Un lector para su época (Miguel Ángel Petrecca, Revista Ñ, Clarín)

La novísima editorial Excursiones, dedicada al ensayo argentino y latinoamericano, decidió lanzarse al ruedo con un volumen que reúne crónicas y ensayos sobre literatura del poeta y novelista chileno Alejandro Zambra. Se trata de una versión ampliada de la edición chilena, compilada y editada tiempo atrás por Andrés Braithwaite. El título del libro (No leer) proviene de uno de los mejores ensayos del conjunto pero también alude, como se explica en la nota introductoria, al “placer de no leer algunos libros”, un placer que Zambra dice haber descubierto al abandonar la crítica literaria semanal.

Ensayos bonsái

El libro está dividido en tres partes: la primera (la más extensa) y la segunda contienen reseñas de libros, retratos de escritores, crónicas y ensayos sobre temas tan diversos como la experiencia de viajar con libros, el oficio de escribir, la lectura en fotocopias y, como señala el título del libro, la no lectura. La última parte, en cambio, con apenas dos textos, funciona como una coda y está más enfocada en el surgimiento de su voz narrativa. Todos los textos, más allá de esta división, tienen en común el pertenecer a un territorio híbrido, entre la prosa periodística, la crónica y la ensayística, al cual le sienta bien el término “ensayo bonsái”, acuñado por Fabián Casas.

El libro, en su conjunto, puede verse como una historia personal (y por momentos generacional) de la lectura: la historia de la formación de Zambra como lector. Esta historia abarca, por un lado, la creación de un panteón de autores. Ahí la presencia de numerosos poetas nos recuerda que Zambra comenzó escribiendo poesía antes de convertirse en narrador. Los nombres también permiten trazar las dos coordenadas básicas del espacio donde se para Zambra como escritor: hacia dentro de Chile, en el polo antipoético opuesto a la retórica nerudiana; hacia afuera, recortado contra el fondo del boom latinoamericano, del que hace una lectura crítica, inclinándose por autores laterales, como Julio Ramón Ribeyro.

En tanto biografía de un lector, por otro lado, No leer nos muestra diferentes prácticas de lectura y momentos fundantes de esa biografía. Así, en “Lecturas obligatorias”, que no casualmente abre el volumen, Zambra se remonta a sus orígenes como lector. Tras contar cómo su profesora de castellano del Instituto Nacional les dio una semana de plazo para leer Madame Bovary, señala: “Así nos enseñaron a leer: a palos. Todavía pienso que los profesores no querían entusiasmarnos sino disuadirnos, alejarnos para siempre de los libros”. En “Elogio de la fotocopia”, en cambio, remite a la experiencia de una generación, para la cual la fotocopia significó una posibilidad de acceso a la cultura, comparable a lo que poco después permitiría Internet: “Es bueno recordar que aprendimos a leer con esas fotocopias que esperábamos impacientes, fumando, al otro lado de la ventanilla. Unas máquinas enormes e incansables nos daban, por pocos pesos, la literatura que queríamos. Leíamos esos tibios legajos y luego los guardábamos en las repisas como si fueran libros. Porque eso eran para nosotros: libros. Libros queridos y escasos. Libros importantes”. Por último, en “Cuatro personas”, reflexiona sobre la importancia del cenáculo literario y sobre el papel que cumple en la formación de un escritor joven la lectura solidaria entre un pequeño grupo de escritores-lectores que se influyen y critican mutuamente.

La prosa de Zambra es culta y entretenida. Maneja con destreza el humor (sobre todo en su variante irónica, como en “Contra los poetas”) y también un tono más grave, cuasi elegíaco por momentos, como en la crónica y retrato que le dedica al gran poeta Gonzalo Millán. “Apuntes sobre Gonzalo Millán” es el nombre de este ensayo, y en él Zambra hace un balance de la obra y la vida de Millán a través de tres momentos: el de Relación personal, su primer libro, de 1968, que Zambra lee como el reverso de un proyecto novelístico frustrado; Veneno de escorpión azul, el diario que llevó Millán, enfermo de cáncer terminal, durante su último año de vida; y por último Archivo Zonaglo, donde narra su encuentro personal con Millán y se detiene en las fichas que este elaboró y atesoró a lo largo de años. El retrato que construye es lúcido y entrañable, como son los que les dedica a Nicanor Parra, a Ribeyro y a Bolaño. En cada uno de ellos transmite efectivamente la pasión del lector.

