“Every book is experimental, but they’re not all weird. This one is weird.”
So says Alejandro Zambra of his latest work, Multiple Choice, which takes the form of an exam. In fact, it does more than just ‘take’ this form, as the author is keen to stress: it closely copies the format of the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test that he took in 1993. The test was (and in revised form still is) sat by all students seeking entry to Chilean universities.
Weird books pose peculiar challenges at author events – as Zambra demonstrated on his visit to Waterstones Bristol for the Festival of Ideas.
In giving us a short extract, he first had to seek agreement from the audience on how he might go about reading each exam question – complete with blank spaces – then giving a variety of potential responses, completing the blanks; a series of poetic, recursive variations.
He showed just one of the plethora of ways we can engage with a work which invites highly subjective interpretations, whilst at the same time forcing its ‘test subjects’ to face up to stark – often absurd – realities. For Zambra and his Chilean contemporaries, memories of childhood are forcibly suffused with the realities of dictatorship, Augusto Pinochet’s regime; they cannot be disentangled. Nor can, I venture, any active reader disentangle their own memories from so many of those put across in Multiple Choice.
“I like to think in terms of an us. As a plural.” Thinking through issues collectively was a central part of the evening with Zambra as he frequently called on fellow Chileans in the audience (including a close friend who had a hand in the book’s genesis) to suggest better and different English expressions to assist all of us with understanding. “Every book is about belonging. The possibility of saying me. The possibility of saying we.”
It was particularly insightful to hear Zambra echo others who’d been subjected to the test, revealing the fear and frustration they felt about it. The six years of preparation; memorising lists of highfalutin words only ever met in the exam; the trepidation with which they approached what Zambra thought of as “the day the future starts“; worries that he might fall ill that day and have to wait another year to be examined.
Around the same time Zambra was readying himself for his big test day, I was being processed through UK exam factories. Since graduation, I’ve worked in the education sector. I thought I knew a lot about the nature of being tested. But one of Zambra’s great and frightening feats in this book (“No. I wouldn’t call it a Novel. It’s not the book I should have written.”) is to reveal and explore the potential for exams to oppress and to suppress thought. This is of particular and painful relevance to Chile, but also of general import to all who support the sitting and setting of exams. (As a wise ex-teacher, Mr. Segovia, says in one of the reading comprehensions included: “You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry – you weren’t educated, you were trained.”)
Zambra is an author investigating the authority of the examiner(s) – and what it is to have experienced an authoritarian regime. The shadow of dictatorship falls on the exam hall, and lies across his practice of ‘playing’ with the original test to compose Multiple Choice. “Playing. I love that word because it means so many things in English.”
“I started playing with the voices of people I hate,” says Zambra, who wants to find “a simple way of talking about hard things.” He is justly proud of having discovered a popular form: something that can be easily read by those who would baulk at reading most ‘serious’ literature. Yet this playful approach permits a much deeper interrogation of the dark places readers are led.
So is Zambra playing with us when he speaks of the examiner as the true mastermind behind this work?
Zambra spoke of a conversation with someone who had thought of ‘the’ examiner; a single omniscient author – the authority; this figure of “the guy who writes the test, but doesn’t want me to have the answers.” The test itself is against us, but it may also be instrumental in pulling us together – as a coalition – against it (both in the book, and in conversation, Zambra is candid about communal cheating strategies he and his fellows employed).
Whether by accident or design, authority shows its workings. Though brutally effective in establishing control – constantly, as Zambra puts it, the work is overflowing. “The writer – not me – is doing things he is not supposed to be.”
In the audience Q&A, I tried to compliment Zambra on having so successfully created in me, as reader, tides of liberation and restriction:
A flow of free imagination – as I create my own ‘best’ response to a question – is followed by a cruel ebb. Freedom is whipped away as I find the thoughts I have had – ones I’m keen to have validated – do not fit with any of the available options A-E (always, A-E). Ultimately I am enslaved to the structure – I am pushed to commit myself to responses I don’t believe in. I can only express myself in certain approved ways. But, crucial to the artistry involved here, I come to recognise sly tricks being deployed.
For example, in question 58 the examiner(s) wreak havoc with their own rubric – and all options A-E are written to amount to the same single response: none. The exam candidate is denied the chance to erase any of the uncomfortable truths she’d rather censor. And again, for further example, in question 59 – we encounter truths that we are desperate to forget – but which the sabotaging strictures of the exam force us to remember, over and over again.
These tricks make a mockery of the test as test, but firmly establish the eerie sense of being played with; of being a mere play-thing of an authority.
Surely the author should be congratulated for creating this effect – for planning and carrying it all out so well?
No. Zambra admits to the effect (“The reader is always creating the book. You have options. And then you don’t have options.”) but he refuses to accept credit for orchestrating the reader’s experience in the way I suggested – he is convinced that the shape and rhythm of the work stems from the original exam’s structure. “It is a broken book” he urges. If the text were to work as it should, it must not expose itself in this way; the reader should be unconscious of the attempt at control.
If not the author himself, then the ghost of the examining authority persists in seizing and then releasing its grip over the mind of its reader. Despite this, Multiple Choice is an exhilarating read, and in no way does it wear one down with the good-cop/bad-cop tactics I’ve highlighted.
The book aides and abets the reader in becoming wholly conscious of its own self-awareness. The final stages of the exam, such as section IV: Sentence Elimination (“the opposite of creative writing” –– sentence elimination being something, Zambra told us, that Chileans had to perfect if they were to survive under Pinochet) reveal growing rifts in what could be read (if you really insisted, yet there’s no need) as a series of straightforward narratives. Metafictional forces assert themselves. One paragraph in question 64 (you can choose to accept or reject this, remember, but don’t expect that choice to come freely) reads:
“This is not me talking. Someone is talking for me. Someone who is faking my voice. My father will die soon. The person faking my voice knows this, and doesn’t care.”
The book itself appears to deny accountability.
At the end of the evening, Zambra graciously accepted his audience’s thanks – and showed himself at least responsible in large part for bringing this remarkable work to fruition. Although the English translation (apparently) differs in certain substantive respects from the Chilean original (titled Facsímil – “copying is very much what this is about”) it is still “absolutely the way I wrote it” – and he made a point of expressing his own high praise for the intricate work of his English translator Megan McDowell (“The more difficult it is for me to read, the better the translation.”)
Despite uncertainty as to which voices speak through and – through its diverse re-creation in reading – speak beyond it; Multiple Choice presents as profoundly – sometimes unnervingly – intimate. It will ask questions of you and you will ask questions of it.
If you buy the book, tear out its last page, which is printed as an answer grid – and you can indicate your responses, filling in the appropriate boxes with a soft pencil. I dream of a companion text revealing the most popular choices averaged across Zambra’s readership. But a search for answers would certainly be missing the point of this multiply realisable non-novel.