When I first read Alejandro Zambra’s short story “Camilo” I’d never heard of the author. Nor had I contemplated visiting his native Chile (no more than other countries of similarly obscure profile), and I most certainly hadn’t known that in a few years I’d become obsessively intrigued with one of Camilo’s foundational elements — the Chilean coup of 1973 and resultant dictatorship — specifically with what it could teach Americans during our own moment of searing national polarization, one that somehow resulted in a bigoted real estate developer with no record of service or selflessness becoming president.
All of that has since changed. "Camilo" was published in The New Yorker in May 2014 (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell), and I likely read it that month or soon after. Impressed, I sought out all of Zambra’s books, finishing them quickly because they are universally short (yet heady in how they play with form). Life, of course, continued, and Donald Trump, of course, was elected president in November 2016. Then in May 2017, I spent three weeks in Chile, where I visited a museum dedicated to those who went missing during the dictatorship and subsequently read about the coup, the dictator years, and the recovery all, with an eye to how it happened, why, and what it meant for quiet lives of normal people.
Upon re-reading Camilo with context, I was struck by a new appreciation for the sheer efficiency with which Zambra tells his own devastating story, rich in both character and the fate of a nation, while achieving a universality that speaks to many of my own fears about America’s future, about the endgame of our degenerating national climate.
There’s so much to appreciate about Camilo as an engaged reader. The protagonist narrates in the first person, looking back as an adult at boyhood. This narrator is deeply-realized, expressing bygone logical memories that relate to his progression into a man. He tells of childhood OCD and love for his father and memories of the titular character, Camilo, an older boy who assumed a significant place in the mythology of the narrator's life as a hero who shattered conventions and molded his eventual identity for the better. Plus, he put him onto Talking Heads.
In understanding both the narrator’s relationship with Camilo, and why this story is central to his life, this passage is crucial:
I could fill many pages writing about Camilo’s importance in my life. For now, I remember that it was Camilo who, after many long and sophisticated arguments, managed to get me permission to go to my first concert. (We saw Aparato Raro at the Don Orione school in Cerrillos.) He was also the first person to read my poems.
It’s all in there: earnest appreciation, Camilo’s strange power in the boy’s world, details we all remember when we explore our own pasts to understand our adult identities, passion for music, and the admission that Zambra’s narrator is a writer, a trait shared by all his narrators, often revealed in a meta context as himself (though he doesn’t seem to go that route here).
With this in mind, "Camilo" functions as a possible origin for Zambra. Perhaps this is why it's one of his most traditional pieces, because isn’t tradition where all artists start? But Zambra’s personal history — and thus the personal history of our narrator — is only one component of what makes "Camilo" a significant work that is painfully relevant to the modern American political climate.
Another component, and, indeed, one that made the story linger with me after my own trip to Chile, exists mostly in the margins but informs every sentence: the Chilean dictatorship. The first brief mention is near the start, wherein the narrator notes that his father cared so much for Camilo because he was the son of his best friend, a friend imprisoned and then sent into exile. That’s it. The dictatorship is next mentioned when Camilo is teaching the narrator to overcome shyness in order to attract girls, doing so by maniacally laughing on the ground until he is confronted by police.
When he finally stopped laughing, there were five policemen there asking him for an explanation. Camilo gave me a nod of approval—I had stayed beside him the whole time, and I had even laughed a little, too. I watched the cops’ faces, impassive and severe, while Camilo rattled off a disjointed explanation in which he talked about me and my shyness, and how it was necessary to teach me this lesson so that I could, he told them, grow. He had disrupted the public order, we were living under a dictatorship, but Camilo managed to placate the policemen, and we walked away after making the strange promise never to laugh in a public place again.
The dictatorship makes yet another brief appearance, reminding us simple actions — learning to be assertive, making a goofy adolescent scene — are complicated by the potential for prison and exile which are responsible for Camilo’s presence in the narrator’s life. It gives small acts added weight and creates vast tension, upping the stakes without an arbitrary affliction like memory loss or cancer (illnesses that plague so many characters in fiction, probably too many).
By the time Camilo becomes politically active and fights with his mom midway through the piece, we understand the implications of opposing the dictatorship and when nothing happens to him we see that they've dulled. It’s no coincidence that the paragraph in which this occurs is also the first time we hear the Chilean dictator’s name, withheld until it wields less power.
