Diego Zúñiga - The fractured narrative switches from page to page between past revelations and present observations, mirroring the restless mind of the protagonist as he searches for connections. Zúñiga cleverly uses this technique to represent a young person’s hunger for self-actualization

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Diego Zúñiga, Camanchaca, Translated by Megan McDowell, Coffee House Press, 2017.
excerpt


A long drive across Chile's Atacama desert, traversing "the worn-out puzzle" of a broken family--a young man's corrosive intimacy with his mother, the obtrusive cheer of his absentee father, his uncle's unexplained death--occupies the heart of this novel. Camanchaca is a low fog pushing in from the sea, its moisture sustaining a near-barren landscape. Camanchaca is the discretion that makes a lifelong grief possible. Sometimes, the silences are what bind us.


This striking novel helps introduce Zúñiga, acclaimed Chilean author and journalist, to a wider English-language audience. Spurred by an offer to save his teeth from receding gums, a quiet and introspective young man joins his estranged father on a drive across the Atacama Desert from Santiago to Iquique. Along the way, the 20-year-old unnamed narrator begins to reflect on his relationships with his parents. Preparing to cross the border into Peru to visit a dentist in Tacna, he struggles to contextualize the broken recollections of his youth: his parent’s separation when he was a child, a troubling moment with his mother, and the ambiguous details of his uncle Neno’s death. Returning to his childhood home, the narrator seeks information on the whereabouts of a missing cousin who might have answers. With this skillful translation by McDowell, the story sustains suspense by gradually revealing itself. The fractured narrative switches from page to page between past revelations and present observations, mirroring the restless mind of the protagonist as he searches for connections. Zúñiga cleverly uses this technique to represent a young person’s hunger for self-actualization. As the book progresses, “like someone putting together and taking apart a worn-out puzzle,” these shattered pieces of prose—sometimes only a single poignant sentence or evocative paragraph—join together to build a vivid mosaic. This arresting and deeply affecting read, despite its short length, packs a punch. - Publishers Weekly


A young man strains to understand the source of his parents’ split as well as an uncle’s suspicious death.
The unnamed narrator of Zúñiga’s spare English debut is 20 years old and on a road trip with his father through Chile’s Atacama Desert, spending time with that side of the family before getting some dental work done. (The narrator has bleeding-gum issues after spending his adolescence subsisting entirely on junk food, it seems.) This simple plot has plenty of storm clouds: as the first page explains, he believes his father killed his uncle Neno years before, though the novel is less an investigation than a meditation on this act. The novel’s structure highlights the narrator’s split existence: one to two paragraphs per page, with each page alternating between the young man’s travels with dad and his childhood with mom. The latter experience, in his telling, was dour bordering on oppressive: he recalls being an aspiring journalist as his mother sparingly reveals details about Neno; the narrator’s dead brother; and her split from his father. Dad, meanwhile, is upbeat, with a new wife and son, though he keeps his distance from his own father, a devout Jehovah’s Witness. A camanchaca is a fog unique to Chile in parts where the desert abuts the coast, a fitting metaphor for the deliberate fuzziness of memory and emotion that Zúñiga cultivates. “[Dad] explains that one must respect the desert and the highway, that not just anyone can drive there,” he writes, which is a bit of bluster but also underscores the point that navigating those memories won’t be easy. The book’s brevity and mannered structure dampen its emotional impact; it will be interesting to see what Zúñiga can do with a broader canvas. But he’s thoughtfully commanded three complex lives in a limited space.
A smart, straightforward narrative that reveals the varied mood a shared experience can evoke. - Kirkus Reviews


Where the driest desert on Earth, the Atacama Desert of Chile, meets the Andes Mountains, dense clouds of fog form but never release their water where it’s needed most. These clouds are known as camanchacas. Tantalizing potential, hovering just out of reach.
The literal fog rarely makes an appearance in, Camanchaca a novel by Diego Zúñiga, but it’s still a supremely appropriate title. The story follows an unnamed college student protagonist who is visiting his father in Iquique. His long drive involves leaving his home, his mother, and his university in Santiago to pass through the Atacama Desert. Iquique is the site of the sediment of his family’s drama: the murky reason for his parents’ divorce and the death of an uncle. Reading through the book puts you on the edge of your seat, constantly expecting a breakthrough. The complete explanation for what’s going on, always seems like it’ll be on the next page. But Zúñiga is a master of showing that the full story is never the full story, and it’s never going to satisfy or justify.
On the surface, the situation in Camanchaca seems familiar enough. The protagonist narrator is mired in poverty and watches as it affects his mother even worse than himself, while also having to see his father’s new family enjoy material comforts he can’t build up the assertiveness to demand for himself. There’s a slowly dying dog that’s symbolically linked with his poverty. His grandfather runs a boarding house and fulfills the guilt-inducing role that lonely, eccentric grandparents often play. The narrator is extremely passive, wandering through events, only daring to have agency in a few key moments. I found myself constantly surprised that this was supposed to be a twenty-year-old character, but as the second half of the book unspools, his passivity and helplessness is justified in an artful peeling back of all the layers built up so far.
Camanchaca’s narration is the most impressive element of the novel. The narrator never says what he’s feeling, but the narration is constantly showing it—for example, by putting on and taking off headphones in response to lines of dialogue during their long car ride. There’s the occasional repetition of specific phrases, showing the narrator’s constant frustration. There’s the choice of whether to use “my stepmother,” “my father’s wife,” or “the woman.” And there’s moments like this:
“I don’t know,” I replied as she pulled the sheets over her face. It was a slow and awkward gesture. She told me no one was ever going to want a woman like her, and she asked me to hold her tight again. I obeyed, and she was quiet. I felt her bulky belly against my own. She asked me to run my fingers through her hair, and once again, I obeyed.
There’s so much power here in the word choice. So many things are said through the shorthand of the word “obeyed.”
Which makes translator Megan McDowell’s work all the more impressive. The precision of word choice required to make the narration work is really tight. But McDowell has proven to be an expert. She’s translated several Alejandro Zambra novels and stories (a feat unto itself) and last year translated the fantastic semi-autobiographical novel Seeing Red by Chilean author Lina Meruane—a book much different in tone from Camanchaca but one that also required absurdly specific word choice.
The structure of this novel is intricate, and that pays off—most of the time. The book jumps between multiple storylines constantly. A particular section of prose never crosses from one page to another. This works because Zúñiga is willing to limit some pages to a couple of sentences while going nearly to the end of the page in others, allowing him to tell the story in carefully managed bursts. The individual plotlines bleed over one another, which works really well thematically. It does make the book hard to reengage with once set down, though. I found myself having to rewind and reread the previous few pages to figure out what exactly was going on. The good news is that this is a very short book (~110 pages with a lot of white space), so picking it back up shouldn’t be much of an issue.
At the end of the book, I was satisfied. I felt like I understood the character who had been a mystery at the beginning. But in a way, this book also feels like the first half of something bigger. The narrative offers revelations but leaves things frustratingly unchanged. Maybe wanting more is a sign of something lacking, or maybe it’s a sign that Camanchaca is a good story. Regardless, this is a masterfully crafted short novel. - Graham Oliver


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. - jim hepplewhite


Diego Zuniga (born 1987) is a Chilean author and journalist. He is the author of two novels and the recipient of the Juegos Literarios Gabriela Mistral and the Chilean National Book and Reading Council Award. He lives in Santiago de Chile.

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