Ways of Going Home, M. A. Orthofer (The Complete Review)

In his third novella to be translated into English, Alejandro Zambra again presents a story that is also about storytelling. It begins with the Zambra-aged (the author was born in 1975) narrator describing his childhood in what was still Pinochet’s Chile, in the mid-1980s, including the time around the 1985 earthquake. But in the present-day second section it becomes clear that this first section is part of the novel the author-narrator is working on. A third section returns to that novel, the setting now some two decades later, the narrator describing his encounter with one of the characters from his childhood, while the fourth section is again more directly from the author, describing his day-to-day life in the present.
The narrator of the novel the author is writing is clearly just another version of himself, revisiting different times in his life. The present-day sections are just an extension of that, in a sense — ostensibly ‘more real’ but only seeming so because of their immediacy; the author-narrator claims about the novel he is writing: “it’s fiction” — implying the present day sections are not — but they’re all just different levels of the same novelistically-treated reality. So, yes, Ways of Going Home is very much about recollection and storytelling, of taking experience — past and present — and (re)shaping it. From the basics of the actual writing of the novel-within-the-novel — “I try out changes. From first to third person, from third to first, even to second”, for example — to the form in which he finally allows the story to unfold, he repeatedly makes readers aware of the many choices that are made in (re)presenting recollection and dealing with past — the different ‘ways of going home’.
Ways of Going Home is also about the connections we have with people. The narrator re-connects with a girl he knew in the 1980s, Claudia — admitting as he looks back on their childhood friendship:

We talked a lot. Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.

The author-narrator, meanwhile, is in the process of reconnecting with the woman he married. Having drifted apart, they got back together recently (though without yet even taking the step of moving back in together). As he explains to his sister: “it’s all fragile, tentative” — and much of the book has that feel, of a careful handling of the material, because it is so very fragile.
The narrator’s younger self is shown as a boy with little understanding of much of the world around him, even as he intrepidly explores it. The adult world, in particular of politics, remains something he cannot properly interpret. Yet even beyond that his world is one of childish misunderstanding. Claudia asks him to report on her father, who lives next door to his family. He dutifully tries his best, even as he cannot understand the situation, from the fact that the girl does not live with her father to the visitors that come to the house. His spying also repeatedly leads to other misunderstandings. Only decades later does Claudia clear up what the situation was.
There are other levels of misunderstanding in the text, in part necessitated by the secrecy and obfuscation that came with living under the Pinochet regime. The young boy certainly remains in the dark about a great deal for a long time — right down to the fact that:

As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts.

At one point the narrator discusses a frustration he felt in being unable to share some common experiences at university, as he came: “from a family with no dead”. Others have stories to tell, but his limited past — missing the dead (and also, significantly books — his family household was devoid of books) — leaves him without this rich, deep material.
The author-narrator suggests: “To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it”, but in emphasizing the layers of fiction and the layers of misunderstanding surrounding recollection he also shows that such exposure remains both deeply personal and entirely subjective.
An early scene has the narrator describe how as a child he inadvertently erased a short bit of a song on a music cassette — and thgen tried to fix it by recording himself singing the lost passage. Ways of Going Home, he suggests, is a similar undertaking, a desperate attempt to voice-over lost, much richer reality.
At one point the author-narrator explains that when people ask him what he does he no longer admits he’s a teacher (because of the discussions it leads to); instead:

So now I say I’m a writer, and when they ask what kind of books I write, I say, to avoid a long and uncertain explanation, that I write action novels; it isn’t exactly a lie, since in all novels, even mine, things happen.

It’s those kinds of passages one reads Zambra for — and even if his novels aren’t conventional action novels, even as they are deeply reflective works, they certainly aren’t static. The unfolding layers of narratives, with so much shrouded in some sense of uncertainty, and the recollections contrasted with the present make for a rich and resonant novella.

16 December 2012, here.

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