In a summary, most literary careers nowadays — in New York or Zagreb — can look eerily similar. Take, for instance, the case of Alejandro Zambra. Zambra is a Chilean who has so far written three novels. He was born in 1975, and teaches literature at the Diego Portales University in Santiago. He has figured on Granta’s list of best young Spanish-language novelists, and the Bogotá39 project. His career, in other words, has the usual global vibe. But if you held his novels in your hand, then something much stranger would be immediately apparent. “Bonsai,” his first, takes up only 86 miniature pages. His second, “The Private Lives of Trees,” requires 98. His third, “Ways of Going Home,” which has just been published in a translation by Megan McDowell, uses a comparatively gargantuan 139. All of them are marked by a uniquely manic brevity.
Their other distinguishing characteristic is that they are written with startling talent. And Zambra’s latest novel represents, I think, his deepest achievement. It is the most intricate of his experiments with brevity. But first, therefore, the international reader requires some kind of description.
There are two stories in “Ways of Going Home” — described in just four chapters, with a simple alternating rhythm. The first chapter describes a nameless 9-year-old boy who, in the 1980s near Santiago, during the era of Pinochet, spies on a neighbor for an older girl he adores, called Claudia. The neighbor, she says, is her Uncle Raúl. Another girl visits Raúl, and so — wanting to impress Claudia — the boy follows this girl to her home. But when he later goes to meet Claudia, to tell her his discovery, she is with another boy — and so, piqued, he says nothing. Over time, they begin to drift apart until, a while later, both Raúl and Claudia’s family move away.
The second chapter introduces a nameless novelist, who is writing the story described in the first chapter. Meanwhile, he is trying to get back together with a woman he used to live with, called Eme. In some way, the reader discovers, the story of Claudia resembles the story of Eme, just as the story of the boy overlaps with the story of the novelist.
Then the third chapter returns to the fiction. It is now roughly the present moment. The era of Pinochet is over. The protagonist meets Claudia again, and they have a brief affair, during which Claudia explains to him what the real situation had been when she asked him to be her spy. The final, fourth chapter returns to the story of the novelist — whose break with Eme is irreparable. The last image is of him alone with his manuscript, watchful in the night.
In this high-speed description, the novel might seem a minute study, a sketched memoir of the fallout from the Pinochet era. In fact, this small novel contains a surprising vastness, created by its structure of alternating chapters of fiction and reality: the story of the boy and the story of the novelist. From this structure an intricate pattern — of time frames, and levels of fiction — gradually emerges. Almost every miniature event or conversation is subject to a process of revision, until you realize that Zambra is staging not just a single story of life under political repression, but the conditions for telling any story at all.
You can make a mini-taxonomy of these revisions in the novel. The largest is to the protagonist’s idea of what was happening during that time in the 1980s, in a suburb of Santiago. A much darker story, he discovers, was being played out. But then there are further subtle revisions — not just within the fiction, but among the novel’s different levels. Scenes from the fiction are later revealed as based on the novelist’s own past. Or scenes from the novelist’s own life are openly reused later as fiction. In fact, Zambra’s nameless novelist argues, at the deepest level revision is inherent in every description of one’s past. For every image and memory comes with its own stains and sounds — but “sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance toward something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end.” The only solution, he argues, is a process of patient distillation — trying “to remember the images fully, no compositions of place, no unnecessary scenes. To find a genuine music. No more novels, no more excuses.” Brevity is the only route to truth.
This systematic zigzag of revisions, of sideways moves, also has a lovely extra effect. Every major character is a minor character, too. The protagonist thinks he is the hero of a love story with Claudia, but really he is a secondary character in a sadder drama. Likewise, the novelist’s childhood in a suburb of Santiago now seems only minor in relation to the major and tragic events of Chile’s recent past. Every story might be nested inside a larger story, of which it is unaware. On the one hand, therefore, the novel’s structure is a self-reflexive device, designed to examine its own premises. But it is also a way of examining a global condition. The central two chapters are called, very simply: “Literature of the Parents” and “Literature of the Children.” For the deep structure being examined here, in the end, is the relation between parents and children. All of us grow up into a family whose past we do not know. All of us live in the shadow of a private back story. And so the truth of the world is always, necessarily, some kind of incomprehension and loss: “Parents abandon their children. Children abandon their parents. Parents protect or forsake, but they always forsake. Children stay or go but they always go.” This is the novel’s inner core, its painful essence.
