Alejandro Zambra on Omitted Characters

The narrator of your story “Skyscrapers” is a university student in Santiago recounting a time in his life when he moved out of his family home and fell in love. He begins by admitting that, at first, he tried to erase the woman he fell in love with from the narrative. That was impossible, of course, but he does perform a kind of erasure by never giving her a name and referring to her only as “you.” Why did you choose to write the story as a kind of letter to that absent character?

I don’t know if I actually decided on the form of a letter. I’m addicted to trial and error, and at some point I tried out the possibility of addressing the story to a “you.” When I rewrote it in that direction, it changed a lot, and I could feel that something was happening or would happen. And it made sense, because for a long time I’ve been interested in reflecting on the writer’s authority, and in taking on what the writer usually leaves out for fear of being accused of sentimentality or naïveté or tenderness. I’m also interested in dealing with our tendency to either idealize or demonize the past. The specific subject, so to speak, of this story is how to talk about the people who permanently marked your life, without whom you would be different, and yet whom you tend to erase. Not because you want to forget them but because in fact you are gradually forgetting them. I wanted to talk about our enormous capacity for forgetting, and also our tendency to idealize the present—that preposterous feeling that we’re never going to laugh at who we are now the way we now laugh at our twenty-year-old selves.

And this idea of the “omitted character” is something that I think pertains in general, not just to this story or to my work. I’ve thought for a long time about how every story may have a character who is left out. A presence converted into an absence. I like to think that in every story there is a character who is not named or is named in a very roundabout way: the remnants of a person who has been erased in order to give the story some traditional sort of coherence, for example. And I imagine what would happen if suddenly the omitted people were to demand their space back, and in doing so they deformed or disfigured the plot, with a strange but also genuine result. These aren’t real people, of course; it’s more of a direction, maybe, a reading strategy; I think about this even more as a reader than as a writer. When I was a teacher, I used to encourage this approach: my students and I would read, for example, a story by Alice Munro or by Juan Emar and try to decide which character you could take away, which character you would add—who are the ghosts in this story? I think that way of reading allows you to inhabit other people’s stories in a profound and decisive way, one that also destabilizes the reader’s passive position.

New York is seen as an almost mythical place, where the narrator never actually goes. What does it represent for him? Did you see it that way when you were growing up?

Yes, though what the narrator really wants is to travel—he doesn’t care where—or, more than to travel, he wants to fly on a plane. . . . I imagine him a little like Traveler, the character in Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch,” who always wanted to travel and never does. . . . In my case, when I was a teen-ager I thought of New York and Paris almost exclusively in the context of film, which I wasn’t interested in creatively. I was interested in making music and literature, which I linked to Buenos Aires and London. I thought a lot about that the first time I went to New York, and later during the year that I lived there. The same way that a movie filmed in Santiago always seems to me to have a certain documentary warmth, as if it weren’t really fiction, a movie filmed in New York always seems to me, from the outset, like too much of a movie. Because of that, the first time I went to New York it was hard for me to take the city seriously. I felt like an actor, or more like an extra. Specifically, one of those dumbasses who look straight at the camera the first chance they get. . . . And there was always that sort of false déjà vu, like, I know I haven’t been here but I’ve seen movies set here, though I can’t tell you what they were. So, when I lived in New York, walking around the city was more like erasing the memory of those movies and recording my own memories over them. It was a satisfying feeling.

The narrator writes a letter to his father, or, rather, a “Letter to My Father,” which his father claims not to have read. How do you imagine the contents of the letter?

Unlike my character, I read Kafka’s “Letter to His Father” when I was very young, which is both the best and worst time to read that book. It impressed me a lot then, and it still does. Even though I read it the first time with the eyes of a son, and the last time, just a few months ago, with the eyes of a father, it always blows my mind. The letter in my story was typed in Century Gothic font, but, oddly, when I imagine it I see it handwritten, with a lot of things crossed out, or maybe with whole sentences rewritten over Wite-Out, because the narrator of the story aspires to clarity. I imagine the letter as beautifully unfair, exaggerated, tender, absurd, embarrassing, and accidentally moving. That’s another place this story comes from—a somewhat imprecise reflection on letters, because those of us who are nearing fifty now can remember what it was like to communicate through letters, at the exasperatingly slow speed of mail. And now that letters don’t exist, or exist in a different way, I feel something similar with putting books out into the world, because books reach readers at a pace that is very much like the old pace of letters. As my favorite non-Chilean poet said with such exquisite humility and outrage, “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me.” That’s more or less what a book still is.

“Skyscrapers” is both a comic story and shot through with real emotion. How do you balance those elements in a narrative?

Well, that’s what I try for, and sometimes it works out—I hope this is one of those times. Maybe every story involves the construction or deconstruction of trust, and trust is always related to laughter and tears. I mean, only someone who can make you cry can make you laugh. I always try to achieve the intensity of a conversation, and sometimes a literary and supposedly technical decision is, for me, more like deciding who is there on either side of a conversation. I imagine the reader or interlocutor, who is not necessarily a real person, or not just one person but two or three people who converge into one. And my desire for the words to affect that nonexistent person in a certain way shapes the voice and tone of this other person who narrates, and it shapes the story itself, in every way.

Is the story part of a collection you’re working on? (And, if so, are the other stories related?)

Yes, it’s part of a book of stories, essays, and poems centered on paternity and childhood—on being someone’s son and being someone’s father, so to speak. The working title in Spanish is “Literatura infantil,” and it will be out in March of next year. All the pieces have a certain through line that could allow them to be read novelistically. In its prehistory, it was a book about personal libraries or the accumulation of books, but after my son’s birth, four years ago, it gradually shifted, and now that part is incidental. ♦

Alejandro Zambra’s responses were translated, from the Spanish, by Megan McDowell.

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