Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell

This work is all kinds of novel. Chilean novelist Zambra really puts us through our paces by making us actually participate in the process of his fiction. He gives us choices on how to finish his sentences. He starts easily enough, asking us to decide which word has no relation to the words given. The structure of the book copies the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, required of all applicants to university in Chile. Our minds race with the possibilities he’s given us, and we can be as cynical and hard-eyed or hilarious and droll as any teenager in marking the answers and thinking of our own.

Next comes “Sentence Order,” and the test-maker is acting like a disaffected teenager himself, his sentences starting out short and perhaps only a little sarcastic, progressing to longer sentences that sound bitter and angry, to his last question featuring a page of sentences we are meant to order, including words like “pain,” and “tumor” and “going from the general to the specific,” and mentioning General Pinochet for the first time.

The section marked “Sentence Completion” is pretty easy because the test-maker does not give us as many choices as he might have. He seems almost to be steering us. We can’t just think up answers…he is strong-arming us to conclusions as a result of his sentences. We chafe a little under his direction.

In the penultimate section, “Sentence Elimination,” we start getting the feel of the potentiality in this form. Zambia here reminds me of a famous Chekhov monologue called “The Evils of Tobacco.” In that monologue, a distinguished educator who has been asked to give a speech on tobacco veers off topic into the state of his marriage and how he despairs of his wife. Our test-maker in “Sentence Elimination” starts with short sentences, though they are already evocative, and gradually starts talking about family, a hated father, government eliminations, and other soul-baring terrors. We forget which sentence to eliminate.

The final section, “Reading Comprehension,” evokes Saramago. Remember in All the Names Saramago created a government functionary who was supposed to do a boring job filing the names of all the folks who died? That bureaucrat started getting creative, investigating the deaths instead of just filing them away. Well, here our test-maker quite loses the detachment of a test-maker and begins a long confession on how he learned to cheat on tests and how it brought his cheating classmates together…only to further disclose how his classmates lived, loved, played…You get the picture. In the final questions to test comprehension, we see that he has lost all objectivity and is telling us instead what he has learned.

Bravo, Zambra. The form fulfills its potential. Translated, by Megan McDowell.

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