Leer, después escribir

Al comienzo del libro Zambra cuenta que durante un tiempo, cuando todavía no había publicado su primera novela y vivía de escribir reseñas, tuvo miedo de transformarse en el crítico literario de su generación: temió convertirse en el eterno lector de los libros de los otros. Es este lugar, sin embargo, “el lugar del lector”, el que Zambra, como Borges, termina reconociendo aquí como su destino. Escribimos, dice, los libros que querríamos leer. Escribir es, en ese sentido, “leer un texto no escrito”.

 

 

04/03/13, aquí


Ways of Going Home (David Evans, Financial Times)

Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, a prize-winner in his native Chile, explores the legacy of the Pinochet regime. At its centre is a young man who writes to assuage a kind of survivor’s guilt. He was a boy during the dictatorship, and was protected from the worst of it, but realises that “there were others who suffered more, who suffer more”.

Throughout, Zambra gives us excerpts from the narrator’s work-in-progress, and shows us how he manipulates childhood memories for his fictional purposes. This story-within-a-story – and perhaps Zambra’s own novel – is suffused with a twofold sense of shame: embarrassment that his parents did nothing to resist Pinochet and a chastened awareness that he would not have acted any differently himself. The result is a fascinating reflection on historical complicity, translated with restrained elegance by Megan McDowell.

 

 

March 1, 2103

Here


Review of Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (stillnotfused)

Considering its turbulent modern history, there is surprising little literary work by contemporary Chilean authors, certainly not much that has made it into English translation.

Alejandro Zambra is probably the best known of the new wave of young Chilean writers. His first book, Bonsai, about a young man whose love disappears, won Chile’s Literary Critics Award for best novel and won international critical acclaim.  The follow-up, The Private Life of Trees, about a man telling stories to his young daughter while nervously awaiting the return of his wife, saw him selected for Granta’s 2010 list of the Best of Young Spanish-language novelists..

His latest book, Ways of Going Home, was much anticipated. It’s a slim volume that focuses on life in Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. There are two narrators, both authors, one the literary creation of the other. Neither considers themselves the victims of the regime, nor owners of the story, rather “secondary citizens.”

The “real’’ character is using the book he is writing to win the approval of his lover Eme. He wants her to read the manuscript to validate his work and to hopefully keep her interest as a lover. But she is first coolly complimentary, then critical: ‘You told my story … and I ought to thank you, but no, I think I’d prefer it if no one told that story.” His protests are hollow, even to him.

The fictional character writes of his experiences as a young boy, never named, in a middle-class suburb of Santiago. He is enticed by Claudia, a girl on whom he has a crush, to spy on her uncle who is living alone in the neighbourhood. To him it is a game and he remains largely oblivious to the dangerous real-world in which he is operating.  It is a world viewed through the eyes of a child one-removed from the shadow of fear that hung over the population: “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. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched without saying a word…” ,

Later, struggling with the conflicting emotions of his childhood, he tracks down Claudia and the two become lovers. But even as an adult, the balance of influence, remains unequal.

The Way Home is ultimately about the power and the rights of the individual.  Zambra’s minutely-observed every day worlds make it an absolute delight, frequently disarmingly under-stated in its intensity. And, with an increasing number of novelists “borrowing”, sometimes quite extensively, from the real voices of others, it raises some important issues about whether there ownership of individual experience.

 

Feb 11 2013 here.


