Cheating

Alejandro Zambra wrote one of my favorite books, The Private Lives of Trees. It was a story within a story about writing stories. It doesn’t get much more metafiction than that. So when the English translation of Multiple Choice came out in 2016, I picked up my copy straight away. Then I let it languish on my to-read pile because Multiple Choice is obviously experimental fiction. You see, it says so right on the cover.

So how experimental is Zambra? Here’s his Note on the Text.

The structure of this book is based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, which students took in December each year from 1967 through 2003 in order to apply to Chilean universities. […] This book specifically takes the form of the Verbal Aptitude test as it was given in 1993, the year the author took the exam. At that time it consisted of ninety multiple-choice exercises presented in five sections.

Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choices (Penguin 2016)

Hermit crab

If Zambra were writing nonfiction, then Multiple Choice would qualify as a hermit crab. This is a kind of lyric essay written inside the shell of some other work: an instruction manual, an annotated dictionary or, in this case, a multiple-choice exam. It can be a tricky form to use. You don’t want the form to become a gimmick.

It works for me. The multiple choice form invites the reader into the text to uncover its meaning. For example, Zambra asks his readers to complete his sentences by choosing the most appropriate element.

37. ___________________ the thousand amendments they’ve made to it, the Chilean Constitution is a piece of shit.

A) After
B) Due to
C) In spite of
D) Thanks to
E) Notwithstanding

The 5 sections of Multiple Choice demand different talents from the reader. Excluded Word asks the reader to choose the word that bears no relationship to the other words in the list or the heading. In Sentence Order, you must group the lines in their most logical sequence. Like so:

31. Relatives
1. You group them into two lists: the ones you love and the ones you don’t.
2. You group them into two lists: the ones who shouldn’t be alive and the ones who shouldn’t be dead.
3. You group them according to the degree of trust they inspired in you as a child.
4. For a moment you think you discover something important, something that has been weighing on you for years.
5. You group them into two lists: the living and the dead.

A lost generation

Pinochet came to power in 1973, two years before Zambra was born. In 1990, Pinochet was deposed. That was three years before Zambra took the Chilean Aptitude Test. Zambra grew up in Santiago where any adult could have been a victim or a perpetrator of the violence inflicted during the Pinochet regime.

The references to Pinochet begin lightly. Exercise 57 describes the curfew that was in force in Santiago from 11 September 1973 to 2 January 1987. It also states that a man was caught out late and had to spend the night at a friend’s. They made love and produced a child. Exercise 57 asks: which part of this story is irrelevant?

In Exercise 62, friends meet at a dinner party. Some are Chilean, others come from abroad. They compete among each other “to be the best observer and to inhabit the worst country.” Exercise 24 asks us to identify the “excluded term” from a list of five words, all of which are silence. This, to me, is poetry.

Autofiction

The 5th section of Multiple Choice tests reading comprehension. Text #1 describes a secondary school much like the one Zambra attended and where he would have taken his Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. The star of Text #1 is the beloved religion teacher Mr Segovia.

He’d go on and on in an endless soliloquy about any subject but religion; his favorite, in fact, was sex, and which teachers at our school he wanted to have it with.

One classroom discussion inadvertently strays into the arena of cheating on standardized tests. Mr Segovia tries to express his disapproval but it’s the system, not the students, who deserve reproach.

They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over. You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry — you weren’t educated, you were trained.

Multiple Choice offers a better education than Mr Segovia ever could. It’s a lesson in how a few words on a page can convey meaning with the help of a diligent reader. No cheating required.

11 July 2021 | Karen Kao