with him on his translation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. That description of what he felt about the work—that it has to be recognisably Shakespeare but also recognisably his—exactly resonated with me.

AZ:  He was a genius; his translation of King Lear is really good.

PT: I want to read that, not just because I think of We That Are Young as a translation of form and content of King Lear as a novel set in India. It’s written in English but places different languages side-by-side to that. People say that I must have been brave or crazy to attempt it, but there you were, working as an editor of your hero, Parra, and he was doing a literary translation of Lear. It must have been even more brave or crazy of you!

AZ: At the same time it was a dream come true because Parra was one of the first poets I ever read, and it was so different and funny, and I didn’t know whether I liked it or not. Because his poetry is playful, and at the same time it is skeptical; very skeptical. Later I was lucky enough to work with him. The translation was already done—he was 90, or 89, or something—

PT: So he was a “Lear” age.

AZ: Yes and when we were going through it, I saw this 90-year-old guy who had won all the prizes: how he still looked at the verse, and tried to make it better for hours, that was a big lesson for me.

PT: You write that in translating Lear he felt his “literary destiny hung in the balance.” For me—probably because I was writing without the pressure of a reputation, it was as if the language itself was asking to be turned inside out; for me to say something. About women, about the underdogs, the structure of society and the people who have the least in the social world.

AZ: How did you come to that idea?

PT: Because of the times we are in. The play starts off with the division of a kingdom and ends with a civil war. It’s a social tragedy, an indictment of patriarchal tyranny. I’m Indian origin, born in the UK. It was a Partition story to me.

AZ: But when was the moment when you said: “I will write this book”?

PT: I was always a reader—it was a natural progression from reading, reading, reading and never quite finding the right book. The one that would say every thing I wanted it to say in all the ways I thought story telling could work. It was definitely about writing what I wanted to read. You talk about this—that we write the book we want to read.

AZ: Yes, the book you need to exist.

PT: So for a long time I had that idea of a book. And then I realized that Lear was exactly the right way for a person who comes from these two worlds, the UK and India to write fiction against real time events in a new way; about that colonial relationship, its nature and results. It was really about that imperative. Did you find that with Parra? And where were you, as editor in that process?

“When you make that decision to say “no” to certain kinds of reading you get to spend time writing about other radical thinkers; the ones who bring their own sense of anarchy to the page.”

AZ: It’s not that you love Shakespeare. It’s that you relate to some of his plays. Hamlet I read many times as a student, and also King Lear and Macbeth.  So I was familiar with this idea of a play that represents tensions. That to me is what Shakespeare is about—he represents tensions so well, and different layers of language and different tensions related to the language. I really like that it’s a work that’s talking to everyone and yet it’s impossible to solve in just one way. Interpreting it is really necessary, but at the same time you know that you are interpreting it. You know you are making one of many choices.

And that experience related to Nicanor Parra. It’s hard to describe a translation because we can hear the original in our heads. And we don’t think it can be improved. But Parra smartly and in a very deep way wanted to use Shakespeare to talk about nowadays and to focus on Spanish language, but from one of its margins as Chilean Spanish. So this was done with a consciousness of the center and its margins. At the same time, the idea of being solemn, and being vulgar and talking in a very elevated way, or from the lowest level came into that.

PT: I found his advice to young poets (trans. Miller Williams) on a popular poetry site:

Write as you will, in whatever style you like.
Too much blood has gone under the bridge
To go on believing that only one road is right.

In poetry everything is permitted.

With only this condition of course
You have to improve the blank page.

It’s liberating. As writers we can remake form, and take traditions and make them our own in new ways. Find new ways to translate, read, and write about it.

AZ: Yes! What I like about writing is that you can change your mind, and change your plans the whole time, and you have an idea and say I am going to write this—and a few minutes later you are talking about something you hardly know. And you discover what you had inside, and you wanted to talk about something you didn’t know you wanted to talk about it. Then from time to time you get this connection with readers; readers that you didn’t know. And that’s beautiful.

PT: We were both born in the 1970s: you in Chile under Pinochet and me, in Britain under Margaret Thatcher.  The correlations between them; their economic neoliberal policies, Thatcher’s endorsement of Pinochet (even while he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Chileans) and his aid to her in the Falklands War, are forgotten now. In your work I search for how that reality impacted on you, that connection. I want to understand it: even more so because our growing up happened simultaneously.

AZ: My experience as part of a generation that grew up during Pinochet was complicated. We were told we didn’t live the experience—we were growing up in this shitty silenced world with the idea that we were not the protagonists—we were the secondary characters of history—and our parents had the whole experience, and we were not able to tell our own stories and they were not as important to tell as other people’s stories. And when we focussed on literature, we were told that we didn’t have the experience of reading because we were young and hadn’t read enough. But eventually you understand that you are always telling your own story, even though you don’t want to tell your story, you finish telling it. My sense of the dialogue between Chileans and English people is always visible—because it always appears. This “I”, this “me” is always “we.”

PT: It’s a subversive idea. It works to make sure that the project of fascism doesn’t survive. It undermines that silence around our shared histories.

AZ: At the same time, my feeling is that we have been mistakenly thinking that there are some lessons from the 20th century that were totally understood. But what is happening in places such as Brazil and the USA demonstrates they were not. There are some very small communities of fascists in Chile now—a small group, but it exists. It was the same thing that happened in Brazil, that people started, I don’t know why, believing in this; those are voices you think belong to the past—but this is the present.

PT: It’s very much our present in different parts of the world. It feels to me that the interventions of the CIA in the Cold War, then the actions of Thatcher and Pinochet and others, are coming back violently now. What can we, as writers do? Natalia Ginzburg, one of the writers you weave into your work, says it’s a moral responsibility to speak about silence and not to be part of a culture that is silencing. Do you agree with that?

AZ: Yes, of course. I think the way you deal with the world does appear in your books and writing and criticism. I wouldn’t say you have to shout it the whole time, but you do have to shout it too. Books speak deeply, I never want to simplify them, a novel is an object that speaks about many things at once. Sometimes you speak as a writer and sometimes, without stopping being a writer, you speak as a worker, and that is important too. You discover that books interrogate you the whole time.

PT: Thank you Alejandro—we all have work to do—and talking to you, reading you, makes that seem more possible. 

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