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.
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.
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.