Love and Disaster in a Post-Everything World: A Review of Alejandro Zambra’s “Ways of Going Home”, Joe Winkler (Vol. 1 Brooklyn)

All novels attempt to answer a question. Lolita, for example, attempted to answer the question of whether Nabokov could write one of the greatest and most beautiful novels ever around a revolting character and topic? (“Yes. Obviously,” the book replies with insouciance.) Many of the writers living under dictatorships  or totalitarian or fascist regimes asked the same abiding question: How do you retain humanity under inhumane circumstances? How do you define sexuality, politics, love, family, loyalty, in a world in which the government co-opts language for its own nefarious ends? From Koestler to Kundera, to Garcia Marquez and Havel, those whose childhood and adulthood clashed with regimes, who experienced dashed dreams of political rebellion, they could not escape this question.

The next generation of writers in these traditions, writers who grew up under the silencing shadow of disappearances, torture, and revolution, as children intuitively aware of an unspoken reality in the quiet conversations of adults, now ask different questions. Living in a “post” world (post-communism, post-fascism, post-revolution, post-ideological) abounding with freedom, albeit a freedom often suffocated by the ghosts of memory, they need to create a new lexicon. They teeter between forgetfulness and nostalgia (a sort of forgetfulness in its distortive abilities) attempting to feel comfortable in the freedom they did not fight for, uncomfortably aware a horrific past they cannot, and do not want to discard. In this landscape of once enemies, of neighbors who sold out their friends for money, protection, or prestige, how do you continue as if the past is a footnote to a boring book? Moreover, how do you live in the present fully aware of the sacrifices and heroism of the past?

Alejandro Zambra — poet, novelist, and one of the most talented writers to come out of Chile since Bolano — was brought up in the times of Pinochet, and now lives there in a democratic Chile. He has emerged as one of the most poignant and eloquent writers of this generation. In his newly translated book Ways of Going Home, his most autobiographical work yet, Zambra struggles with these questions:

The novel belongs to our parents, I thought then, I think now. That’s what we grew up believing, that the novel belonged to our parents. We cursed them, and also took refuge in their shadows, relieved. While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner. While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes. While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing…Because back then we were exactly that: secondary characters, hundreds of children who crisscrossed the city lugging denim backpacks.

Zambra wants to feel comfortable in his life of relative luxury, but he also knows that as a writer, as a human being, he owes a debt to the past a debt that encompasses more than the bland demand to “Never Forget.” Yet, he also understands that try as he might, he cannot find his way out of the past either:

Last night I walked for hours. It was as if I wanted to get lost down some unknown street. To get absolutely and happily lost. But there are moments when we can’t, when we don’t know how to lose our way. Even if we always go in the wrong direction. Even if we lose all our points of reference. Even if it begins to grow late and we feel the weight of morning as we advance. There are times when no matter how we try to find out what we don’t know, we can’t lose our way. And perhaps we long for the time when we could be lost. The when all streets were new.

Zambra’s novel starts with an earthquake in the year 1985, and ends with an earthquake almost 30 years later. The chaos of the earthquake externalizes the internal chaos of a scared society, allowing children to peer into the secret world of adults:

Back then death was invisible for children like me, who went outside, running fearlessly along those fantastical streets, safe from history. The night of the earthquake was the first time I realized that everything could come tumbling down. Now I think it’s a good thing to know. It’s necessary to remember every second.

There our young 9 year old narrator, Alejandro, meets Claudia, a 12 year old girl who lives in a neighborhood close by. She enlists the fawning boy as a spy to watch over and report back on the comings and goings of her uncle who lives next door to young Alejandro. The novel shifts back and forth into the past of childhood and the nowness of the present where the author confronts his past. In the present, the narrator, now an established writer, divorced from his wife Eme, reunited shortly with his childhood love Claudia, attempts to write the novel we are reading. This conceit is less a postmodernist tool than a method to explore the politics of storytelling. As Zambra himself notes,

I come from a family with no dead, I thought as my classmates told their childhood stories. At that moment I had a strong memory of Claudia, but I didn’t want of didn’t dare to tell her story. It wasn’t mine. I knew little, but at least I knew that: no one could speak for someone else. That although we might want to tell other people’s stories, we always end up telling our own.

