An Absence of Heat and Light: A Review of Camanchaca by Diego Zúñigal

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Camanchaca
By Diego Zúñiga
Coffee House Press, 2017
110 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Stephanie Joyal

Unexpected. Not complicated, but mysterious. Discordant. The simple, straightforward prose flies across the dry pages exactly as if Zúñiga were driving you across the desert himself. He wraps you in what could be the hot, dry, but also damp, smothering embrace of fog in the desert. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is equally opaque. He describes the actions of the people in his life without disclosing almost any value judgment, opinion, or emotion (sympathetic or otherwise). This close-yet-dense prose becomes more and more unsettling as the stories from his childhood and his family unfold: most of which center around violence, betrayal, and death. The family dog dying slowly and loudly is given the same treatment as the narrator’s use of meal vouchers.

Camanchaca is a breezy 110-page story by Chilean author and journalist Diego Zúñiga, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. The novel consists of two threads in the narrator’s memory, interweaving stories from the past with his mother, and those unfolding in the present with his father as they drive across the desert. The purpose of this journey is to see a dentist because his teeth are about to fall out, and the tension of the physical, emotional, and temporal distance between his parents is palpably manifest in this trip. The narrator recalls family history told to him by his mother of the shadowy death of his uncle, of suicide, and of abandonment. These memories of his mother alternate page-for-page with his father in the present day, and the narrator gives each timeline the same detached but stark consideration:

He offers me french fries. I accept a few. I have to take them and stuff them almost whole into my mouth. Chew with the molars in the back. The fries taste like blood. Like blood and the paste on my teeth. My dad eats chicken with french fries, no problem. He asks if the food is good. I look at him and say, ‘Yes, it’s very good.’

Camanchaca means “desert fog.” Experience the sensation of flying across the desert at night through a dense fog at eighty-five miles an hour; the desert, so frequently used as characterization: as barren, vast, and cruel, but also containing whole ecosystems; the fog, cool, opaque, pervasive, disconcerting; and driving through the fog, with the knowledge that you have traveled so far but knowing there’s more distance ahead, moving rapidly, unable to see more than a few feet ahead. Each vignette lays bare a facet of the broken family in clear, scorching sunlight, the action of the story accelerating, traveling the same road paved by family history, with unknown territory coming up ahead.

While the prose is simple, this book resists opportunities for empathy or precise understanding. Zúñiga seems to have focused more on creating a precise atmospheric sensation than an illuminating narrative. The narrator gives little insight into the motivations of the people around him, and even less into his own. Perhaps to cope with this emotional opacity, I found myself equating him with the desert. His father comes in and out of his life at top speed, mowing down anything in his way, and expecting the desert to keep his secrets, to see nothing and say nothing. Since the book is told entirely from the narrator’s perspective, even his language is simplistic at first, then slowly becomes complex as the reader enters farther into the heart of the family territory. From the edge of the novel, the language is plain and describes only observable, quantifiable, or nameable information.

“My parents separated when I was four years old. I’m twenty now. I live with my mother in Santiago. My father stayed in Iquique with his new family.” As the book blazes on, the narrator begins to share very small parts of his internal self that, surrounded by text describing the outward physical actions of his family in stark, emotionless detail, is like hearing a thunderclap from a single drop of rain. The narrator describes his dog dying a slow, painful, and noisy death with all the feeling of a humorless clinician.

The narrator is difficult to relate to because we have almost no idea how he feels. But, as Zúñiga weaves his dry, rattling memories of the past into the darkly bizarre present storyline, we begin to notice the emotional life that has been hiding in the seemingly barren desert. A teenage crush, a vivid dream, wanting to say something cruel–these few stirrings in the narrator echo in the expanse of his usual arid testimony. Just as quickly, though, Zúñiga casts the barely visible glow of his narrator’s inner life back into total shadow with an abrupt ending. If the intended effect is to be jarring and confusing, it was the right risk to take; but don’t expect any resolution from Camanchaca. The fog goes on for miles.

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About Author

Stephanie Joyal is a citizen, comedian, and writer in Baltimore, MD. They co-produced the Baltimore edition of What A Joke: A National Comedy Fest supporting the ACLU earlier this year, and they’ve gotten on a couple stages since then. Find them @doctorjoyal.

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