And I know: The novel that’s being written by a novelist in the novel — this is not a structure that appeals to every reader. It can seem a fashion that is no longer chic. The worried reader will perhaps not be reassured to discover that both of Zambra’s previous novels have also featured variants on the story within the story, or that each of his novels even contains its own compressed reflection in another. Julián, the protagonist of Zambra’s second novel, is writing something that seems very similar to “Bonsai,” Zambra’s first. At the same time, he seems to want to write a novel that resembles “Ways of Going Home”: like the novelist in “Ways of Going Home,” Julián also comes from a family where “there were no dead.” His friends have tragic histories, but he does not. And so he imagines a future novel that would examine this condition of ignorance, or innocence.
“He has definitely been wasting time with his fixation on bonsais. Now he thinks the only book that would be worth writing is a long story about those days of 1984. That would be the only permissible book, the only necessary one.”
The somber tone to these sentences is a clue, I think, that the reader’s worry is also unnecessary. Really, the metafictional is just a neutral mode like any other. It is capable of multiple uses. And in “Ways of Going Home,” Zambra uses the metafiction to create the most concision. It allows him to skip unnecessary scenes; to avoid composition of place — to analyze his themes directly. It’s an instrument, therefore, not of modish skepticism but of truth-telling.
And the truth this light novel describes is heavy with anguish. For what is it to be born into this generation? “We go home,” Zambra writes, “and it’s as if we were returning from war, but from a war that isn’t over.” This is the giant, poignant condition staged by the novel’s playful doubleness — the way the best conjuring trick is the one where you’re shown how it’s done, which in no way contradicts your belief that what you’ve seen is magic.
March 29, 2013
I’m not sure that my little studio is the best place in the house to write. It’s too hot in summer and too cold in winter. But I like this window. I like those trees crossed by power lines and that slice of available sky. The silence is never absolute, or maybe it is—maybe my idea of silence now includes the constant barking of dogs and the uneven roar of motors. I take enormous pleasure in watching passersby, the odd cyclist, the cars.
When the writing isn’t happening I just sit there, absorbing the scenery, adoring it. I’m sure those minutes, those apparently lost hours, are useful in some way, that they’re essential for writing: that my books would be very different if I had written them in another room, looking out another window. —Alejandro Zambra
Translated from the Spanish by Harry Backlund.
April 5, 2013
La novísima editorial Excursiones, dedicada al ensayo argentino y latinoamericano, decidió lanzarse al ruedo con un volumen que reúne crónicas y ensayos sobre literatura del poeta y novelista chileno Alejandro Zambra. Se trata de una versión ampliada de la edición chilena, compilada y editada tiempo atrás por Andrés Braithwaite. El título del libro (No leer) proviene de uno de los mejores ensayos del conjunto pero también alude, como se explica en la nota introductoria, al “placer de no leer algunos libros”, un placer que Zambra dice haber descubierto al abandonar la crítica literaria semanal.
El libro está dividido en tres partes: la primera (la más extensa) y la segunda contienen reseñas de libros, retratos de escritores, crónicas y ensayos sobre temas tan diversos como la experiencia de viajar con libros, el oficio de escribir, la lectura en fotocopias y, como señala el título del libro, la no lectura. La última parte, en cambio, con apenas dos textos, funciona como una coda y está más enfocada en el surgimiento de su voz narrativa. Todos los textos, más allá de esta división, tienen en común el pertenecer a un territorio híbrido, entre la prosa periodística, la crónica y la ensayística, al cual le sienta bien el término “ensayo bonsái”, acuñado por Fabián Casas.
