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Originally published Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 5:03 AM

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‘My Documents’: low profile in post-Pinochet Chile | Book review

Chilean author Alejandro Zambra’s story collection “My Documents” chronicles the quiet rhythms of life in Chile after the Pinochet dictatorship, where secrecy remains an essential element of social life.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘My Documents’

by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell

McSweeney’s, 243 pp., $15

Short stories can be memory pieces. And the memories in Chilean author Alejandro Zambra’s collection, “My Documents,” add up to a whole history of Chile in the wake of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). Yet “My Documents” isn’t quite political fiction.

Instead, it taps into the wayward mindset of apolitical types standing on the sidelines.

Zambra’s protagonists are almost all cut from the same cloth. They’re hapless, eccentric, book-obsessed males, feckless if well-intentioned in their behavior. Whether they’re obsessive-compulsive youngsters or grown men fumbling their way into middle age, these guys are as charming as they are exasperating.

That makes “My Documents” a quirky read even as it takes on the touchier aspects of what it’s like to live in post-Pinochet Chile. The collection’s title story, which opens the book, establishes its offbeat tone. Its unnamed narrator, like Zambra, was born in the mid-1970s.

“My parents weren’t really right-wing,” he explains. “Politics were never mentioned in my house, except when my mother complained about how hard it had been to get milk for my sister during Salvador Allende’s government.”

Zambra’s narrator quickly learns to avoid making waves, and his explanation of how he does this provides a sentence-by-sentence pleasure that’s typical of the book.

“I figured out that keeping quiet was a very effective way to fit in,” he says. “I figured out, or began to figure out, that the news obscured reality, and that I was part of a conformist crowd neutralized by television.”

This is a kid who likes to keep his activities — whether it’s his DIY kite-selling business or his stint as an altar boy — a secret from his parents. Secrecy and compartmentalization in all walks of life, in fact, strike him as the best way to go.

Even when Zambra’s heroes slyly avoid confrontation, they serve as canny witnesses to lives disrupted by Chile’s troubles. “Camilo,” a terrific story that appeared in The New Yorker, focuses on a boy whose father went into exile to escape political persecution, thus precipitating divorce and decades-long estrangement in the family. The story’s examination of the past is oddly heightened by its narrator’s distrust of “this suspiciously stable place that is the present.”

Stories set later in time repeatedly focus on men who bungle everything they touch: marital relations, love affairs, careers. In “Family Life” — a perfectly shaped story with a tasty sting in its tail — a housesitting job leads to a romance riddled with spur-of-the-moment lies. In “The Most Chilean Man in the World,” a high-school teacher makes a bold romantic move that couldn’t be more miscalculated, as he spends his last funds on a flight from Chile to Belgium.

When Zambra’s protagonists are writers, the accouterments of their trade are almost more important than the writing itself. “He smoked a lot while he wrote,” Zambra notes of one character, “or rather, he wrote a little while he smoked a lot.”

Class resentments are the first suspects when relations grow awkward or unreadable between characters. Sex, booze and dope, however, have wild-card roles to play as well.

Zambra is the prizewinning author of three earlier short novels — but the stories in “My Documents” feel like his most substantial achievement yet. Megan McDowell’s smooth translation simply compounds its pleasures.

Michael Upchurch:

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