Diego Zúñiga’s “Camanchaca” is a novel of many ideas and many parts. From the outset it proves slippery, intangible, wriggling free of any attempt to pin it down.

Our young, nameless narrator announces on the first page that he and his father are driving across Chile’s Atacama Desert. So it is a road-trip novel. He then informs us they are making the trek to visit a dentist to prevent his teeth from falling out. So it is an absurd comedy. Then he mentions his Uncle Neno’s unexplained death. So it is a mystery. Venturing on, we discover the book is all these things and more.

The narrator and his parent have two other traveling companions, the father’s new wife and son. They drive for a while, then make a stop at the narrator’s grandfather’s house. From here the narrative fragments into scattered shards — or better, jumbled pieces. In fits and bursts, as if mirroring wayward thoughts, we find out more about the narrator’s ruptured family: his absentee father and God-fearing grandfather; his reclusive, troubled mother; and his elusive, dead uncle.

Just as something pertinent is about to be divulged — the reasons for a marriage breakup, a disappearance, a death — the narrator swerves off, digresses and begins a new train of thought.

So many breakdowns and jump starts may seem hard to pull off, but Zúñiga manages it due to the structure of his novel. It unfolds through a series of vignettes, with each page comprising a single paragraph devoted to a single idea or incident, many of them hazy or incomplete.

In time, the book lives up to its title (camanchaca is, we learn late, a desert fog). It resembles the responses the narrator’s mother gives in his recorded interviews (full of “loose ends, silences”) or the description of words spinning around in his head (“they hound each other, they won’t fall into place”). It is up to the reader to make sense of the random intimations and accusations, and to fill in gaps, tie dangling threads and reassemble stray words.

In this regard, Zúñiga’s novel has echoes with Jenny Offill’s equally strange and elliptical “Dept. of Speculation.” Closer to home, Zúñiga appears to be following in the footsteps of fellow Chilean Roberto Bolaño, whose first work, “Antwerp,” was just as slim and sinister and episodic, and also resembled more a prose-poem than a novel.

The book is sparse, minimal, yet not flawless. Warped dream sequences grate. A trip to KFC to reinforce the narrator’s spiraling alienation is not deliberately bland but unintentionally banal. However, Zúñiga quickly makes up for the occasional limp sketch with a fresh bout of intoxicating stillness and surprise, confusion and dread.

“Camanchaca” is a riddle, a mind game, sometimes maddening but always compelling. Ably translated by Megan McDowell, it is Zúñiga’s first novel to appear in the United States. More will be very welcome indeed.

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Camanchaca
By: Diego Zuniga, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 110 pages, $15.95.