El libro, en su conjunto, puede verse como una historia personal (y por momentos generacional) de la lectura: la historia de la formación de Zambra como lector. Esta historia abarca, por un lado, la creación de un panteón de autores. Ahí la presencia de numerosos poetas nos recuerda que Zambra comenzó escribiendo poesía antes de convertirse en narrador. Los nombres también permiten trazar las dos coordenadas básicas del espacio donde se para Zambra como escritor: hacia dentro de Chile, en el polo antipoético opuesto a la retórica nerudiana; hacia afuera, recortado contra el fondo del boom latinoamericano, del que hace una lectura crítica, inclinándose por autores laterales, como Julio Ramón Ribeyro.
En tanto biografía de un lector, por otro lado, No leer nos muestra diferentes prácticas de lectura y momentos fundantes de esa biografía. Así, en “Lecturas obligatorias”, que no casualmente abre el volumen, Zambra se remonta a sus orígenes como lector. Tras contar cómo su profesora de castellano del Instituto Nacional les dio una semana de plazo para leer Madame Bovary, señala: “Así nos enseñaron a leer: a palos. Todavía pienso que los profesores no querían entusiasmarnos sino disuadirnos, alejarnos para siempre de los libros”. En “Elogio de la fotocopia”, en cambio, remite a la experiencia de una generación, para la cual la fotocopia significó una posibilidad de acceso a la cultura, comparable a lo que poco después permitiría Internet: “Es bueno recordar que aprendimos a leer con esas fotocopias que esperábamos impacientes, fumando, al otro lado de la ventanilla. Unas máquinas enormes e incansables nos daban, por pocos pesos, la literatura que queríamos. Leíamos esos tibios legajos y luego los guardábamos en las repisas como si fueran libros. Porque eso eran para nosotros: libros. Libros queridos y escasos. Libros importantes”. Por último, en “Cuatro personas”, reflexiona sobre la importancia del cenáculo literario y sobre el papel que cumple en la formación de un escritor joven la lectura solidaria entre un pequeño grupo de escritores-lectores que se influyen y critican mutuamente.
La prosa de Zambra es culta y entretenida. Maneja con destreza el humor (sobre todo en su variante irónica, como en “Contra los poetas”) y también un tono más grave, cuasi elegíaco por momentos, como en la crónica y retrato que le dedica al gran poeta Gonzalo Millán. “Apuntes sobre Gonzalo Millán” es el nombre de este ensayo, y en él Zambra hace un balance de la obra y la vida de Millán a través de tres momentos: el de Relación personal, su primer libro, de 1968, que Zambra lee como el reverso de un proyecto novelístico frustrado; Veneno de escorpión azul, el diario que llevó Millán, enfermo de cáncer terminal, durante su último año de vida; y por último Archivo Zonaglo, donde narra su encuentro personal con Millán y se detiene en las fichas que este elaboró y atesoró a lo largo de años. El retrato que construye es lúcido y entrañable, como son los que les dedica a Nicanor Parra, a Ribeyro y a Bolaño. En cada uno de ellos transmite efectivamente la pasión del lector.
Leer, después escribir
Al comienzo del libro Zambra cuenta que durante un tiempo, cuando todavía no había publicado su primera novela y vivía de escribir reseñas, tuvo miedo de transformarse en el crítico literario de su generación: temió convertirse en el eterno lector de los libros de los otros. Es este lugar, sin embargo, “el lugar del lector”, el que Zambra, como Borges, termina reconociendo aquí como su destino. Escribimos, dice, los libros que querríamos leer. Escribir es, en ese sentido, “leer un texto no escrito”.
A new book is as much an opportunity for a new conversation as it is for a new read. After hearing rumors of Alejandro Zambra’s next English-translated novel, Ways of Coming Home, I knew this was my chance to start one such conversation. WCH is longer than Zambra’s normal novella length, a work detailing Chile like Dubliners details Dublin, which is to say that if you think the sole aim is geographical mimicry in either book, then you’re missing wide of the barn. Specific to Zambra’s novel’s success is how deftly and naturally it communicates to itself and the reader through intertwining sections. The reader, never told explicitly the design, makes herself aware of the doubling; as we read, we learn what exactly it is we are reading. Zambra’s writing always constitutes an experience for the reader, an experience that is enjoyable and worth sharing because of its intimacy. Through email, Zambra and I chewed the fat about last minute changes, how every life is a story, and why it’s so difficult to name his characters.
