Thursday, 25 June 2015

Computers and cigarettes

Full title: My Documents
Author: Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 244 pages, paperback
Publisher: McSweeney's (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Alejandro Zambra has always acted as a writer who writes about a writer's life (Hemingway updated, Roberto Bolaño’s re-embodied?). His latest volume, the collection My Documents, goes about peering again into things that make up the profession’s paraphernalia. For Zambra, the most important of these things are books and computers. Books have their special place, close to the Platonic ideal, so nothing’s changed in the library area; admiration, respect, veneration: all untouched, all good and (strange to say) ordinary. What is out of the everyday (narratively speaking) is the presence of computers. Still young in spite of their half-century of supremacy, PCs and their offspring seem to be slow in taking a place in literature. There’s a sense that they don’t have much to add to a story, that their presence is more likely to cause harm than charm.
But computers do have a role to play. For one thing, they provide memory, which is what writing has always been about, and which is what writing is always going to be about. In "Memories of a Personal Computer," the protagonist and his girlfriend experience the machine as a novelty with potential. They write up their poems on it, they love and hate each other under the PC’s gaze. When the computer works, their relationship works too. When the computer breaks, they too go each their separate way. What’s left of their adventure is a computer memory from which all data has been erased. The story ends with the PC in this state of purity: a blank hard drive deposited in an old carcass. The protagonist's son, an adolescent already over-versed in computer work, takes the object given to him as a gift to an underground location, symbolic setting for a work of disremembering.
"[He] went to the basement to find a place to store the computer, where it has been ever since, waiting, as they say, for better times to come."
With an ending like this, fairytale-style, the story reads like a fable about memory. It’s a story in which the computer too is a protagonist: we find it newly-born in the beginning, and we see it decrepit in the end, its narrative cycle gone full circle.

Alejandro Zambra. Source: Acabo de leer... Y me gusta
If computers are aids to memory, cigarettes are aids to other things that writers do. "I Smoked Very Well" reads like a praise to the vice in the title. The protagonist has just managed, via chemical intakes, to hinder his urge to smoke his lungs off. But what he finds at the end of the tunnel is not joy; it’s the opposite. If there was ever a connection between computers and cigarettes, it becomes clear when the protagonist (a writer with a smoker’s problem or a smoker with a writer’s problem) realizes that the chemicals in his medical treatment have made it impossible to enjoy at all his former love for smoking:
"I feel perplexed, and bruised. It's as though someone were gradually erasing all the information related to cigarettes from my memory. And that strikes me as sad.
I'm a very old computer. I'm an old but not entirely broken computer. Someone touches my face and keyboard with a kitchen rag. And it hurts."
Smoking-is-important-to-writers is the message conveyed throughout the story. The cigarette doesn't only serve as a prop; it isn't only something a writer holds in one hand while with the other hand he's writing. The cigarette marks a fundamental difference between a writer and the rest of the world (a question of status as much as a question of profession):
"What for a smoker is nonfiction, for a non-smoker is fiction. That majestic story by Julio Ramón Ribeyro, for example, about the smoker who desperately jumps out the window to rescue a pack of cigarettes, and who, years later, very ill, his wife keeping a vigilant watch over him, escapes to the beach every day to unearth, with the skill of an anxious puppy, the pack of cigarettes he had hidden in the sand. Non-smokers don't understand these stories. They think that they're exaggerated; they read them cavalierly. A smoker, on the other hand, treasures them."
The fear of losing memory, addressed at point blank in "Memories of a Personal Computer," reaches here the same traumatic height, but its weight is different, because it is made much more personal. Smoking, a vice that threatens the body, puts the soul in a greater impasse when it ceases to be near. Zambra writes up a credo to mitigate this loss, but one that feels sad rather than hopeful:
"I remember that brilliant and unequivocal phrase of Italo Svevo's: 'Reading a novel without smoking is impossible.'
But it's possible, it is. I don't remember anything I read, though. I read badly. I don't know if I've just read a good novel badly or a bad novel well. But I read, it's possible."
The protagonist, who has lost appetite for reading and writing, who has been thrust into this despair of growing sad when the body is cured, makes the cigarette part of the syntax of creation. He's grown wise enough by now (this is close to the end of the story) to see with clarity the link between smoking and composition:
"Cigarettes are the punctuation marks of life. Now I live without punctuation, without rhythm. My life is a stupid avant-garde poem.
I live without cigarettes to mark a question. Without cigarettes that end as we get happily or dangerously close to an answer. Or the absence of an answer. Exclamation cigarettes. Ellipsis cigarettes. I would like to smoke with the elegance of a semicolon."
And so poetry arises from despair, metaphors from lack of punctuation, a writer’s angst from running out of smokes. What’s left, then? As always, memory. Of how writing must be done, of what cigarettes taste like, of what computers are good at. Almost every story in Alejandro Zambra’s collection has a reason to reflect on the above, because at the end of the day being a writer makes one dependent on these props. No writer is free. They all must be set up/upset by some rituals.