In this new world of porous identities, in the breakdown of traditional narratives, the greatest transgression lies in telling someone else’s story. Whereas in the previous world of regimes, for writers, telling the story of others was a courageous act of rebellion, in the world of unfettered freedom it transforms into a grave sin, in a sense, undermining the very act of writing. For each person, salvation emerges from the ability to tell their own story, not through the lens or voice of someone else:

The thing she most wished for during that long trip to Santiago was for the stranger traveling next to her wake up and ask: Who are you, what’s your name? She wanted to answer him quickly, cheerfully, even flirtatiously. She wanted to tell him, like they do in novels: My name is Claudia, I’m thirty three years old, and this is my story. And then begin to tell it, finally, as if it didn’t hurt.

Obviously, Zambra sees the tension and irony in both telling everyone else’s story but also seeing that same act as inappropriate. This is another bind he cannot write or think himself out of. This speaks to the exigent importance of Zambra as a writer, as an ambivalent voice of world, uncertain of their future, uncomfortable with their past, and ambivalent about the present. He is a writer aware of the weighty significance of his task, but as aware of his insignificance, the unsolvable dichotomies of writing:

It’s late. I’m writing…I think naively, intensely, about suffering…And about this profession, this strange, humble and arrogant, necessary and insufficient trade: to spend life watching, writing.

It is precisely this uncertainty that Zambra emerges as an unparalleled voice and writer. With his sparse, minimalist style, one taken from the world of poetry, Zambra manages to capture both the mundane and the lofty, the joyous and the terrible in deceptively simple sentences. Ultimately, he doesn’t cower before the ambiguity of it all. He revels in the questions and emerges with nothing but more questions.

 

February 6, 2013, here.

 


Alejandro Zambra’s “Ways of Going Home”, David Varno (Words Without Borders)

The Chilean poet and novelist Alejandro Zambra has swiftly become one of my favorite contemporary writers. I read his first two novels in translation in a single afternoon, but their momentum stayed with me for days. The most recent, Ways of Going Home, translated by Megan McDowell, resembles the others to a point. Like they do, it deals with the processes of writing and storytelling; this, though, is as far as the similarities go. While it is only a few dozen pages longer than the first two, it is by far the most fully developed. Where the first two read like sketches for potential stories, or blueprints for how to tell them, the latest book achieves dramatic tension and emotional immediacy without ever shortchanging the overarching ambition: namely, to create a novel that exposes, and springs from, its own scaffolding.

Zambra’s first book to appear in English was Bonsai (Melville House, 2008), a potent novella with a new take on the anxiety of influence: the protagonist is an aspiring writer, considered for the task of transcribing an older author’s handwritten manuscript. The eighty-something pages end abruptly when the young writer learns of his lover’s suicide and asks a cab driver to circle him around the city for 30,000 pesos, the amount in his wallet. It’s an affecting passage, but on first read it seems like a missed opportunity: the rich moment could have been held a little longer in suspension. The next two novels do just that; they give some direction to this melancholy sense of aimlessness.

Julian, the writer-protagonist of The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter, 2010), is haunted by a moment from his university days, when the memories of the dictatorship loomed large. “Of those present, Julian was the only one who came from a family with no dead, and this discovery filled him with a strange bitterness.” Given Zambra’s interest in writing about the storytelling process, these sentiments of guilt are particularly acute. They also beg the question of authorship. As a reader, one wonders to what extent they are stand-ins for Zambra himself. Still, whether these books contain autobiographical elements is beside the point—and this is a tribute to their author. All of them crackle with the inventiveness of fiction, and they share a deep, generational fixation on how to tell stories of growing up in Chile during Pinochet.

Ways of Going Home is the first of Zambra’s novels to be told in the first person. This allows the theme of authorship to feel more personal and immediate, which may offer more to a reader who couldn’t see past the meta-fictional exercises of his past work. There is a shift in tone from the opening, which is set in the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Chile when the narrator is just nine, to the middle of the novel when he starts to interrogate the past. At the book’s start, the narrator is amused by graffiti like “Pinochet sucks dick.” By the middle, he confronts his father for becoming reactionary in his old age, recognizing that his parents “were there so we wouldn’t feel afraid. But we weren’t afraid. They were the ones who were afraid.” His criticism of his father stems from a personal complication: the narrator himself feels guilty over, and restless with, his own relatively cushy, uneventful childhood. The dueling, unflattering portraits humanize both father and son.

