In the final decades of the twentieth century, when we began to bring computers home, to play games on them and surf the Internet, we could not have imagined the ways in which our lives would become ensnared in these devices. Now, in this moment of technological saturation, with its attendant freedoms and anxieties, the early days of the digital era—our fascination with e-mail and viruses, virtual messengers—appear quaint.
We return to those decades in Alejandro Zambra's extraordinary short-story collection, My Documents. Zambra, a Chilean writer included in Granta's “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” in 2010, writes of ordinary Chileans in the shadow of the Pinochet regime. In his nostalgic yet critical gaze, the introduction of home computers in those years becomes a symbol for larger reconfigurations of solitude and companionship. A character embraces a CPU to stay warm. A couple weathers their first fight over Internet use. Computers unearth as many tensions as they do possibilities, and it is these minute yet geologic shifts within a person's life that Zambra traces.
In eleven stories, the book follows ordinary people—a divorced father, a schoolboy, a phone operator—in whose lives the minor and the accidental are sites of great meaning. The region of the mundane, the book affirms, is a vast region. Take, for example, “The Most Chilean Man in the World,” in which a broke man flies to Belgium to win back a former girlfriend. She refuses to see him. So the man wanders, stopping briefly at a laundromat to note the charm of that non-place, and finally meets two Belgians with whom he finds the comfort of sudden friendship. Look beyond the intended story, says the narrative. See how a chance encounter, a transitory moment, uncovers the true bounty of life.
This is a joyous recognition—indeed, it is a conviction that charges the book with great and uncommon friendliness. An odd way to describe a book, perhaps, but these pages are animated by candid, familiar voices in whose recollections we become gently imbricated. In keeping with his attention to the accidental, the rewarding, Zambra nudges us toward a comprehension of how life—both our own and that of the characters—presses on, unruly, beyond the bounds of a book.
This acknowledgment does not, in the least, diminish the lives we read. Instead, we find ourselves refreshingly attentive to the writer's imagination. Superbly atypical friendships and romantic relationships rouse moments that are slight and arcs that are subtle. The instability, sometimes fracture, of these relationships—whether it is with your son, who lives a ten-hour bus ride away, or with a housesitter who lets you begin to love him—alerts us to the unsettled nature of routine life.
The threat of harm, personal and institutional, haunts these stories. And yet, the humor by which we bear our misfortunes follows close behind. Megan McDowell's excellent translation preserves this droll quality. In “Thank You,” a man and a woman who are not quite lovers, nor only friends, are kidnapped by taxi-hijacking bandits in Mexico. An inquisitive bandit asks, “Why aren't you together? He's not so ugly.”
Elsewhere, after Pinochet's arrest, a narrator observes an act of disquieting, funny earnestness: “My boss, who was Spanish, put a photo of [Pinochet’s indicter] Judge Garzón on a corner of his desk, and we placed flowers around it in thanks.”
A great pleasure of reading this book is that we feel invited by the author into these pages. Zambra plays with the artifice of stories, occasionally rising from a paragraph to speak to the reader. He assures us that stories are not life. Stories are fragments around which life grows. This is true both for the characters and for us. At the end of “Camilo,” for example—a story published in The New Yorker last year—Zambra asserts his presence. “I think that the story can't end like that,” he writes. “But that's how it ends.”
It is a comforting admission, that life is not the same as story. It allows us both to celebrate the imaginative labor of books, and to consider with some awe the wilderness of our routine lives. A story is made in its telling, Zambra reminds us, while life is a field of the untold.