Saturday, 4 March 2017

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
If texts are not completed until they are read, and if the realisation of those texts is largely dependent upon the contexts in which they are read, each reading becomes a test, both of the text and of the reader (the author by this time having taken refuge in the past (a state indistinguishable from death)). In Zambra's clever, ironic and poigant book, a series of increasingly lengthy texts are presented with accompanying multi-choice questions (modelled on the Chilean Academic Aptitude test, a multi-choice university entrance examination [!]) which demand that the reader insert, exclude, suppress, complete or 'interpret' elements of the text. Any provision of choice combined with the restriction to set choices and the impulsion to choose is not only a way of assessing an aspirant but a way of moulding that aspirant's thinking into categories set by whatever is the relevant authority. This thought-moulding, the reader's constant awareness while reading that they will be judged and categorised but not knowing for what, the constant possibility that one's experience may have aspects of it erased or re-ordered by agents of authority (with whom even the reader may be complicit under unforeseen circumstances) but not knowing in advance which aspects these may be have especial resonance with the Chilean dictatorship in which Zambra grew up, but are always all about us for, after all, is not the erasure or addition of detail concerning the past (and these stories are all written in the past tense) an inescapable part of the tussle for reality that takes place constantly all around us at all levels, personal, interpersonal, historical, political? The book is also 'about' writing stories: how does the inclusion, exclusion and ordering of detail affect the reader's understanding of and response to a text? These are considerations a writer is constantly, dauntingly faced with and which they usually in the first instance answer from their own experience as a reader (in this case the author is incapable of benefitting from criticism by being embedded in the past (a state indistinguishable from death) but has made himself immune to judgement by allowing for all possibilities and committing himself to none (or at least seemingly: is this political prevarication or subversive smokescreen?). As well as being 'about' all these sorts of things, the book is fun and funny, and it can also be read with enjoyment on the level of the spectacle.

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