Alejandro Zambra, the new rising Chilean literary star, often compared to Roberto Bolano, attended Bristol Festival of Ideas to discuss his latest book Multiple Choice. Not quite a novel, Multiple Choice mixes fiction and memoir and yet defies both. It’s based on an academic language aptitude test that Zambra took back in 1993, and which every final-year high-school student was expected to undertake if they wanted to continue their education further.
When he revisited the test a couple of years ago, the author got struck by the inflexibility of it and the huge demand put on the aspiring student. Zambra spoke in length on the significance of this test to a young person’s future and how the required knowledge had nothing to do with critical thinking, but knowledge specifically acquired for the purpose of passing the test.
By playing with the test exercises, Zambra spontaneously developed the concept for the book. The chapters are conveniently named by the ‘skill’ required for the given exercise, say ‘Sentence Order’, ’Reading Comprehension’ etc.
As such, the book’s form is meta-fictional, and the reader is asked to participate in the process of filling in the gaps, revisit read passages and recreate the meaning he finds fit.
For the process of writing it, Zambra said he found it to be the opposite of creative writing, and the writer is forced to be analytical.
Though filled with playfulness and humour, Multiple Choice has a heavy political undertone, and not only in the ‘Sentence Elimination’ chapter that explicitly deals with the issue of censorship of ideas under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Thus, the humour and playfulness that one encounters is of a dark nature and leaves the reader with a bitter taste in the mouth, or as Zambra likes to say, ‘It’s a disheartening book’. But it had to be written. A literary experiment of this kind can go a long way, and perhaps one can get a flavour of the moral Chilean experience in this poignant manner more than in a non-fiction essay that relates the facts of Chilean life. It comes down to a socially charged literature that goes beyond the narrative, beyond the beautiful sentences, beyond singular meanings.
The author related his pleasure with the translated work by Megan McDowell, who managed to capture the book’s intentions and transform the meaning of heavy-set Chilean reality underlying Multiple Choice in a digestible English bite.
Zambra spoke of his notion of literature being about belonging. Multiple Choice, then, is a book about belonging to a place, a time, its people, and its literatures, and by participating in its making – which is asked of the reader – one can find himself belonging there too.