April 26, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 20°C
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Bios & Memoirs


The Third Policeman

Irishman Flan O'Brien managed to introduce Disney to Swift in a comic vision of death.

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner's 2011 debut set a fine tone for postmodern irony, but it grows repetitive.

The Underground Man

Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer endures as a detective ahead of his time.

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's brilliant stories eviscerate families seeking Communist-era roofs.

I Refuse

In a novel with autobiographical hues, Norwegian Per Petterson considers friendship and lost time.

The Dream of My Return

A paranoid Salvadoran expat in Mexico City dreams of going him — but conspiracies come first.

As Good As Dead

Elizabeth Evans' new novel is a powerful look at women friends "reunited" in name only.


David Vann's vision of family redemption starts magically, but grows foul with rage.


The Book of My Lives

Aleksandar Hemon's poignant memoir falters when family tragedy becomes its focus.

Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal

American writer Michael Mewshaw generously recalls Gore Vidal and his tumultuous times.

My Documents
By Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell 223 pages
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015. 223 pages

The first few stories in Chilean Alejandro Zambra's collection are muted as if to suggest an author limbering up before preparing to sprint past the limitations of autobiographical fiction. Zambra's autobiographical outline is evident in sensitive, soccer-loving boys reared in the Santiago of the Pinochet dictatorship and vulnerable to feelings "of impropriety, of ignorance, smallness and estrangement," and ugliness. In the title story, the young son of a 1980s computer technician father and a typist mother lies his way into becoming a choirboy only to abandon God to believe "naively, intensely, absolutely, in literature." Its closing lines kindle the maturing whole: "My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter. I was a blank page, and now I am a book."

That man-book turns on small, often wry details, "carried along on the scent of memory." In "I Smoked Very Well," an Italo Svevo-like narrator recites the comic trials and tribulations of quitting smoking. He slyly mulls over literature, women and his goals ("I would like to smoke with the elegance of a semicolon.") In "Thank You," a Chilean man involved with an Argentine woman travel to Mexico City where they're mugged, deepening their ambiguous bond. In "Family Life," Martín agrees to housesit a home including a cat called Mississippi. But Mississippi vanishes, which leads Martín to meet Paz, whose dog has also disappeared. They become lovers based on an accretion of borrowings and lies that will slam down on Martín's fingers like a windowsill. In the final story, "Artist's Rendition," a writer tasked with writing a detective story remembers a girl who was once sexually abused by half-brother and father, her travails merging with the writer's plot. "She thinks of an ambiguous pain," the girl says of her abuse, "of a disaster, calm and silent."

In each of these 11 stories Zambra scans the ordinary for modest slivers of illumination, often picking up on bits and pieces of calm and disaster. His interest isn't in Roberto Bolaño-like flights of fancy but in the sometimes hard and farcical difficulties that insert themselves into day-to-day life, whether the result is hopeful, hopeless or just part and parcel of getting with it.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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