The silent citizen remembers in Alejandro Zambra's 'Multiple Choice'
In Multiple Choice, Alejandro Zambra asks us to remember a lot of things:
A) A lost love
B) A dead friend
C) A sixty-five-year-old woman who lost a breast to cancer, and never forgot she was missing a breast
D) A curfew imposed in Santiago, Chile, under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship
E) May 2004, when Chile became the penultimate country in the world to legalize divorce
F) Our complicity in remembering trauma and injustice
G) The construction of this act of memory
H) The potential for its erasure
I) The authorial examiner responsible for this erasure
K) The list goes on
Zambra’s interactive hybrid text, attentively translated by Megan McDowell, parodies the form of the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test — specifically from 1993, the year he took the test — which students would take to apply to Chilean universities. In this text, cheating on the test is an act of solidarity, of undermining the system that suppresses thought and speech. And undermining the system is what Zambra continuously does. Along with the things listed above, Zambra includes the legendary story of how the Covarrubias twins cheated the system of multiple choice tests — a lesson in how “you weren’t educated” but “trained” for “a world where everyone fucks everyone over.” Beneath the surface of these anecdotes, he points us to our complicity in perpetuating injustice when we remain silent, when we erase acts of memory, and when we unquestioningly comply with the institutional structures of power that seek to divide us — when we allow ourselves to be “trained.”
The absurdly limiting form of the aptitude test not only exposes the ridiculousness of the requirement to guess, to conform to an omniscient examiner’s demands for order and definitions of “Truth”; the restrained structure of the text also asks its readers to be witnesses to both personal and collective memory — its constructions, its emotional affect, its impossible containment, its infinite possibilities — ironically through the very same test which the narrator parodies, deconstructs, and reinvents.
When thinking about the representation of memory, one is tempted to think of expansive prose that recreates the experience, affect, and mental associations derived from the act of remembering a la Proust, Nabokov, Joyce, and Banville. But Zambra’s transgressive prose manages to represent memory and all its authorial suspicions and vulnerabilities in a compressed, almost Oulipian structure reminiscent of the dictatorship that the text constantly mocks and tries to escape from.
The multiple-choice test gives you, the reader and the examined, the illusion of choice, that there could be “right” answers that lead to desired outcomes. But the options play at answers, at the possible variants of narrative order. The rules are always subverted. In “Section II: Sentence Order,” you are asked to “mark the answer that puts the sentences in the best possible order to form a coherent text” (11). The sentences are fragments of memory which the text asks you to order:
1) You try to remember your first Communion.
2) You try to remember your first masturbation.
3) You try to remember the first time you had sex.
4) You try to remember the first death in your life.
5) And the second. (14)
The fifth option hints that the list goes on; the memories don’t stop at your firsts. It asks the impossible — to continuously, simultaneously order and reorder your experiences according to a perceived chronological, institutionalized structure. It is testing compliance. It is asking you to fit your memories into a box, or in this context, to contain a disparate series of personal experiences into a single shaded oval on an answer sheet. Towards the end of that section, the rules change. In “35. Swimming” (23) and “36. Scars” (24), the available options are all identical, and in the same order. The only option is to believe that the order does not matter. They are all disparate, fragmented, but linked by an evolving system of rules and choices — the unpredictable workings of memory.
“Section IV: Sentence Elimination” asks the examined to pick the sentences that “can be eliminated because they either do not add information or are unrelated to the rest of the text” (35). The exercise is designed as a training in censorship; it forces the examined to put a hierarchal value on speech, testimony, and information. If every exercise is a micronarrative, the structure confronts how fragments of memory can be omitted, by the author, the witness, the reader. It is all a matter of choice. The text is laden with anxieties of erasure — of injustices, of existence, of trauma — mirroring the societal repression at the hands of Pinochet’s dictatorship. But the omniscient examiner changes the rules again:
(1) I didn’t want to talk about you, but it’s inevitable.
(2) I’m talking about you right now. And you’re reading this, and you know it’s about you.
(3) Now I am the words that you read and wish did not exist.
(4) I hate you.
(5) You would like to have the power of a censor.
(6) So no one would ever read these words.
(7) I hate you.
(8) You ruined my life.
(9) Now I am words you cannot erase.
E) D (40)
The text resists grand narratives, those that decide and dictate the definition of “Truth.” The subversion of the rules assures us of the necessity of every fragment of memory, the necessity to consider and bear witness to multiple forms of truth. In this monolithic test format, the silenced citizen remembers; she speaks by undermining the very structure that seeks to suppress her. This is especially apparent in question 64, where midway through the narrative options, the speaking subject reclaims its voice in a highly self-reflexive moment:
(10) 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.
(11) Maybe by the time the book this fucking voice faker is writing gets published, my father will be dead. And people will think that there is something true in what my fake voice says. Even though it isn’t my voice. Though I would never really say what I’m saying now. Though no one has the right to speak for me … (52)
Zambra shows the limitations of speaking for the silenced — or rather speaking over the silent — through the very medium of institutional power he parodies, when his own speakers subvert the formal expectations of his prose. This undermining of language demonstrates how words, narratives, and testimonies can often be co-opted by institutions of power. It is demonstrative of what Audre Lorde speaks about in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — that we “share a commitment to language” and “to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us … And where the words of women [and all those who are silenced] are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own” (43). Both Lorde and Zambra look to the reader, the witness of erasure, to validate these fragments of memory and testimony, to act in solidarity and “cheat” the system that seeks to divide us.
Unlike conventional memoirs, or even graphic memoirs, the compression of Multiple Choice transforms the possibilities of representing memory. Here, memory that is stifled, repressed, silenced, is what Audre Lorde calls a violence on the body — immobilization. The text transforms this silence (violence) into language and action. Memory is transformed from a concept that is internalized in the body, in the “length of a scar,” through the “pain of others colliding with your body until you are completely invaded” (24), into an act of confrontation against social injustices — the conservative moral policing by fervent religiosity, the constricting education system, the rigorous censorship for the interest of powerful people. Through this act of remembering, Zambra confronts what he calls the country of waiting.
“We live in the country of waiting; we live in wait for something. Chile is one giant waiting room, and we will all die waiting for our number to be called” (81), says a poet with relation to the many reforms in the country that are consistently delayed. And one of the suggested answers to this is that “the priority was to put off indefinitely any reform that might put at risk the interests of corporations and the impunity of those responsible for crimes during the dictatorship, including, of course, Pinochet” (86).
The silent citizen is apart and a part of the country of waiting, of stagnation, of inaction. And Lorde’s 1977 call for this silent waiting to be transformed into language and action has once again resonated like sirens across the decades. “Your silence will not protect you” (41), she says, and Zambra asks us to remember this.