camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga
reviewed by jim hepplewhite
Have you ever traveled a desert at night? It's dark, it's frigid, and the only thing between you and any other traveler is the silence. That's Camanchaca. It's about those moments between destinations, the awkward silences. The weighted pauses.
"'That's all a lie,' said my mom."
Calling Camanchaca a novella is a bit much. It's a complete enough experience that it reads like a novella. Each page is a separate scene, some of them one sentence long, some of them a full page. Mr. Zúñiga knows just how little he needs to write to leave the reader with the maximum effect. The effect is poetic, but occasionally maddeningly terse. Perhaps strangely, I don't read Camanchaca as hazy. Mr. Zúñiga precisely writes just enough for you to get the effect and immediately that vignette ends.
"My father's first car was a 1971 Ford Fastlane, which my grandfather gave him when he turned fifteen.
His second was a 1985 Honda Accord, lead gray.
His third was a 1990 bmw 850i, navy blue, which he killed my Uncle Nemo with.
His fourth is a Ford Ranger, smoke colored, which we are driving across the Atacama Desert."
The only author I can think of who writes like this is César Aira, though Mr. Zúñiga's aims and tone are completely different. At its base, Camanchaca is a coming of age story through the lens of a boy who doesn't quite know what he's facing in an abusive, fractured relationship with his mother and his deadbeat dad. The silences stuck out. In the conversations, I can feel and then visualize the friction. To the main character, even the most benign disagreements are tense because his upbringing is so stilted. Notably, he wants to be a soccer announcer (a person paid to comment or describe other people's actions).
"In one of the interviews she told me it's better not to remember anything."
On the translation, I believe I'm reading Mr. Zúñiga's voice, so Megan McDowell did a great job. Her precision with choosing the right word to demonstrate the narrator's passivity or fear is remarkable.
"We walk toward the hotel. I have no idea what the street is called, but there are several casinos on it. Some Chileans are walking beside us, talking loudly. 'This looks just like Chile,' says one of them, as if it were the most important reflection of his life. My dad is looking at some receipts as he walks. I look at my list. Three items checked off. The rest, the majority, untouched. The Chileans speed up. We go into the hotel, head to the parking lot. My dad puts the receipts into a bag and gets into the truck. 'Are you happy with the things you got, kiddo?' he asks. 'Where did you put them?'
He starts the car. I tell him they're in my bag.
'That stuff'll get you through the year, right?'"
Camanchaca is a laconic, poignant work. I look forward to more.