Multiple Choice

The second instalment of this week's Culture Digest looks at the latest book from experimental Chilean author Alejandro Zambra

BY Francesca Wade in Culture Digest | 14 SEP 16

In Alejandro Zambra’s story ‘National Institute’, included in My Documents (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015), a class of Chilean children comes back from a gym lesson to find a mysterious test scrawled on the board: 

Augusto Pinochet is: 

a) a motherfucker
b) a son of a bitch
c) an imbecile
d) a piece of shit
e) all of the above

Their teacher, rather than express a personal view on the army general who was dictator of Chile between 1973 and 1990, sagely turns the graffiti into an educational opportunity by pointing out that since options a) to d) are nearly identical, the correct answer must, by default, be e). Zambra, who was born in 1975, attended the National Institute under Pinochet’s dictatorship; his latest book, Multiple Choice, is constructed in the form of the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, which students take every year in order to apply to university. Now, Zambra casts himself in the role of the anonymous school graffitist: his sardonic satire on the Chilean education system is enacted through subversive surveys that pose more questions than answers.

The cover of Multiple Choice challenges us to label the work ‘fiction’, ‘non-fiction’, ‘poetry’, ‘all of the above’, or ‘none of the above’: it’s an existential question which heralds the knowing playfulness of the whole book, where meaning is to be found between the boundaries of the options on offer. Varying in length from single words to stories across several pages, Zambra’s set pieces (in a characteristically sharp translation by Megan McDowell) are imbued with a yearning for answers and meaning that transcends their context. An exercise in sentence completion shows how meaning can change with a shift in emphasis or tone: ‘You are alone, but ———‘ is a very different proposition when followed by ‘you’re happy’, ‘we are all alone’, ‘Jesus is with you’, or ‘man, you have a good time’. Throughout, Zambra explores the nature of memory, parenthood and relationships, and, especially pertinent to this form, of the common desire to alter the past. In one story, a couple unable to divorce (it was not made legal in Chile until 2004) go through an annulment, the legal procedure of pretending the other person never existed. In another, the son of Manuel Contreras, the head of Pinochet’s secret police, finds himself embroiled in a fight with the author over the way his past is being revealed, or falsified. Funny, deft and poignant, Multiple Choice is an exposition of the slipperiness of language and interpretation which these immutable tests ostensibly exist to eliminate: a glorious celebration of subjectivity. 

Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell), will be published by Granta on 6 October.

Francesca Wade is editor of The White Review and is based in London, UK. Square Haunting was published by Faber & Faber in January 2020.