I’m sure to some WCM will be a great guide as to how to deal with the life of a writer, since the main character is writing a novel. But more importantly, WCM will be an example of how to deal with the necessary “other” in the life of wordsmiths, the readers. So if you don’t mind, this is where I’d like to begin. Who is your ideal reader?
I never visualize/imagine a concrete reader. I like Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world/ that never wrote me.” I like “that never wrote me” because it testifies to that uncertain state that leads us to write. Writing is searching, always. [Paul] Celan says it is a gift to the other, it is the looking for the other, the absolute other, who/which is at the end of oneself. Then what one is looking for is an instance of something beyond reason, in which only the text exists; the task is unfolding it, like a sculpture: You work on the stone to find the form already there.
When I write or when I publish (I write a lot of things I would never publish), I don’t think of a reader, any reader whatsoever. However, once finished I tend to share the pieces with a few friends, and their opinions are relevant to me. I enjoy that dialogue around the texts; I’ve written that way always. I’m fond of a Natalia Ginzburg text about that, called “Interlocutors.” In any case it is hard to consider a text as something finished. I used to change many things during the printing-proof-marks, causing “emergencies” among the editors of Anagrama [the Spanish publisher of Zambra].
How do you write?
I draft a lot; I have a diary and take notes on irrelevant things. I try to free the space of writing from any commitment, obligation, or duty; I do not push myself to write a poem, a story or a novel. I do not intend to write “good writing.” I just go on, write whatever comes. Sometimes an image takes some work, but it starts to become something. It has always been that way, clearly. And when I find the book, or when I think I found it (even though I make a lot of mistakes) I plunge into it obsessively.
You write in WGC, “That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.” How do you feel about the term “finished”? Which books do you return to with new ideas after they’ve already been published? Do you constantly think of your books? You mentioned emergency proof changes at Anagrama. What is a type of correction you’ve made during these “emergencies”?
Ten years ago I published Mudanza [Moving], a book of poems, which is in fact one poem divided into six parts. Since then I’ve been writing that book: I have around 200 pages rewriting those fifteen pages. I guess it’s unrecognizable by now.
I like to think, for instance, that The Private Lives of Trees is a correction of Bonsai, and that WGH is a rewriting of PLT. When one starts writing another book it doesn’t happen because you “must” do it, or because you are a writer (at least I’ve been aware to stay free from any commitment that could force me to publish; I publish because I want to or need to do it). Once you start to write a new book, in some way it happens because the previous book doesn’t fit you anymore.
I make all kind of corrections. Some hysteria as well, sure. Today, above all, it seems so aggressive to conclude a book, considering all the time one spends before the screen dealing with it. My first feeling, when I have the book printed, is: This is it, I can’t add or take out anything. When I publish I detach myself from what I’ve done. I don’t think again about it, I leave it behind. To publish is not like giving birth at all, (well, I haven’t given birth), but like when children leave home. You want them to succeed, to be treated well, but they are not “yours,” they really are not yours anymore. And you’re more focused on, you care more about, the one you are still raising.
Is there something beyond a moral that you want the reader to gain?
Talking about morality, I remember [Ezra] Pound’s “fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.” I deeply consider that all the phrases of a text are equally relevant, and each one of them should be precise in some way, in some sense. There you have its morality. I think also of [Walter] Benjamin when he says something about the “legality” of memories. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. Broadly speaking I think that literature conveys the complexity of the object/fact being watched/perceived; it never simplifies. That’s why I’m astonished when the expectation is to have clear-univocal messages from books. Just the idea of a “message” is a drag.
