On Conformism

In my years of reading, not once have I hosted a Latin American literature month. Sure, I have dedicated particular months to delving into the underbellies of Asian (even purely Japanese), American, European, and also just recently, African literature. I have read my fair share of Latin American writers like Chile’s Isabel Allende and Nobel Laureates in Literature Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa. However, I still feel like I am barely scratching the surface, and to redress this, I had my first-ever Latin American reading month in 2021. Reading works from different parts of Latin America has provided me insights into the diversity of the region’s colorful history, culture, and people. They provided me thought-provoking work that challenged the way I see the world and the way I look at literature as well.

Among the group of writers I read during this six weeks stretch, it was the Chilean writers like Roberto Bolaño – one of the authors I have been looking forward to – who have left a deep impression on me. The journey also gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the works of writers who I have never heard of previously like Alejandro Zambra; I have not encountered any of his works previously as well. He is, I have learned, a well-established and highly-heralded poet, literary critic, and novelist. I also recently acquired a copy of one of his books, Multiple Choice despite having no inkling of what the book was about.

Without any ado and ahead of the other books I previously acquired, I included Multiple Choice in my Latin American literature reading month. It was with this book that I concluded the aforementioned reading journey, before pivoting to a more familiar reading ground in Japanese literature. Indulging in Multiple Choice was akin to diving into uncharted waters. Both the book and the author were foreign to me. One facet that went in favor of the book was its thinness; this is the type of book you can read in a day. And as the old adage goes, one has to take a leap of faith. Also, the higher the risk, the higher the return.

“After so many study guides, so many oractice and proficiency and achievement tests, it would have been impossible for us not to learn something, but we forgot everying almost right away and, I’m afraid, for good! The thing that we did learn, and to perfection – the thing we would remember for the rest of our lives – was to cheat on tests.”

~ Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice

From the onset, what stood out for me was the book’s unusual structure. Rather than a straightforward narrative, Zambra provided his readers with literally a standardized test, an echo of the book’s title. In the Notes on the Text, it was explained that the book adapted the structure of the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. It is an annual test taken every December from 1967 to 2003 in order to apply to Chilean universities. More particularly, the book’s structure was derived from the Verbal Aptitude Test of 1993, the same examination that the author took part in. While the examination has been renamed to Unversity Selection Exam, the test’s structure still remains the same.

For literary purists, Multiple Choice can be disconcerting and can be quite a challenge. It requires one to step out of one’s comfort zone. At the start, the book comes across as gimmicky. The test was divided into five distinct parts, with the first part a multiple-choice question on Excluded Term. It was succeeded by Sentence Order, Sentence Completion, Sentence Elimination, and Reading Comprehension. It was pretty much the standard examination several of us have taken part in. I myself recall taking a similar test nearly 15 years ago. However, this national test was not for college entrance admissions; each university conducts its separate test. The test we had was to determine a career we might, should, or must take because, as per the result of this test, it is the career we would excel in.

But, of course, this is literature we are talking about and forthrightness is not one of its merits. Several of the questions set forth in the story, if you can call that, don’t have a conclusive answer. I did try answering the questions before I realized that it was futile. Soon enough, what was once seemingly arbitrary started to make sense. Zambra’s message started to take a firmer shape the more I immersed myself in the test questions. The book’s arbitrariness made it an interactive experience. It was slowly becoming clear that every facet of the book, from the choice of test questions to the unconventional structure itself, was deliberate.

The test was a device used by Zambra to underline messages-cum-commentaries on several seminal and timely subjects. The most palpable of these messages challenged the current state of education. In this aspect, the book resonated on a universal scale. Zambra’s unflinching examination of the education system takes the readers to the core of the concern. It cannot be denied that the quality of education has been dwindling, a growing concern of nearly every nation. The educational system has been placing students into boxes. Critical thinking and thinking out of the box were essentially abandoned for a system that adheres to the “books”: “You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry – you weren’t educated, you were trained.” Academic performance and excellence are gauged through one’s ability to memorize. We also see a system that has allowed cheating. Cheating, Zambra wrote, has become a norm:

“I think that, thanks to our cheating, we were able to let go of some of our individualism and become a community. It’s sad to put it this way, but cheating gave us a sense of solidarity. Every once in a while we suffered from guilt, from the feeling that we were frauds – especially when we looked ahead to the future – but in the end our indolence and defiance prevailed.”

~ Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice

The book, however, was more than just a commentary on the education system. History was another integral element of the book. It particularly zoomed in on the regime of Chile’s infamous General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). A generalization has struck me. Writers of a certain demographic often write about a common subject, may it be an event or an individual. For instance, Rafael Trujillo is a common presence in the works of Dominican writers. The Second World War is also a recurring theme among contemporary German writers. The case is similar for Chilean writers, at least those whose works I have read so far. They inevitably touch base with Pinochet and his atrocities. This is understandable in Zambra’s case as he bore witness to the era; he was born and grew up during Pinochet’s nearly two decades reign of horror.

The references to the regime were most explicit in the Sentence Elimination section of the test. One question talked about the imposition of a curfew in the nation’s capital, Santiago. Another question subtly underlined how the rich were barely touched by the atrocities of Pinochet’s regime: “Chile is a beautiful country. People are always complaining about the lack of freedom and the dictatorship and all that, but they don’t realize that Chile is a beautiful country.” There was also one question addressed to the son of Manuel Contreras, the former head of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), Chile’s secret police under Pinochet’s regime. He was also one of the faces of Pinochet’s violent regimes: How does it feel to be the son of one of the biggest criminals in Chilean history? What do you feel when you think about your father, sentenced to more than three hundred years in jail? Can you sense the hate of the families your father destroyed?

In exploring the subject of dictatorship, Zambra underlined the complicity of the people who have survived the regime: “Today you’ll find people saying they didn’t know about the disappearances, or the torture, or the murders. Of course they knew. My buddy knew, I knew, everyone did. How could we not?” This echoes a sentiment shared by the denizens of countries that have been terrorized by the atrocities of dictators. The Trujillistas of the Dominican Republic, for instance, missed Rafael Trujillo. As taken from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat: “They had forgotten the abuses, the murders, the corruption, the spying, the isolation, the fear; horror had become a myth.” Over here in the Philippines, the son of former strongman, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., is on the cusp of snatching the presidency, if the surveys are any indicator. Historical amnesia, exacerbated by misinformation and historical revisionism, has become prevalent.

The closest semblance of prose can be found in the last section of the test, Reading Comprehension. It was also in this portion that Zambra’s commentaries were most piercing. He examined, in varying degrees, a bevy of subjects, ranging from cheating and how it has been embedded into our consciousness to the Catholic Church’s meddling in state affairs. The Church’s influence, for instance, vocally opposed the enactment of divorce law in Chile, which was finally legalized in May 2004. The Philippines is now the only country that doesn’t allow divorce. Like in the case of Chile, the Catholic Church is a prominent voice in Philippine politics.

“It’s an overwhelming thought, an exit that leads to the darkest of nights, to the most complete blackness, but also to shadow and sometimes, slowly, toward something like a clearing in the woods. These fantasies are normal, but it’s not so common for parents to confess them. For example, over the years I have thought thousands of times that if you hadn’t been born I would have needed less money, or could have disappeared for weeks on end without worrying about anyone. I could have prolonged my youth for several more years. I could have even killed myself. I mean, the first consequence of your birth was that from then on, I could never kill myself.”

~ Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice

Elsewhere, we read about the subtle discrimination against minorities, particularly the Mapuches, the largest indigenous group in Chile. The Mapuches were also victims of the Pinochet regime, with some of their most vocal leaders murdered, exiled, or imprisoned. Woven into the tapestry of the book are layers of Chilean culture, and ruminations on marriage, death, birth, abortion, and existentialism. Occasionally, the voice switches to the author although the book’s structure made it challenging to distinguish which was his voice and which was the narrator’s. Not that it mattered in the grand scheme of things anyway.

