Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Alejandro Zambra’s “Camilo” (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) was originally published in the May 26, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Trevor

I just got to know Zambra a bit earlier this year, enjoying his Ways of Going Home (my thoughts here). I look forward to this one and will have thoughts up soon.

Betsy

Alejandro Zambra, born in Chile in 1975, is about the age of my son-in-law, whose parents moved their little family from Chile to the United States after the Pinochet takeover. So I have an almost familial interest in Zambra. That he explores how families and children process the secrets of violence is compelling to me, given my own accidental connection to the Holocaust (my husband’s grandmother most likely died at Theresienstadt) and the secrets and silences it enforces. Zambra, although Chilean through and through, seems to me connected to W.G. Sebald, Sebald also being a child of tyranny, a writer compelled to write about what is so resistant: the secrets of one’s parents. Syria, Nigeria, and Central African Republic are just three of the countries undergoing convulsion right now, but time will spin out its sorrows for generations, as Zambra makes clear.

Famous in Chile, Zambra is getting a lot of play and respect here as well. As mentioned above, Trevor has a recent piece on Zambra’s newest novel. The Daily Beast also conducted a useful interview with Zambra in February of this year (here).

“I care deeply about intensity,” says Zambra. Presumably as methods for achieving intensity, Zambra talks about importance of the rhythm of sentences and the rhythm of a story in general, his inclination to use music as a device in his work, and the importance of image. “I just follow the images I want to explore and go from there.” He remarks about Proust that his immense work reveals “a kind of desperation,” a remark that cuts to the heart of the matter. I see a “kind of desperation” in Zambra’s understated prose as well, and to me Zambra uses his prose to build to an entirely justified intensity.

This week’s story, “Camilo,” uses music as a device, but it also uses soccer as its central image. Two fathers, Hernan and Big Camilo, are great friends and also soccer enthusiasts. Hernan is the kind of goalie who stands on the authority of his skill to also yell commands at his team. Hernan and Big Camilo have a big falling out, and sometimes after that the new Pinochet government imprisons Big Camilo for a short time. When he is released he flees to Europe, hoping that his wife and son will join him. They don’t, and his relationship with his son is destroyed.

Fathers and sons and their half-communications are a repeating structure in this story. Four father-son pairs dominate the story: the narrator and his father, Hernan; Camilo and his father, Big Camilo; Camilo and his god-father, Hernan; and finally, the speaker and Big Camilo. There are also the various soccer stars who function as heroes, fallen heroes, father substitutes, and a key means for fathers and sons to talk with each other.

Camilo is a kind of father figure as well, someone whom the speaker can confide in, someone who can talk openly about all sorts of things, from sexuality to poetry to God. Ironically, Camilo cannot talk sense about sports. He is just not interested in sports.

Part of the speaker’s communion with Camilo centers on Camilo’s feeling for poetry. When asked, Camilo proclaims, “Poetry is madness, poetry is savage, poetry is a torrent of extreme emotions.” (The speaker confesses that perhaps “torrent” is his own word, not Camilo’s.)

Zambra himself has been a poet since his youth, and in the Daily Beast interview talks about having always been a poet. Zambra mentions that his own poetry was more like prose, and one suspects that he hopes to achieve “intensity” in his fiction with prose that is more like poetry.

Camilo stages a strange event when the boy-speaker confides in him that he is violently anxious and shy. Camilo collapses dramatically on the street in a piece of performance art. It is still the Pinochet era, and this display of public disruption attracts five policemen. Camilo, however, is able to deflect them and entertain them by explaining he was trying to teach his God-cousin how not to be shy.

The story explores how Camilo is able to engage anyone he chooses to engage — the policemen, the speaker, the speaker’s mother and father. But the one person he refuses to engage is his own father, the relationship having been destroyed by the accident of history, as well as by his father’s own demons.

As in Proust, there is in this story both a slow unspooling of emotion and event, but also “a kind of desperation in the prose.” The desperation is in the tragic miscommunication between the fathers and sons, miscommunication abetted by secrecy and by the natural passage of time. The desperation is in the yearning each of these sons and fathers have for each other, and the fact that the yearning can be only partially fulfilled.