I hear what you’re saying. The whole idea of some “message” is kind of a slap in the reader’s face. To force onto them something they may or may not agree with or need (as if you can determine what a reader needs) is to skew the balance between reader and author, and it puts the narrative in the advantage of having the final say re: conclusions. Not a message, WGC feels more like an opportunity for experience. There are often sentences in your other books that give the reader a look into the world of an author. But WGC enters something new or different. I felt like there was a moment of aha! when I figured out the mirror between narrators and it made me think about how I read—and what, textually, made me think about how I was reading. What do you hope a reader of WGH thinks of while reading, and then, after completing the book?
Yes, I agree, the reader completes the whole thing. I’ve also felt that sense of “being gently maneuvered,” which is a sort of initiation to a certain thought or an action that involves us as human beings, vitally speaking. And, at last, I believe the book is open to any kind of appropriation by anyone. As a reader one steals the book from the author, allowing the book to say many things at the same time. One explores its meanings, its layers. That’s what I enjoy as a reader and as a writer, and that’s why we re-read books. I reckon, answering your question, that a reader of WGH would likely wonder similar things to the ones I wondered when I was writing the book; then he/she fills the empty spaces with his/her own experience. I like the idea of that happening. I like the idea of literature as something that pushes us constantly to check our convictions. In any case, thinking of those books that have moved me above all, I think I have never got them, understood them, utterly, really. In good books you always find a sort of opacity; they have margins of illegibility. So it is odd to see those attempts to simplify literature. I remember a note about PLT in which the critic stated that the novel was good even though it was not “truly” Latin American literature. Funny idea, that of understanding Latin American literature as a literary genre. The expectation that one doesn’t write novels, but “Latin American” novels. And, in any case, what is that? What does it mean?
In all of your books there are secondary characters.. Often you won’t give a name, or the name isn’t stable at first, or it seems arbitrary. Any way you put it, a hierarchy is established. It’s like you’re telling us, don’t pay too much attention to these people; they’re just secondary characters, even though they come back and affect the story. This is indicative of the way information is given as well, combining the specific with the ambiguous. Why not tell us all the information up front at the beginning?
I like the idea that all my characters are secondary ones. There’s nothing heroic or “spectacular” about them. It happened, and it still happens, that to name them is extremely difficult. It was absurd, I felt ridiculous choosing names for them. Considering that in a book the relevance of a name is utterly different from the meaning of a name in “real life.” I never conceal that sort of trouble; I try to use names, to give characters a sense in writing. It was hard to focus on social conventions; it’s still hard to do, and I’ve decided to take advantage of that discomfort. This is quite clear in Bonsai. It is, in many senses, a novel written against the rhetoric of novels, and in favor of those odd books I’ve always enjoyed by Macedonio Fernandez, Felisberto Hernández, Juan Emar, and in some other way by José Santos González Vera, Adolfo Couve, and María Luisa Bombal. And evidently Borges’ advice about writing like drawing up a summary of a text already written. I considered his idea a luminous one to attempt in my writing. I like the metaphor of the iceberg, of course. Reading many novels I thought it would be better if I avoid telling everything, prune some paragraphs, some hundreds of pages. I think that comes from all the poetry I started to read before all this, Ezra Pound, or Japanese poetry, or, in Chile, the work done by Gonzalo Millán, masterpieces of concentration and synthesis. I was deeply impressed by that, by far more than the “big” rhetoric or grandiloquence you see in Pablo Neruda.
There is a moment in WCH when the narrator’s sister asks if she is going to be in the new novel. The narrator says no, he is protecting her by keeping her out. Later in the novel, the narrator visits a young author and brings up a piece of dialogue in the young author’s book that must absolutely be straight from life, due to it’s uniqueness. These two instances are very different examples of reality’s intrusion into what we write. How do you feel about writing from life? Do you censor yourself in terms of certain people? How do people close to you react to your work?
I have no interest in telling my life. If asked what I write about, I would never answer “about my life.” I write about things I know, about spaces/scenarios I know well as I’ve inhabited them. I write about spaces/scenarios I know and that know me; there are coincidences, sure, but they have no relevance at all, because my life is not extraordinary. The story told in WGH is the story of many Chileans of my age, and I guess those tensions between parents and their children are present in the life of almost anybody.
