Bridging the Gaps: Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Erin Berman, Switchback)

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.


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