I found the story’s exploration of fathers and sons compelling, but most of all, I enjoyed the way Zambra set up a believable and moving intensity by story’s end. Zambra side-steps the overstatement of the mawkish and the sentimental. Nevertheless, he demonstrates how secrets and lies are spawned by violence and how these secrets and lies live on long after the physical violence is defeated. Secrecy and lies become the language of the fathers and sons in this story, and by implication, secrecy and lies remain the language of the nation. There is a desperation in the way the characters communicate through sport and song; there is a madness, even, in the way past violence still distorts ordinary life. “Camilo” is a story that speaks for Chileans, but I think it speaks for many another nation as well.

11 thoughts on “Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo””

  1. Betsy says:

    A week later, I have re-read the magazine version of the story.

    This time I notice the way Camilo asks the narrator if he likes men or women. The narrator is “alarmed” because he likes guys, he likes Camilo, for example, but he thinks girls are “as hot as hell.”

    Camilo answers that “if I liked guys it was O.K. — that happened sometimes, too.” And that ends that section of the story.

    Later, Camilo insists that Hernan, the narrator’s father, teach him about soccer. “Otherwise,” he warned, winking at me, “I’ll be a fairy.”

    Camilo has told the narrator that what really matters is “to express your feelings, and not to be afradi to reveal yourself as a passionate, interesting man, maybe a bit fragile, someone who accepts his feminine side.”

    It seems as if Zambra raises these issues obliquely. The issue of sexuality could be central if this were a novel. As a short story, the sexuality is one element of several. For me, because the narrator mentions “alarm” when Camilo raises the question, it is as if sexuality is another anxious mystery, like what exactly happened during the Pinochet coup is a mystery and why a famous soccer star would lie is a mystery.

    Who betrayed whom is something that must remain a secret. Big Camilo himself allows that he was beaten in prison, but will not allow that it was “torture”. If it were torture, the tormenters would have had a purpose – they would have wanted names, places, and crimes. Big Camilo says it wasn’t torture, so maybe no one wanted him to give anyone up. But the reader wonders.

    In particular, the reader wonders about the mystery of Big Camilo’s imprisonment. What had he done? Who gave him up? When did he get released? Why was he released?

    What has to be buried is so hard to keep buried that much is lost: the sons, for one thing, lose their fathers, lose their sense of safety, maybe even lose their way, though that it not clear. Just because Camilo is killed when he was hit by a car doesn’t mean he had lost his way. Or perhpas it means exactly that. Who killed him? That is a mystery, too. Alarm and fear are the medium the naraator lives in.

    At one point, Camilo and the narrator are standing on a bridge. The boy “had the feeling the water was standing still and we were aboard a moving boat.” In this story, Reality gets up-ended like that. Some people don’t believe in God. Men can like men. Men can have a feminine side. Soccer players can lie. There can be a coup. Big Camilo can go to prison.. Big Camilo could purposely score a goal on his own team, just because he is mad at the goalie. Camilo’s father could go to Europe and forget all about, not just Chile, but his Chilean family, his Chilean son. How did that work? Why did he do that?

    The story is engulfed an air of generalized alarm, in a kind of impotence. To find things out takes so long or is so difficult, a person could get stuck.

  2. Betsy says:

    I often say about a story in translation that I wish the New Yorker would interview the translator as well as the author. I think the same here. There are some questions I have for the translator!

    But first, I want to comment on an article by Adam Gopnik entitled “Word Magic” that appeared in the same issue as did Zambra’s “Camilo”. Just for your information, Gopnik mentions several books in his discussion of translation, the most promising of which is “a fine study of translation” by David Bellos published in 2011 and entitled “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?”

    Gopnik suggests that the difficulty lies not in the translation form one language to another. Given enough space, much of what is “untranslatable” can be explained. The problem appears, admits Gopnik, with literature and poetry. My problem exactly! But Gopnik is specific that even with literature, it isn’t that so much is lost in the translation of the language.

    It is the translation of the culture that is so crucial.

    Giving the example of Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, Gopnik suggests two things. One, that because Moncrieff was a contemporary, “the aesthete’s point of view was so deeply in his blood and bones.” Two, because of this point of view, the translation has the right feel, the right tone, the right touch, even though it might have errors here and there.

    In comparison, Gopnik says that other translations miss that mark.

    That brings me back to the current story, “Camilo”, by Alejandro Zambra, and translated by Meghan McDowell. I have questions for Ms. McDowell, both in terms of specific words and in terms of culture. It seems obvious to me that for Chilean readers, some things would be self-evident and would need no footnote. But I feel the need for footnotes!

