Formas de volver a casa by Alejandro Zambra, Marcelo Rioseco (World Literature Today)

Formas de volver a casa, Alejandro Zambra’s third novel, is the logical continuation of his two previous works: Bonsái (2006) and La vida privada de los árboles (2007), in which Zambra explored the intimate narrative. The master of a focused and refined style, Zambra attains in this latest novel perhaps his most personal voice, one crafted in simple, unadorned language.

Even so, it is surprising to encounter a Chilean author such as Zambra (b. 1974), who after the great narrative projects of the Boom authors of Latin America has found a way to unite the political with the personal in such an unusual way. Formas de volver a casa constitutes a daring new look at the insipid side of military dictatorship: the story of the children of those parents who lived under the dictatorship; people who were nonpolitical; people for whom the Pinochet government was the nightmare of others, never for themselves.

The novel tells the story of an author who returns to the family home and to his former childhood neighborhood. There he finds Claudia, a former neighbor with whom he had been in love many years before. The reunion with Claudia explains many events from the protagonist’s past and how some of these have shaped his life in the present. The novel begins when the author as a child becomes lost and his parents are unable to find him. Getting lost and returning home become a recurring metaphor throughout Zambra’s novel: Who are the ones who get lost? Who are the ones who can or know how to return? To what place does one return? “Once, I got lost. I was six or seven years old. I was walking along, distracted. Suddenly, I couldn’t see my parents anywhere. I was frightened, but soon I found my way and arrived home before them—they were still looking for me, frantically. That afternoon I thought that they were the ones who had gotten lost. That I knew the way back and that they did not.”

Formas de volver a casa is in a sense the story of children, or more precisely about children settling a score with the past and with their own families. However, the journey to the past is unrewarding and difficult. It reveals the least heroic aspects of the protagonist’s life: he was not a victim of the dictatorship, and his parents most likely supported Pinochet. The past, which had previously seemed inoffensive, even trivial, becomes a threatening cloud under which the protagonist has to accept the futility of his present life, the absence of heroism, and the disenchantment of belonging to a middle-class Chilean family that did nothing more than survive in the dictatorship.

One of the great merits of Formas para volver a casa is that it is a book that no previous Chilean author has written about the dictatorship; a necessary and beautiful story that captures the complex experience of daring to face banality, which reminds us that sometimes what we find upon returning home is something we had not wanted to see in the first place, or at least not see so close up.

November 2012, here.


Ways of Going Home, Andrew Russeth (New York Observer)

Alejandro Zambra’s recently translated third novella, Ways of Going Home, begins and ends with an earthquake. The one that opens the book, in Santiago, Chile, in 1985, causes the unnamed narrator, a boy of 9, to meet a slightly older girl, Claudia. She convinces him to spy on her uncle, who lives next door to him. Augusto Pinochet is in power, and political tensions hover around the edges of the story, just beyond the boy’s comprehension.

The book soon shifts focus to an established novelist, not unlike Mr. Zambra (perhaps the most celebrated Chilean writer since Roberto Bolaño), as he works on composing the story of the young boy that we have just read. “While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing,” he writes from the post-Pinochet present, aware now of the atrocities that surrounded the boy’s—or really, his own—childhood.

Mr. Zambra has a graceful touch, and he glides easily across time, from one brief scene to another, as his writer reunites with Claudia, struggles to understand his parents and their politics, and tries to reconcile with a lover who tells him, “Writing is good for you, it protects you.”

“To read is to cover one’s face,” the writer decides at one point. “And to write is to show it.” Mr. Zambra gives not only a nuanced look at one writer’s life but an impressionistic picture of recent Chilean society. When the second quake arrives a quarter-century later, along with a new election, we’re left to wonder how much either has changed.


Published 22/1/2012, here.

Ways of Going Home, Mina Holland (The Observer)

Internationally acclaimed Chilean writing about the Pinochet regime has been relatively elusive, with the obvious exception of Isabel Allende. Could this reflect Chile‘s reticent national temperament? Hungover from a violent past, Chileans have remained a quieter breed than the stereotypical Latin American and conversations about the former dictator continued to be conducted largely in the private sphere for years after his 1990 departure. Novels about this phase in Chile’s history have been similarly unforthcoming. Until, that is, the new generation of Chilean writers, to which Alejandro Zambra belongs.