Of course I care about people I love, but not by self-censorship. As I said before, this is not referential. Anyway, sure, there are reactions and confusions, but the people I love tend to be people who love me and they accept and understand that this has nothing to do with being literal.
I really like this answer. You mentioned self-censorship and the idea of spaces/scenarios. I wonder if the spaces/scenarios dichotomy institutes an objectification of the spaces/scenarios. Spaces are geographically objects, so we can ignore those. But scenarios are often shared or affected by others in real time. Hypothetically, pretend you aren’t writing a character or a scene in reference to someone you know or an event that affected you or someone you know, but you start to notice that the scene or the character would be recognizable by the real person. Is it more important to change certain arbitrary facts to guarantee that those close to you do not get hurt, or is it better to go with your first instinct, even if your character is named Herbert and your real- life friend who has the same eye color is named Hamilton? I’m sorry if I’m not making this clear.
I understand your question perfectly, and I think that in every case, with every text, the answer would be different. It is one of the many things for which there are no rules in literature: There are directions, but no rules. If you use first-person singular and talk about your mother, sure, the text will deal with that tension, always, with that possibility, but there are searches which need precisely that tension. As it is not “easy” to be a writer, it is not “easy” to be the husband, mother, or child of somebody who writes because a writer, in some way, will be always “writing you,” even when he/she is not talking about you. That’s a major issue in WBH, if writing protects you or exposes you instead, as in the episode concerning the main character’s sister. I thought it was interesting to question the narrator’s authority; the narrator is always authoritarian, even when he/she doesn’t want it, because he/she feels the right to tell a story. From Author, “authority,” “authoritarian.”
Who has been your most fully formed character?
Mmmmm. Sincerely, I have no idea.
Sorry, that was a cheap shot because I didn’t define “fully formed.” So instead: What is a fully formed character? What characters in the books you’ve read (not written) stay in your mind?
Well, it’s still a hard question. The character must looks like everybody, anybody, and nobody. (You know, yes, of course you know: “Here Comes Everybody.” Joyce tried— tons of pages poetry included—, did he succeed?)
How important is the perspective of the narrator? Is there a connection between perspective and truth? Bonsai and PLT are both in third-person, while WCH is in first. Why the change?
I like to think of the difference between the novels considering the distance between the narrator and the main character, which is decreasing; as in Bonsai, the narrator looks at the characters with more distance. That allows him to laugh at them a bit, to judge them, and also to help them, forgive them, love them. In PLT I think the narrator is closer; what’s going on there hurts (the narrator) almost as much as it hurts Julian, to the point in which the third person seems false: Someone is talking about himself using the third person. Well, in WCH, you have a first-person narrator; the distance dissolves, although there you have two narrators or one double narrator.
From my point of view that’s the most important decision: the voice. And I think the only method is by trial and error. There were also versions of Bonsai and PLT using first-person, the same way in which I wrote this third novel. I’m interested in it as an exercise, although I knew that this novel would be in first-person, to write it completely in third-person just to see how it goes. That’s the advantage of writing short novels; you can type many tries.
This is great. I agree. But even a short novel takes time. The “error” half of “trial and error” assumes that you know what an error is. How do you know you’re writing something wrong? I guess I’m trying to get the order of the writing. Do you compare the writing of different voices, or do you work in one direction, feel falseness and then try something new?
Mostly the second way: I transcribe the stuff written, to feel it again (a bit esoteric, but it is what it is), and I try hard to feel, to detect, any trace of falseness. Almost always you know better what you don’t want than what you want.
The narrator at one point sees a women reading a book, her face between the pages, and he notes that reading is a way of hiding, in this case physically, but also mentally from reality. Are books just trees to hide behind? Or are they something else? And what does that make writing? Particularly about the past?
