My Documents by Alejandro Zambra (2015)
My Documents by the Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, is a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. It wasn’t until I read the fourth story that I realized that the book wasn’t a novel, but a set of interrelated short stories. There are a number of reasons why it is so.
All stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile. The characters are usually unsuccessful males — drug and porn addicts, wife beaters, men unsuccessful in love and work. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet’s name, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see that Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired.
There is an endearing story about students in which everyone addresses each other just by their roll numbers. Roll number 34 is a student who is stuck in the same class for years despite his intelligence and ability — perhaps the price he pays for not falling in line. Another story is about the son of a political exile. The son is killed in a road accident though it is not clear if the “accident” was a politically motivated one.
A telephone operator is unable to sustain a relationship. Another man, after rejection in love, lands in Brussels and makes friends among strangers . A man invites his cousin to stay in his house while the family is on a vacation, only to realize that the cousin is a drug addict and has turned the house upside down by the time they return from the vacation.
Max buys a computer (the year is 2000) and is entranced by it, though he is initially suspicious of the internet.
“The computer brought about a new kind of solitude. Max didn’t watch the news anymore, or waste time playing the guitar or drawing; when he came back from the university he would immediately turn on the computer and start working or exploring the machine’s possibilities.”
His girlfriend, who initially wrote on paper, switches to the computer as well. The couple’s life is devastated by a computer that the husband uses to download porn and the contents of the hard disk are permanently destroyed by a virus — the wife’s poems and other writings thus lost forever.
The computer becomes a metaphor for our age — the post-1980s and a symbol of technological growth and dominance. My Documents is titled after the folder by the same names that is pre- installed in Windows and usually contains an unorganized amalgam of documents that have not been sorted and organized into neat categories. There is of course a very intelligently crafted continuity and pattern in the stories that makes it both unnecessary and impossible to categorize My Documents.
Every story in this collection has the hallmark of a great story- an engaging start, engaging characters, simple conversational language and a twist at the end. All this makes the reader an accomplice to the unfolding of the story.
For those who grew up during the Pinochet years, perhaps there indeed is just one monstrous folder — a one-dimensional life ordained by the rule of a brutal dictator followed by that of technology.
Zambra’s prose turns this one-dimensionality into poetry.