As the role of the dictatorship unfurls, so too does the story of Camilo’s relationship with his exiled father. What dominates the narrator’s memories and attention, however, is something else. His story is heavier with bittersweet jokes about his family’s passion for soccer. Soccer and the dictatorship function here as two sides of one coin, with the sport mentioned so explicitly while the dictatorship is tiptoed around, the sport serving as an escapist pastime while the dictatorship is an obscured albatross preventing normality.
The narrator’s total unwillingness to dwell on the dictatorship and politics comes to a head as he notes that “in mid-1990, something marvelous happened” … he and his family got a phone line after waiting a decade, nevermind that Chile transitioned back to democracy that same March. That doesn’t merit a mention. Instead, we’re shown a tangible result in the narrator’s life. Family needs a phone, waits a decade, finally gets it once the dictator is out of power.
As the story heads to an end, we jump to 2012. The narrator visits Camilo’s father, Big Camilo, in Amsterdam. As for the years between, the narrator notes little, other than the Chilean national soccer was irrelevant in global competition, presumably rendering that time meaningless. The two most powerful paragraphs in the story come toward the end, the first being when Big Camilo reveals he’d been tortured by the dictatorship but never told his son:
“They beat the shit out of me,” he says to me now. “But I don’t want to talk about that. I’m alive. I got to leave, start over again.” We both fall silent, thinking about Camilo. I think of the record shop, the song by the Talking Heads; maybe I hum it a little. “I was born in a house with the television always on / Guess I grew up too fast / And I forgot my name.”
The second is the final paragraph, which brought me to tears. We’d just learned Camilo was struck by a car and killed in the nineties and no one told Big Camilo for eight days. Big Camilo then tells the narrator to say sorry to his own father, whom he has feuded with for decades. Over what? Soccer.
“I’ll tell him,” I reply. When we say goodbye, he hugs me and starts to cry. I think that the story can’t end like that, with Camilo, Sr., crying for his dead son, his son who was practically a stranger to him. But that’s how it ends.
There’s been so much talk of soccer and family, that we've all missed what was lost, missed the serious stakes outside the games. What a heart-rending punch.
But how does this all relate to the current U.S. political climate? I should note I don’t believe America is on the brink of a similar dictatorship or coup, not exactly, and I should say I can’t possibly understand the depth of the Chilean perspective on what happened. How could I?
I did, however, have a personal experience in Santiago this May that struck me as exceedingly relevant to our times. I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which I erroneously expected to be about recollection because my Spanish is crude. It isn’t. The museum commemorates those lost during the dictatorship. It’s narrow, located in a tower of sorts that requires climbing many stairs to see all of a multi-storied wall plastered with photographs of the dead and missing. It’s heartbreaking. There’s also much to read there about Salvador Allende, the progressive leader who’d been helping the poor when the coup led to his ouster and resultant death in the presidential palace, the nature of which (murder or suicide) is still debated.
The right painted Allende as a despot anxious to overthrow democracy and install a communist state like Cuba’s. Allende, who was democratically elected in an unchallenged vote, gave no indication of this, though he was a vocal socialist, albeit one that preached democracy. An apt comparison is Bernie Sanders. Here’s Allende’s final address:
"Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!"
The Pinochet regime reigned for 27 years. I was in Chile less than six months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and news clippings in the museum from the days preceding the coup that brought Pinochet, a military general, to power struck me as similar in rhetoric and accusatory tones as those that powered the rise of Donald Trump. All over the museum it was also noted that prior to the coup Chile had long been one of the most stable democracies on the planet. In my jingoistic American way, I saw us, our recent past and our possible future. There has to be an endgame to the populism and extreme partisanship that has become us. Maybe it isn't imminent, but military upheaval is increasingly plausible. The date of the Chilean coup was also September 11, in what could be a coincidence.
Anyway, my sense is that Chile is deeply ashamed that a coup happened to them, that intellectual discourse failed, that the suspected arm of the U.S. upended democracy and helped create a situation that disappeared thousands of people (our role was found to be likely in CIA documents declassified in 2000; plus there is the curious case of the Chicago Boys, American-trained economist who sowed business-friendly markets across Latin America). When I think of the festering divides in our country now, our digging in, our circular discourse, our raging, our condescension, our antagonism toward each other, and the Russian hacking and meddling and misinformation related to Trump's election...how can I not see shades of Chile?
But with Zambra’s story "Camilo" and its heavy focus on the minute details of soccer rather than on death and politics and torture, I see all that was lost to upheaval, and I see all we now stand to lose. What, then, does this story suggest? Well, there’s no hard answers in "Camilo," only questions, which writing teachers say is the point of great fiction.