I think books allow us to know ourselves better. I have no doubts about that. To know ourselves intensively so we lie less to ourselves, and then we can admit that the best and the worst of ourselves are intermingled. It is like staring at a glass that is sometimes a mirror, sometimes a window. Then you lose the notion; you’re not sure if you’re watching yourself or someone else. Sometimes we feel we open ourselves, or that we hide, but writing is not exactly to open or conceal oneself. It overcomes that dichotomy. To write is to admit we need to search into the mystery we are. In spite of the ego, we are not more complex than anybody else. If we really knew how to read we would know that: Anybody’s life is a complete, terrible, and joyful novel.
When writing I feel I’m looking for answers to the oldest questions, the impossible ones. You don’t find answers but sometimes their faint air, or imminence. I like Borges’ expression: “the imminence of a revelation which does not happen.”
I don’t get that about the past. I think we always write about the past. We always arrive late to the actual present.
Issue 12, march 2013, here
Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, a prize-winner in his native Chile, explores the legacy of the Pinochet regime. At its centre is a young man who writes to assuage a kind of survivor’s guilt. He was a boy during the dictatorship, and was protected from the worst of it, but realises that “there were others who suffered more, who suffer more”.
Throughout, Zambra gives us excerpts from the narrator’s work-in-progress, and shows us how he manipulates childhood memories for his fictional purposes. This story-within-a-story – and perhaps Zambra’s own novel – is suffused with a twofold sense of shame: embarrassment that his parents did nothing to resist Pinochet and a chastened awareness that he would not have acted any differently himself. The result is a fascinating reflection on historical complicity, translated with restrained elegance by Megan McDowell.
March 1, 2103
Ways of Going Home, by Chilean author Alejandro Zambra is a must-read. I rarely say this about books, then again, I rarely read a book in one sitting. What is clear from the start of the book is that Ways of Going Home is a rare literary treat. Zambra seems to have hit his stride in his third novel, and while certain aspects of the narrative are similar to his first book, Bonsai, Ways of Going Home is not the same.
While Zambra’s voice is clearly Chilean, the book transcends borders with it’s themes of memory, loss, guilt, death and love. He presents the reader with a younger generation’s perspective on the Pinochet years. The book’s narrative structure is divided into four parts: “Secondary Characters,” “Literature of the Parents,” “Literature of the Children,” and “We’re All Right.” The first and third sections follow a young, unnamed boy through Santiago after the earthquake in 1986. The second and fourth sections are narrated by an author struggling to write the novel presented in the first and third sections and are revealed to be based loosely on his life.
Admittedly, this is a book about a book within a book. To describe it sounds annoying and postmodern and exasperatingly meta. Yet it works. It works because the story is beautiful, the language is simple, and the characters are perfectly rendered. Zambra uses his characters—the child and the adult—to explore how storytelling functions to bridge the gap between past and present, real and imagined. Take this clear reflection: “The largest detention center in 1973 was always, for me, no more than a soccer field. My first memories of it are happy, sportive ones. I’m sure that I ate my first ice cream in the stadium’s stands.” The language is constantly coming up against itself; blurring the lines between how things were and how they are, how they stand in time and how they are relived in memory. This refreshing honesty helps balance the political charge of the book. The honesty about these events shows that Zambra knows he cannot ignore past events, yet he also cannot do them justice in this book. Ways of Going Home is not a story about politics. It is a story about living, about reflection, about trying to understand one’s own life, and Zambra does well to keep that his focus
I was struck at the end of the book, when Zambra writes: “Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: ‘What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.’ I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night.” It is these “odd little fragments,” that Zambra seems so intent on capturing, and within these small pieces of memory one finds the emotional resonance of the book. As I read the book, I found myself thinking back to my own childhood, to those seemingly inconsequential days that have been paramount to my life now. It is this bond that Zambra forms with his reader, and his ability to provoke us with “odd little fragments,” that would make me return to this book again, embracing it as I would an old friend.
Feb 2013, here.
Alejandro Zambra’s much-anticipated third novel, Ways of Going Home, is a timely and intimate meditation on Chile. It is ambitious in its understated earnestness, provocative in its political messaging, and universal in its grasp at memories for meaning, identity, and voice.