Ways of Going Home, Zambra’s third novel, is both a literary and meta-literary foray into Chile’s troubled past by a writer who lived during the Pinochet regime but who doesn’t consider himself one of its primary victims. “The novel belongs to our parents,” he says, understanding that his childhood experience of terrorism was vicarious, diluted by his infancy. His generation are “war correspondents, tourists” or – and here the metafiction kicks in – “secondary characters” in this retold narrative about life in the Maipú province of Greater Santiago in the 1980s.

“Ways of going home” refers literally to an anecdote with which the book begins, when a little boy gets lost but finds an alternative way home from that taken by his parents. More symbolically, the title touches on different ways of remembering, understanding and coming to terms with disorienting history. While for the narrator’s parents’ generation this is silence – they are, like their homes at the time, “impregnable bastion[s]” – he and his peers pick storytelling as an outlet for the past.

Zambra splits his novel between our narrator and a fictional narrator of the former’s creation; he tries to grapple with the past via fiction (“I’m waiting for a voice that isn’t mine – novelistic and solid”). He ultimately gives up on this fictional framing of real-life events, because it’s a story he’s already telling: “Although we might want to tell other people’s stories we always end up telling our own.” Dealing with the Pinochet aftermath is thus at the behest of the writer’s creative anguish about his calling to write.

For both narrators, writing defines them and it is approached as a heroic act. The former hankers for his lover (Eme) to read his manuscript and to validate his work, while his fictional creation retells the 1980s as a kind of catharsis. However, he in turn does so via another, Claudia, the fictional love interest. Claudia’s father was a spy during the Pinochet years and, as a child, she tasks the fictional narrator to keep an eye on him. As an adult, she tries to understand her family’s past, a journey she and the narrator embark upon together. Less a plagiarist than an uninspired creative, he then takes her story as a framework for his novel, which results in their eventual parting. She says: “I know my story is important to you, but your own story is more important.”

Zambra raises questions about the perceived benefits of committing real life stories to paper, an act that mirrors growing up: “We used to know more, because we were full of conviction, dogma, rules… And now we understand everything. We understand especially failure.” Ways of Going Home almost draws a line beneath the narrator’s childhood, and the shackles of a turbulent history, freeing him to tackle ideas rooted in the present tense. Complex yet sophisticated, the novel places Zambra at the spearhead of a new Chilean fiction and sets him alongside other Latin American writers such as Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who weave some of the continent’s most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.

Publicado en The Observer, Sunday 13 January 2013. Tomado de acá.

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra: review, Adam O’Riordan (The Telegraph)

Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra came to the attention of many English-speaking readers via his debut The Private Life of Trees, a book which saw him selected for Granta’s 2010 list of the Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.

Zambra’s latest novel, Ways of Going Home, opens in the Chile of General Pinochet and explores the tension between the demands of an authoritarian state and the beliefs and behaviours of the individual; territory readers might recognise from Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile.

The first part of the book tells the story of a nine-year-old boy living in a middle-class suburb of Santiago. On the night of an earthquake the boy, who remains unnamed, meets a mysterious older girl named Claudia: “she had been following me for days, spying on me”. Claudia in turn convinces him to spy on her uncle Raul, a Christian Democrat and “the only person in the neighbourhood who lived alone”.

The story is picked up again in later life when the narrator of the opening section, now struggling to come to terms with both the violence and the silences of his childhood, meets Claudia again and the two become lovers.

The weighty but simple narrative is augmented by a second thread – a reflective account of the manner in which a novelist harvests and modifies material from the raw experience of life: “Sometimes when we write we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance towards something. We ought simply to describe those sounds, those stains on memory.”

The novel has an air of insomniac attentiveness: a sharpened observation of daily routine, an accumulation of detail and interleaving of banality and profundity.

Megan McDowell’s limpid and unfussy translation serves the book well. Zambra cannot simply be pigeonholed as a “Spanish-Language” writer. His concerns and influences are broader, and in the meditative, discursive timbre of the writing readers may recognise an affinity with other voices such as Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole.

What the narrator calls “stains on memory”, and by extension the strain memory places on the individual, fascinate Zambra and he elegantly explores them in this brief but notable novel.



Publicado en The Telegraph, 24 Jan 2013. Tomado de acá.