The parents’ first object of fear is the new next-door neighbor, a mysterious single man named Raúl. The narrator’s parents keep to themselves and dissuade the boy from asking questions. They are survivors, remaining on the sidelines whenever possible. The narrator, at nine years old, meets an older girl named Claudia, who asks him to spy on the new stranger. He agrees, but only because he has a crush on her. Years later, the circumstances of Claudia’s interest in Raúl form an unexpected intrigue, when the narrator decides to track her down so he can learn her story and incorporate it into the novel he’s writing. The interplay between the apparent reality of the novel and the narrator’s willful manipulation of events is woven so naturally that it feels as though we are let in on an author’s thoughts as he looks up from the page; the effect brings us closer to both the narrator and the story he’s telling, which doesn’t always happen with novels that follow someone’s writing project.

The narrator needs Claudia because he knows she must have a story that is more interesting than his own, with genuine trauma that can fill the void of his less-consequential childhood. Equally important to the narrator is Eme, his recent ex, upon whom he is dependent not just for love and affection. but for support with his writing. When Claudia briefly moves in with him, she fills the void left by Eme along with the deeper emptiness he feels for the past. This slippage between the story the narrator wants to tell and the events that unfold in Zambra’s actual account only adds to the novel’s depth. At one point, he tells Eme his plans for the novel, which involve arranging for his protagonist to be reunited with Claudia even though they would probably never recognize each other in real life. They do in the novel version, but as he predicts to Eme, they don’t live together happily ever after. That, he says, would make for a bad novel.

At dinner with Eme, near the end of the book, the narrator is reminded of a moment from his childhood, recounted in the first section of the book. “It’s like in the novel,” he tells her. Earlier, when he meets with his fellow novelist-friend Diego, he compliments him on a passage in his own book that seemed real. “You didn’t make that up,” he says to him. These instances abound: life imitating art, while art reflects back images of life. This excitement on the part of the narrator for glimpses of life that confirm the reality of his fiction only heightens the desire Zambra has expressed in all his work: to find one’s place both in history and in the present. It is a converse of the feeling Proust’s M. has when he reads Bergotte and finds his own thoughts expressed in the other writer’s work; in Zambra’s case, he is excited when his own work is proven by life to be real.

Marcela Valdes once wrote that Bonsai was an expansion of Zambra’s earlier verse work into prose narrative. Ways of Going Home is packed with poetic images, and McDowell has done a beautiful job crafting a casual lyricism that continues to surprise right up to the end. The book’s final image comes from an attempt on the narrator’s part to replay a detail from earlier in the novel: he hopes to spot a Peugeot like the one his father drove, in which he once daydreamed from the backseat. There are no Peugeots, but still, he imagines children sleeping in the backseats of the cars that pass, and marvels at what they might one day remember. The use of city traffic to create a circling effect recalls the ending of Bonsai. And yet at the same time it resonates in a different key, suggesting new beginnings and new stories, children who don’t yet know their future or their past.

January 2013, here

Ways of Going Home, Steve Donoghue (Open Letters)

Calling Alejandro Zambra “the most important Chilean writer since Roberto Bolano” (as a few too many people have already done) seems both unfair and premature – unfair because that leaves Zambra vulnerable when the bubble of hysterical Bolano-overestimating finally bursts, and premature because, with two novels and a new memoir every year, Bolano doesn’t seem to need a successor. Besides, even when it’s done with the best of intentions, such a comparison imposes a hierarchy, one that might not be fair to Bolano and certainly isn’t fair to Zambra.