As the title suggests, this novel is concerned with literary ways of probing memories that connect to home. In this case, home is Chile but is equally the 1980s, parents, family, friends, neighbors, and literature. The memories are those of the generation who were children during the regime of Augusto Pinochet.
The novel unfolds in four parts, alternating between a childhood and present day (i.e., the Chilean presidential election of 2009-2010). The past is a memoir of a nine-year-old boy in the mid-80s and then twenty years later; the present is a diary by its author. While it could be argued that these inconsistent narrative techniques do not coexist well, that these even unravel each other, there is a moving effect in the struggle on the author’s part to work toward a voice, and even language, for the complicity and victimization of one’s parents under a brutal regime.
In the novel’s opening, a boy of six or seven gets lost from his parents and finds his way home. This is in Santiago, the city where they live. Though frightful for anyone who has experienced the threat of losing sight of his or her child, the episode devolves into an amusing anecdote. The boy doesn’t react with this heightened fear but instead simply finds his way home. And then at home, after some time has passed, he begins to worry that his parents got lost: “I knew how to get home and they didn’t.” It’s a wonderfully circular meditation, a kind of misdirection on the author’s part that turns the camera from the child to the parents. All of this in the opening sets the stage for a story in which turning of the camera emerges as a pattern: the boy regarding his parents and his parents’ generation in the context of what was happening in Chile.
An earthquake begins this boy’s story which revolves around his relations with a girl, Claudia. During the earthquake, neighbors come together in a rare moment of camaraderie around a bonfire: “It was strange to see the neighbors all gathered together, maybe for the first time ever.” Again, an insightful observation within the context of Chile’s troubled times. The family’s neighbor, a man named Raul, has brought his sister and niece to the gathering, and though there is some sense of neighborhood, there is not a sense of belonging together. Later Claudia asks him to spy on her uncle Raul, and there is much speculation about events witnessed and people encountered while spying on Raul. It is not until much later that we are able to piece together a reasonable version of what was occurring and its significance.
The other two sections are made up of a diary by the fictional author of the boy’s story. Probing his generation’s memories is this author’s work at hand even in his diary. One of the central characters is a past lover Eme (in fact, the author’s diary largely obsesses with Eme’s reading of his manuscript). In one of the diary entries, he recounts Eme’s story of when, at seven or eight years old, she played hide-and-seek with other girls late in the day in the yard. When the parents stopped calling for them, the children realized that inside the house “her father’s friends were crying and that her mother…was staring off into space” while listening to news on the radio about a raid that had happened, and “about the dead, about more dead.” Later in the book, the children—including the author—turn out to be secondary characters.
And here in closing this diary entry of Eme’s story, he writes a moving reflection that again asserts Zambra as one of the most important writers of the new wave of Chilean authors: the author explains that his generation grew up believing that the “novel” belonged to their parents—Zambra has said that those of his generation in the 80s were secondary characters in the literature of their parents. The children cursed their parents while taking “refuge in their shadows, relieved.” He writes: “While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.”
It seems evident that Zambra would like us to weigh his stories within the context of Chile’s recent presidential election. How much of this book does Zambra intend to serve as a wake-up call following the 2009-2010 election of Chile’s first right-wing president in two decades? And the upcoming 2013 bids for the presidency? One of the most direct instances of political messaging, after noting that Sebastián Piñera will win: “It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories.” The diary language here is notably passive; there is a despair, almost a resignation. One might hope for more, but melodrama is not Zambra’s style.
In the diary section that closes Ways of Going Home, while the fictional author continues to struggle in his effort to find voice and rationale for his novel, an earthquake hits Santiago, as it did for him twenty years earlier—the earthquake scene with which he opened his novel. Out on the streets afterward, he encounters people who say to him, We’re all right. It is the title and theme of the closing. The author experiences “a strange flicker of happiness,”—“strange” because otherwise the mood is grim, the writing work must continue to give meaning to all that has happened in past, present, and future.
Feb 2013, here.