Multiple Choice’ by Alejando Zambra (2014) – 101 pages Translated by Megan McDowell
‘Multiple Choice’ takes the form of a standardized aptitude test and consists of a series of multiple choice questions and answers. Due to its unique format, I hesitate to call it a novel, but it definitely qualifies as a work of fiction.
The multiple choice questions that make up this work are grouped into the following five exam categories: 1) Excluded Term, 2) Sentence Order, 3) Sentence Completion, 4) Sentence Elimination, and 5) Reading Comprehension.
The exam is based on the actual Chilean academic aptitude test of 1993. At that time right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet was still in power in Chile, and that fact permeates these multiple choice questions.
For example, in Question 2 you are supposed to mark the word whose meaning has no relationship to the heading or the other words listed. Here is Question 2:
The correct answers are not listed. My answer would be B, because if you have only ‘One’, you have no choice. One dictator? Frequently none of the choices is a good answer. Some of the questions are impossible to answer.
As the test progresses, the questions get longer and longer until the last Reading Comprehension section where the questions are preceded by a text which itself almost amounts to a short story. One of these texts is about a wedding party where the fact that divorce was illegal in then Pinochet Chile is discussed and reviled. Chile was the only country in the world where divorce was illegal, and thus marriages could only be annulled. Even if the couple had been married for many years, they had to lie in court that they had never lived together.
It was the Nixon administration of the United States that saddled Chile with the vicious incompetent dictator Augusto Pinochet. It must strike Chileans as poetic justice that the people of the United States have now stuck themselves with Donald Trump.
The questions and the answers are usually either pointed or playful. One of the sub-themes of this fiction appears to be the utter ridiculousness of these standardized tests.
This multiple choice exam is a clever idea for an experimental fiction. Several reviewers brought up the works of David Markson as a comparison, but ‘Multiple Choice’ reminded me most of ‘Nazi Literature in the Americas’ by Zambra’s fellow Chilean writer now deceased, Roberto Bolaño. Both works are sharply humorous yet highly political.