Zambra was born in Santiago, Chile in 1975 and rose to instant fame in the vibrant Chilean literary world with his 2006 novella Bonsai, the single most electrifying intertwining of sex and book-reading since Paolo and Francesca (Junot Diaz called it quite simply “a total knockout,” and he was right). The book was slim, sexy, intelligent, and widely popular – in other words, it should have been a career-ender. But Zambra followed it in 2007 with La vida privada de los arboles, very ably translated into English by Megan McDowell (for the alluringly-named Open Letter Books) as The Private Life of Trees – a short story (I believe it was 30 pages long – perhaps 41 or 42 – hugely entertaining to read critics rhapsodize that it “demanded” to be read in a single sitting! It couldn’t avoid being read in a single sitting) of such remarkable power and grace that it silenced all thought of Bonsai being some kind of isolated incident.

As good as Megan McDowell was in her handling of the nervous, dreamlike atmosphere of The Private Life of Trees, she’s even better in translating Zambra’s latest, Ways of Going Home, and the book (at 139 pages, we must call it Zambra’s most ambitious to date, although still firmly in the single-sitting range) is eminently worthy of her efforts. This is a hauntingly memorable, extremely accomplished little novella.

The story weaves fiction and meta-fiction in the healthy tradition of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; events open with a little boy in Santiago experiencing an earthquake in 1985, meeting a girl named Claudia, and being dimly, innocently aware of the tensions the adults around him felt over the rule of Augusto Pinochet. “Back then death was invisible for children like me,” the story’s narrator later reflects, “who went outside, running fearlessly along those fantastical streets, safe from history.”

The comparative innocence of the little boy is heavily colored by the reflections of that later narrator, a young novelist writing a lightly fictionalized version of his childhood,  trying, like so many of Zambra’s characters, to make sense of life through literature. That young novelist rolls his own lost innocence around in his mouth like a bitter taste. “The night of the earthquake was the first time I realized that everything could come tumbling down. Now I think it’s a good thing to know.”

The two stories – the little boy and Claudia, first as children and then meeting again as adults, and the young writer working on a novel about them and showing it bit by bit to his girlfriend Eme – blur and reinforce each other. Eme and the narrator talk about books and writing (when she asks him why he doesn’t just write his novel “all at once,” he wants to answer: “I’m waiting for a voice. A voice that isn’t mine. An old voice, novelistic and solid”); Claudia and the narrator’s narrator talk mostly about smoking. Each narrative throws shards of light on the other, and the whole is bound together with a voice, a sensibility, that’s calmly expert and, in some ways, oddly sweet:

I go to the university, teach a not-so-good class, go home. I had imagined the scene, but it still surprises me to open the door and see Claudia stretched out in the easy chair. “Your beauty does me good,” I say to her, without thinking about it much. She looks at me cautiously and then lets out a guffaw, but she comes over, puts her arms around me, and we end up screwing standing up in a corner of the kitchen.

Zambra may possess more sheer literary talent than most of his writing peers, but he shares one thing in common with almost all of them: he’s about as anti-climactic as a suicide note. He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about providing his readers with what writing teachers used to refer to as a satisfying denouementWays of Going Home ends with an earthquake just as it began with one – the first happening to the narrator’s narrator, the second happening to the narrator, and it’s almost clear from the text that Zambra considers this a conclusion when in fact it’s just a contrivance.

It’s frustrating, but only momentarily so – and it may speak to a newer iteration of fiction, in fact it almost certainly does. “We give up on a book when we realize that it wasn’t for us,” the narrator says at one point, clearly speaking for Zambra and perhaps for his generation. “We were tired of waiting for someone to write the books that we wanted to read.”

But anomie hasn’t replaced drama, only dramatics: Ways of Going Home is a sedately confident minor work of art, skilled enough when its more worldly characters make political talk (and when Zambra gives us the book’s one refreshingly complex portrait of marriage) and, as usual for this author, exquisitely spot-on and thought-provoking when the focus is on writing, reading, and books. It’s not a historical novel, and it’s certainly not a love story; it contains no violent action (other than smoking), and it isn’t particularly experimental – and yet it will make you smile with satisfaction. And whatever it is, it will stay in your memory long after your single sitting is over.

Feb 1, 2013 here.


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.