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.

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