I didn’t do this on purpose, although I would have if I’d thought of it: The book I read immediately after the election turned out to be a work of experimental fiction that explores how life and education in a dictatorship narrows the range of thoughts that it is possible to think. Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, is a spoof on the Academic Aptitude Exam, required for all college-bound Chilean students, which Zambra took in 1993, when Chile was in transition to democracy following years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Zambra says this:
Those tests have multiple “authors,” but when we were kids we thought there was only one, a single God-dictator-author, who knew all the right answers and hid them. While I was writing the book, I thought a lot about how those exercises were, in a way, the opposite of literature. They teach you to put stories in order, for example, following some kind of fixed structure—from the abstract to the concrete, chronologically, from the general to the particular.
This all sounds very somber, and Multiple Choice is anything but. If there can be good, un-cynical parodies of dictatorships, Multiple Choice is one, and in a reading week where my brain was 90% blank terror for the future of our democracy and only about 10% available for processing words in books, it was a lighthearted read that didn’t feel like a cop-out from what’s happening in the world right now. Zambra is kidding on the round, because while dictatorships are absurd, their absurdity is a rhetorical disguise for the very real oppression they’re trying to get you to overlook.
For instance, the fourth section asks you to choose which sentences may be eliminated from a paragraph without damaging the meaning of what’s being said. Zambra launches into the story of a good man who didn’t mean any harm: Sure, the narrator acknowledges that he hated gay people and knew about the torture and disappearances, but so did everyone, didn’t they? And he was still fundamentally a good guy. Not a villain. One of the answer options lets you eliminate all the sentences that mention specific crimes, leaving only this:
(1) I was his friend, I was his pal. I knew him. And it’s not true what they say about him. Some things, sure, but not all of it. I care about what they say, it hurts. It’s as if they were talking about me.
(12) Whatever they may say of him, it’s easy enough to badmouth him now that he’s dead. But I would like you all to know that my friend isn’t all that dead, because he still has me, come what may. I’ll always defend him. Always, buddy–always.
TOO REAL, n’est-ce pas?
A government-controlled structure like the standardized test forces you to choose between a finite set of options, of which zero might make sense — but getting it right (for the government’s definition of “right”) will shape your future and the possibilities that will be open to you. I tried not to apply Multiple Choice too literally to America’s situation, even though I feel real damn dire. But one thing I took away from it, as I read headline after headline in supposedly liberal newspapers that refused to identify Steve Bannon as a white nationalist and anti-Semite, is that the words we use over the next four years are going to be everything. We can’t back away from the truth, no matter how ugly it is.