Penultimate Activities

Alejandro Zambra
translated by
Megan McDowell
Illustration by Claire Hungerford

in a word document, using a maximum of five thousand characters (including spaces), describe, in the greatest possible detail, the house in which you live. Observe the walls espe­cially. Note the cracks, the stains, the nail marks and holes. Think, for example, of how many times those walls have been painted. Imagine the brushes, the paint cans, the rollers. Think of the peo­ple who painted those walls. Call up their faces, invent them.

Next, consider the leaks, the imperfections in the floors, the carpets (if there are carpets), the drawers that don’t close all the way, the kitchen utensils, the condition of handles and outlets, the shape and quality of the mirrors (if there are mirrors): pay spe­cial attention to what the mirrors reflect when no one is looking at them, when a suspicion of uselessness settles over them.

Organize any books in the house according to size, not from largest to smallest but in the shape of waves or pyramids. Do not think, please, about the possibility of reading them—that is not the pur­pose of this activity. Nor should you pay any mind to the titles or authors: confront the books as if they were mere imperfect bricks. Then set them on fire and gaze at the flames from a pru­dent distance. Let the blaze grow, but try not to let it get out of control. Breathe in a little smoke, close your eyes every once in a while, though ideally for no longer than ten seconds. Think of this: every fire, no matter how slight or brief, is a spectacle. Think of the clouds when the trees burn. Then try to extinguish the fire. Do it calmly and with care, elegantly if possible. Finally, look up at the sky, where God or one of his epigones should be, and give thanks.

If you were able to control the fire, if by this point you are not dead or aboard an ambulance, if you managed—with or without faith—to give thanks to God or one of his epigones, you will see some books that are blackened and unrecognizable and others that are half-burned, almost completely destroyed but still recognizable, even legible, and also a group of almost-intact books that are maybe a little wet or smudged but still salvageable. Gather up the ruined books, place them in suitcases you don’t often use or in heavy-duty garbage bags, large or extra-large, walk to the nearest river, toss the baggage into the current, look at the sky and give thanks, but this time with no real ceremony, without emphasis, with real familiar­ity toward God or his epigones or toward the entity that fulfills (or should fulfill) a certain transcendent function.

Then, select all the text, copy and paste it into another file, and erase the people you sincerely feel should never have been born, because they hurt you or those you love.

If there is not a reasonably close river, drop the bags in the place where, if you lived in a different city, in a city designed—well or badly—by you, there would be a river. Stand looking at the current and concentrate on it until you feel as if you are mov-ing forward.

Back at home, read the books that survived the fire, and (a) draw your conclusions. Don’t over-elaborate your theories: simply postulate some ideas, no matter how abstruse, about the meaning of the fact—fair or unfair but always capricious—that it was these and not other books that were spared from the fire. And (b) think, but without a shred of dramatics or self-pity, about whether these books could somehow save you.

Write down your impressions about activity number 2 in a Word file, 12-point Perpetua font, double-spaced, using a minimum of twenty thousand characters (including spaces).

Repeat activity number 2 until there are no more legible or recog­nizable books in your house. Always give thanks, though you needn’t look at the sky—just raise your eyebrows. Every time, con­centrate on the current of the river until you feel that you are mov­ing forward.

Then, with no more books remaining, open a new document. This time, write with no length requirement or limitation, and in the font that most closely resembles your handwriting as you remember it. Go ahead and write about your life: about your child­hood, about love, about fear. And about the opposite of fear, the opposite of love, the opposite of childhood. And about hunger, coughing, all of it. Think back, don’t idealize, but neither should you avoid idealization. If you write about people who were once close but now seem remote, do not theorize about distance; try to understand that old nearness. Don’t avoid sentimentalism or gerunds.

Then, select all the text, copy and paste it into another file, and erase the people you sincerely feel should never have been born, because they hurt you or those you love.

Combine all the files into one, in whatever order you prefer. The page setting should be A5, single-spaced, with your choice of font, though 12-point Perpetua is suggested. Number the pages in the lower right-hand corner, choose a title, sign it with your name or a pseudonym or the name you think should have been yours, the name you would have liked to have. Only then, for the first time, print it all out and bind it. You have written a book, and this time you don’t have to thank anyone for it. You have written a book, but don’t publish it. If you want, write other books and publish them, but don’t ever publish this one.

Alejandro Zambra is the author of Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees, Ways of Going Home, My Documents, Not to Read, Multiple Choice, and Chilean Poet. In Chile, he has won the National Book Council award for best novel three times. For his work translated into English, he has won the English PEN Award and the O. Henry Prize and was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His books have been translated into twenty languages. Zambra is from Chile and lives in Mexico City.
Megan McDowell has published several translations from the Spanish that have been singled out for distinction, including the National Book Award, the English PEN Award, the Premio Valle-Inclán, and the O. Henry Prize. Her translations have also been nominated four times for the International Booker Prize. Her short story translations have been featured in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Granta, among others. McDowell is from Richmond, Kentucky, and lives in Santiago, Chile.
Originally published:
March 27, 2023


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