    My husband studied Japanese in Japan, and he often pointed out to me while we were there that some of his classmates had an “iki-jibiki” in the house – a walking dictionary, a real live source. They had a Japanese spouse who could not only translate the words, but could also translate the culture behind the words.

    I think sometimes when we read a story from another culture, we feel puzzled by it. We would like to turn to someone and say …what?

    In this case, I would start with the name, “Camilo”, its meaning and associations. I wonder about the word “torture” and its position in current day Chile. I wonder about “Onces”, but I google that and find a fascinating article. I wonder about Los Prisioneros, and how readily available their music was during the Pinochet years. I google them and get an article that is not much help. I wonder about the acceptance of homosexuality in Chile and the position of the church. And I wonder how much the current press in Chile looks back on the coup and the Pinochet years. I wonder how much the ordinary Chilean feels is unsolved about that time.

    I wonder how significant it is that Camilo “went to all the demonstrations “in favor of the “No” vote”; I wonder if he was in danger. Could his death in ’94 have had anything to do with whatever he’d been doing in ’88?

    I’ll admit that while I’d like to hear what challenges the story presented to the translator, I suppose I’d also like an article, say in the on-line magazine, that would help me out with the culture of the story or at least a part of it.

    I notice that stories in translation often do not generate as much conversation here, and I would propose that is because most readers feel a little at sea reading a story from another country. It’s not that we want a trot, it’s that we need an introduction, if we’re going to have an accurate feel for the environment of the story.

    In the meantime, however, I really enjoyed Mr.Gopnik’s current article on translation, “Word Magic”. It’s a lively overview of the thinking on translation with quite a few lively examples of the challenges translation presents. Mr. Gopnik uses the phrase “fellow-mind” to describe an (ideal) reader, and in fact goes so far as to say that a writer hones his craft so as to “have fun with a fellow-mind”. And so we readers, too, similarly hone our craft as well, with much the same intent. Anyway, I found “Word Magic” fun on a variety of levels and recommend it.

  3. Betsy, thanks so much for giving us so much! I still haven’t read the story — I’ve been busy busy busy! I wanted to publicly thank you, though, for keeping this going, and I’ll start catching up soon :-) .

  4. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor. I got carried away! So nice of you to wade through all that!

    You have more familiarity with Latin American literature than I do, so I look forward to your take very much.

  5. danthelawyer says:

    Betsy: Thank you so much for your (as always) excellent discussion. I enjoyed this story quite a lot as the father of a soccer-playing teen on a team with a couple of half-Chileans (incidentally, but not really relevant here, the family of the mother of one of these boys actually left Chile not upon the Pinochet coup but when Allende was elected!) Now, having read Betsy’s analysis, I feel I understand the story at a much deeper level.

    I, too, noticed Camilo’s ambiguous sexuality. I thought at first that Zambra had hinted that Camilo was gay, but I seem to recall a later passage that spoke of a girlfriend. Was that something Camilo had to pretend in order to pass? Was he bisexual? Does it matter for the story? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

    The scene on the bridge with the shifting frame of reference was fabulous. I feel like it was a scene that will stay with me a long time. But again, I’m not sure what it means in the context of the story.

    As for translation, I noticed a couple of times that the translator referred to Big Camilo asking the narrator to refer to him “using the informal ‘you’”. I assume the original Spanish said “tu” as opposed to “usted”. Here is another fine opportunity to ask the translator about some interesting choices!

    Very much looking forward to Trevor’s thoughts.

  6. avataram says:

    Wonderful story. Enjoyed the Soccer references – many of them true. See the wikipedia entry on Roberto Rojas (“Condor”) for example. As is the reference to the Alexis game for Barcelona.

    The greatest Soccer short story ever written in Spanish is widely reputed to be “Buba” by another Chilean, Roberto Bolaño. This is set in Barcelona – a fantastic mix of Black Magic and Soccer. I could not help comparing this story to Buba. This story is very good, but Buba is a different level altogether. It is in the collection “The Return”. Really recommend reading it.

    Spoiler Alert: There is another great soccer reference that is apt for this story – Andres Escobar, but it is not mentioned in the story because it would give an important plot point away before it is revealed towards the end by Big Camilo. I read the story expecting the reference, but it never came.

  7. Danthelawyer says:

    Hi Avataram. Wonderful insights. I will certainly look for “Buba”, though I have not always enjoyed Bolaño.

    I’m wondering, though, about your reference to Escobar. Yes, an own-goal, but under rather different circumstances and with rather different consequences. Why did you expect a reference in the story?

