t eleven years old, more or less, I became almost simultaneously, a voracious reader and a promising smoker.” Thus opens the untitled story in My Documents by the immensely gifted Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra.
In the opening paragraph he writes:
“In my first years at university, a more lasting bond formed between reading and tobacco… I got my hands on The Clown, a very beautiful and bitter novel in which the characters smoke all the time – on every page or at least every page and a half. And every time they lit their cigarettes, I would light mine, as if that were my way of taking part in the novel. Maybe that’s what the literary theorists mean when they talk about the active reader: A reader who suffers when the characters suffer, who is happy when they are happy, who smokes when they smoke.”
When I read these words my heart stopped, I lit a cigarette and read the passage again. He could be me. In fact, he was me. I am the most active reader I know. I have been known to speak in a Scottish accent when I’m reading Irvine Welsh, or asking my wife to “stop those polluting sounds” (the TV), when I’m reading the Dhammapada. Just like the narrator in the story, I’ve tried giving up smoking so many times that I’ve forgotten. I’ve clicked pictures of my cigarette butts, lined up one after the other like nails on a cross. I’ve stared at these pictures. I’ve tried to coax myself into disgust. Zambra is trying too, because his doctor has told him it’s a cause for the debilitating cluster headaches that would feel like several hammers hitting at different sides of his brain all together. But like me, when he is overpowered with the sight and smell of that white cancer stick, he relapses.
“Walking down Agustinas this morning, I saw a man approximately my age and height and also my coloring who was smoking as he walked. I watched him take a drag of his cigarette, and for an instant the movement struck me as very odd. It was a long drag, as though in slow motion. Suddenly I wanted to absorb or devour his face.”
I hate my habit. I love my habit. Both statements are equally true. I have paid for my habit with a tongue that has lost at least 30 per cent of its sensitivity, a throat that packs up every so often, bad breath, moral and health guilt-trips by concerned friends and relatives – and I’ve paid for it in cash; cold hard cash, or as Zambra puts it, in houses.
“Now I have the approximate calculation of how many cigarettes I have smoked in my life. And the total amount of money I have spent on cigarettes. I’m keeping this notebook out of a kind of therapeutic intention, but I don’t dare write those numbers down here. I’m ashamed. I do a little division and determine that the monthly amount I’ve spent on cigarettes, for years now, is roughly equivalent to a mortgage. I am a person who has chosen to smoke rather than have a house. I’m someone who has smoked a house.”
I have probably smoked two houses. I began smoking in boarding school when I was about 16. Back then the thrill came as much from the fear of getting caught as from the high of the nicotine. The preferred brand was Charminar – and you could smoke in an airplane, in a movie hall, and even into your little baby’s face. Oh sweet Lord! What days!
Even Zambra, at the end of the story, makes his peace with smoking. He finds redemption. Maybe I will too.
In university, we measured out our life with cigarettes and black coffee: Camus and Sartre and Eliot and Panama filter-less cigarettes – trying to put on an Ernest Hemingway vibe to impress the girls. All writers smoke, and all of us wanted to be writers, so we all smoked. When I got a job, I moved to premium-filtered cigarettes. I’ve been smoking at least a pack a day of these for the last 25 years.
To make things worse, I have a wife who smokes at least as much as me – and two children who look on in horror. The only time they tried to tell me to stop, I told them they can tell me what to do – or not do – only after they start earning their own keep. So that shut them up for a bit.
So why do I smoke? Quite apart from the nicotine, which is the most addictive substance known to mankind, the fact is that I just really, really enjoy a good smoke. The first one in the morning that sometimes gives you a slight buzz, the long lingering one after lunch, the sweet one with the first drink of the evening, the last one before I sleep, the long lost friend I suck at the minute I get off a flight – these are some of the finest moments of my day. A line in a poem by Merino says, “The one you smoke right now is all there is.” And it’s true. Take life one cigarette at a time and the whole thing becomes a little less complicated.
I know I am puffing my way to an early grave. But the one who got throat cancer was my mother, who hasn’t smoked a single cigarette her whole life. And just look at the Japs. They smoke like forest fires, drink like there’s no tomorrow, and live longer than any other race on earth. I thought I wanted to be like the Japs. But do I? Like Zambras, I’m no longer sure that longevity is the endgame.
“I stopped smoking because of my clusters, but maybe that wasn’t the main reason. The thing is, I’m cowardly and ambitious. I’m such a coward that I want to live longer. What an absurd thing, really: to want to live longer. As if I were, for example, happy.”
Many years ago, at a meeting, a (not Japanese) venture capitalist asked me why I smoke so much. I asked him why shouldn’t I? He said because you will get ill and die. I said, could you guarantee me that if I give up smoking I will never fall ill and die? He looked at me like I had lost my mind. But I think it was he who was lost.
In the story, someone interviews another famous Chilean writer, Armando Uribe, about his filthy habit.
“You’ve never worried that cigarettes will kill you?” she asks.
“You know, I don’t care; I don’t support the idea that human beings, on average, should live for so many years.”
I agree with Uribe. Even Zambra, at the end of the story, makes his peace with smoking. He finds redemption. Maybe I will too. Till then, I’m just going to keep smoking till I can’t anymore and then, and only then, will my last cigarette be extinguished.
Yes, smoking kills. But so does living.