Originally published in Spanish in 2014 as Facsímil, Multiple Choice is not your typical literary work. With its out-of-the-box approach to storytelling, it is a genre-bending work. On the book’s cover, there were choices: (A) Fiction, (B) Nonfiction, (C) Poetry, (D) All of the above, and (E) None of the above. There could be an answer but there could also be no answer. Like most of the questions in this book, the answer is not straightforward for Multiple Choice transcends the definitions of literary genres.

In his fourth novel (that’s how it was categorized), Zambra was challenging several norms, from the way we define and understand academic excellence to how we examine and, at times, dismiss history. There were, however, rays of hope towards the end of the book. The book was, in a way, an intersection of the past, the present, and the future. The book’s unconventional structure easily made it stand out but it was also allegorical. By extension, it was Zambra’s challenge to the conventions of literature and writing. One of the beauties of literature, after all, lies in its flexibility. It can be molded into the writer’s vision. It doesn’t always work out but in this case, it did.

“Everyone gets erased – life consists of meeting people whom first you love and then you erase – but you can’t erase children, you can’t erase parents. I know you’ve tried to erase me, and you couldn’t. I know I have existedm for you, in excess. That I have also existen in absence.”

~ Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice
Ratings

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Multiple Choice was an accessible read but one that also requires the same level of critical thinking that Zambra poured into his work. It is an unconventional work of literature but because it was unusual that it was engaging. I have to laud Zambra for a riveting book that made me look forward to reading his other works. I recently came across a copy of Chilean Poet, his latest work. Unfortunately, I didn’t acquire it but now I am now seriously considering obtaining a copy of the book. I also want to read his earlier works.

Book Specs

Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translators (from Spanish): Megan McDowell
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2016
Number of Pages: 103
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

Written in the form of a standardized test, Multiple Choice invites the reader to respond to virtuoso language exercises and short narrative passages through thought-provoking, usually unanswerable multiple-choice questions. It offers a new kind of reading experience, one in which the reader participates directly in the creation of meaning, and the nature of storytelling itself is called into question. At once funny, poignant, and political, Multiple Choice is about love and family, authoritarianism and its legacies, and the conviction that, rather than learning to think for ourselves, we are trained to obey and repeat. Serious in its literary ambition and playful in its execution, it confirms Alejandro Zambra as one of the most important writers working in any language.

About the Author

Alejandro Zambra was born on Septmeber 24, 1975 in Maipú, Chile, a suburb of Santiago. Zambra studied at the Instituto Nacional General José Miguel Carrera. In 1997, he graduated from the University of Chile with a degree in Hispanic literature. He pursued postgraduate studies in Madrid, Spain after winning a scholarship. He earned a Master of Arts in Hispanic Studies. He received his doctorate in literature from the Pontifical Catholic University in Chile.

Zambra’s literary career kickstarted in 1998, with the publication of a poetry collection titled Bahía Inútil. Mudanzas (2003), his second published book, was also a poetry collection. In 2006, his first novel, Bonsai, was published. A year later, Formas de volver a casa (The Private Life of Trees), his second novel, was published. It was followed by Formas de volver a casa (Ways of Going Home, 2011), and Facsímil (Multiple Choice, 2014). His latest novel, Poeta Chileno (Chilean Poet) was published in 2020. In 2013, he published a short story collection, Mis documentos (My Documents) which was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He has also published an essay collection. His stories have also appeared in different magazines and publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.

For his works, Zambra has received numerous prizes, including the Chilean Literary Critics’ Award in 2007 and the National Book Council’s award for best novel in 2007 and 2012. He was also the recipient of the Prince Claus Award in Holland. In 2010, he was named by Granta as one of the Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists. In 2007, he was chosen as one of the Bogota39, the best Latin American writers under the age of 39. From 2015 to 2016, he was a Cullman Center fellow at the New York Public Library. He has also worked as a literary critic for La Tercera and has taught at the School of Literature at Diego Portales University in Santiago.