“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.