    BTW, have you seen the ESPN documentary, “The Two Escobars”? Quite a good and moving portrayal of Colombia and Colombian football at the height of the cocaine cartels.

  8. Betsy says:

    Great to hear from both of you, Avataram and Dan.

    Did Big Camillo’s Own Goal on his own team (to satisfy his own desires) allude to the possibility he scored on “his own team” later to get out of prison?

    But did he never pay for that? Did he get away scot-free?

    The link to Escobar’s Own goal and subsequent murder is in Little Camilo’s the ‘murder by car’.

    In this case, (after civil war, tyranny, and “forced disappearance”) it is the second generation who pays, in any variety of ways.

    Escobar’s “own goal” and murder are essential to this story – thank you, Avataram. This is a perfect example of something a Chilean reading audience would know, even the women, but among the rest of us, there would be many who would miss the allusion.

    Knowing about Escobar, knowing that his murder has the appearance of an ordered hit, I get an intensification of the idea of delayed retribution that ripples through a society after the secret betrayals committed on all sides against fellow citizens, neighbors, and friends amid the terror of a coup.

    Zambra seems to be alluding to the idea that when you have a period of tyranny by terror, it is not exactly dead and gone by the fact of overturn by election.

    According to a Wikipedia entry on “Forced Disappearance”:

    “The Rettig Report concluded 2,279 persons who disappeared during the military dictatorship were killed for political reasons or as a result of political violence, and approximately 31,947 tortured according to the later Valech Report, while 1,312 were exiled. The latter were chased all over the world by the intelligence agencies.”

    The difficult thing, of course, is that U.S. actions in Chile in the 60′s and 70′s may have destabilized Chile, something which may have, in turn, made the coup possible. For the American reader born after these events, however, most of this is blurred or buried.

  9. Betsy says:

    What I mean is – Big Camilo got away, perhaps having ratted under torture, thus making another ‘Own Goal”. He was not pursued while he was in exile. But Little Camilo died in a ‘murder by car’, after having shown up at every “No Vote” rally – rallies that failed to prevent the fall of Pinochet.

    Zambra thus uses the whole Escobar story.

  10. avataram says:

    Dan- maybe the reference is a bit strange, as it refers to the Colombian national team, not the Chilean national team. But Chile was banned from the 1990 and 1994 World Cups because of the Roberto Rojas incident. What team would an average Chilean support? I think it would be Colombia, not Brazil or Argentina – of course, this is open to debate.

    1990 Colombia had a goalkeeper much like the narrator’s father- Rene Higuita with dreadlocks, flamboyant, playing more of a sweeper role than of the goalkeeper, often leaving the goal unguarded to make forays to the midfield, even taking penalty kicks – Colombia lost 1-2 to Cameroon because Roger Milla stole a goal from Higuita who was away from his goalpost. And Higuita always yelled for the ball to be passed to him like the narrator’s father.

    I assumed (incorrectly) that 1994 Colombia also had Higuita as the goalkeeper (20 years later, I am confusing two world cups). So, the own goal at a tournament final seemed very much like Escobar’s – one can imagine getting irritated at Higuita enough to score an own goal. But apparently, Higuita was involved in a mafia kidnapping and was banned from the 1994 world cup and Oscar Cordoba was the goalkeeper. The game with the own goal was also lost 1-2 by Colombia to the USA.

    I think 1-2 was the scoreline for the tournament final where Big Camilo scored an own goal? I thought initially that it was a draw 2-2, but it looks like they lost the tournament.

    There is a delicious hint in the Zambra interview in the New Yorker. He says he based the story on two people he knows – so these two people could be Higuita and Escobar – who everyone knows. Camilo Jr is based on a person from Zambra’s life.

    Letting Big Camilo (Escobar) go into exile rather than die could be Zambra’s way of “Atonement” (McEwan). If one follows where Big Camilo has been – all are cities with Soccer teams. Escobar was set to join one of the Milan teams after the 1994 World cup. He never got the chance to do so because he was killed. Maybe he could have led a full life in Europe – with various club teams, married, had a kid – none of which he could do as he died at 27, one month before he was to get married.

    I do not know much about Chilean politics, but Betsy seems to be correct in her intuition that Big Camilo may have scored more “own goals” in a bid to get out of prison.

    And thank you for the reference to “The Two Escobars”. I have not seen it, but will find it over the weekend.

  11. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Avataram – as always – for a great discussion.

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