In the beginning of “Ways of Going Home,” the nameless narrator says, “I think it’s a good thing to lose confidence in the solidity of the ground, I think it’s necessary to know that from one moment to the next everything can come tumbling down.” It’s a statement of what’s to come in this novel, which goes on to switch back-and-forth between this fictional narrative and the concurrent real-life one, lived by author Alejandro Zambra as he composes the book. The first fictionalized portion is set during the narrator’s childhood in Chile (the setting of all sections of the book), during the rule of Augusto Pinochet. Everything else comes decades after, and whether it be the author’s, fictional protagonist’s, or love interest’s conflict, this is a story of living in the sociopolitical shadow of that era—and, for these characters, in the shadow of childhood.
The book is at its best when it’s marrying this life-in-shadows with the author’s struggle to understand the purpose of writing novels. “The novel belongs to our parents,” Zambra thought, as a child. “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 novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.” But the adult Zambra is decidedly less sure of this judgment; is decidedly less sure that he’s an actor in any significant political way, as he once imagined the grown-ups to be. “Now I think the best thing I’ve done in recent years has been to drink a lot of beer and reread certain books with dedication, with an odd fidelity,” he says, “as if something of my own beat within them, some clue to my destiny.” Thus, it seems that recapturing that myopic, in-the-corner escapism of childhood is the truest pursuit of Zambra’s middle-aged happiness.
And then there’s the parallel between fictional Claudia’s (a sometimes expression of real-life Eme, Zambra’s ex-wife) feelings of freedom in comparison to the Chile of her past—shrouded in secrecy, and running, as her family was politically active in their opposition to Pinochet—and her sense of agency in returning to meet the protagonist again, decades removed from their childhood flirtation, and tell her life’s story on her own, new terms. “The wish to say: I.” Claudia says. “The vague, strange pleasure, even, of answering: ‘My name is Claudia and I’m thirty-three years old.’” It’s a moment that speaks to how eloquently Zambra is able to handle the politically representative pressures that are implicit in the works of a realist, speaking to an international audience—which Zambra has been since Melville House took a winning gamble on 2008’s “Bonsai.”
“Ways of Going Home” is a Farrar, Straus, and Giroux release, and that he’s represented by this giant literary publisher (releaser of works by Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth) is a testament to Zambra’s quick ascendancy. And it’s one we should be thankful for, because at a time when the novel feels more subjugated than ever, it seems this author is trying to write one that carries all of the political and poetic work of its form’s history, but also thoughtfully considering its audience’s natural, evolutionary skepticism of the form, and having a conversation with them about it.
Feb 2013, here
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.
Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s beautiful third novel, is not as simple as it seems at first. With 139 pages, short chapter sections, and wide line breaks, the book looks and reads like a breeze. Listing its plot points would be boring and its themes—love, family, writing, the past—are almost predictable.
But this seemingly lackluster structure doesn’t matter because the book is filled with moments that made my heart sink déjà vu-inducing sinkholes sucking me back to my own childhood, my own adolescence. They left me too overwhelmed to go on reading. And it is in these moments that the magic of this book lies. Ways was not a great read because of what happened but because of the emotions it evoked.
As in his first book Bonsai, Zambra uses the same setup—the narrator is a writer living by himself, smoking cigarettes, sleeping with girls, trying to write a novel. While Ways visits the same points, it’s not to tell the same story. In life, one can sit around smoking cigarettes from day to day and yet the story, the ground situation, keeps changing.
Ways starts by focusing on the naiveté of youth, showing the narrator, as a nine-year-old, agreeing to spy on his neighbor because 12-year-old Claudia asked him too. But he’s still too young to even understand that this is a crush or even what a crush is. The spying leads the nine-year-old to trail a mysterious woman by bus. Here, Zambra nails the excitement of this first trip away from the parents’ house. The scene is loaded with nervous energy—the not knowing how to get home, but not really caring either. He allows this moment to play out to a surprising end. The nine-year-old starts pretending to be retarded so that the woman doesn’t catch on to him. But when he gets off the bus, she is there waiting, helping him to climb down. The woman then continues to help him trail her, by looking back and making sure he doesn’t get lost. In this scene, Zambra hooks the reader with a memory that we share and then tacks on a fantastical ending.
Another beautiful moment occurs during a family trip. The nine year old accidentally erases the chorus of a song on one of his family’s cassettes. He tries to cover up the crime by recording himself singing over the empty space. Zambra captures another childhood feeling: a small offense committed accidentally, followed by a disproportionate fear of punishment; just a child’s learning how to be in the world. Moments like these reach down into the reader’s soul and dig up memories long forgotten.But children become grownups and grownups smoke and drink; grownups make mistakes and come to regret the things they’ve done and they try their best to live with it. Grownups hit the age their parents were when they had them, and they compare their own experience to the memory of their parents. They realize that their parents were never invincible and that they never really knew what they were doing. Then they compare that to what their parents are like now. During a dinner scene with his father, the narrator thinks to himself: “At what moment…did my father turn into this? Or was he always like this?” In the end, that taste of disgust and superiority is fleeting. Even though you can say words with what you think is true conviction and make love to another with what you think is true passion, you’re always fooling yourself at least a little bit. No one, in life, can be the hero who we read about in fiction. Zambra’s writing conveys the sense that much of life is spent acrossing the street with our eyes closed. Eventually, we all get a little bit fucked up.
Set in present-day Chile, Ways flashes back to the mid-80s, when Pinochet’s dictatorship was still in control. Zambra deals with this subject matter with an I-was-too-young-to-remember outlook. The narrator is part of a Chilean generation that is only now getting to the age their parents were when Pinochet was in charge.
In one of the more overtly political passages, Zambra writes: “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.” Although this section ends on a serious, somber note, it is immediately undercut by what follows; a generous line break and the start of a new section: “Instead of writing, I spend the morning drinking beer and reading Madame Bovary.” It is a complex and subtle way to deal with the legacy of the dictatorship. Zambra knows that he cannot ignore the subject, but he also cannot do it justice. That story, that “novel,” was the job of his parents’ generation to write. The “we” of Zambra’s generation were just kids and, truth be told, they were barely aware of what was happening.
However, while the novel’s backdrop is political, its main focus is reflection and trying to understand one’s life. The narrator is a writer whose wife has left him. The book that he’s working on isn’t going well. Ways starts with him thinking back to that first crush, Claudia, and flows out from there; shifting temporally until Claudia comes along in the present. For a time, they make a new story together, all the while, looking back at what happened when they were kids and trying to understand it. Early on, the narrator says, “Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.” He seems to be looking into the past for a clue to why his marriage failed, for the formative seed of his failures with women. He uses the story that Claudia tells as a launching off point for his book, which is probably a book a lot like Ways, like two mirrors pointed at each other.
On the back cover, Nicole Krauss blurbed Zambra’s writing as “a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend.” I felt the same and was gladdened to see that I was not alone. Reading Ways felt like listening to Zambra on the phone, trying to explain something to me. Not for my sake, but for his own. Trying to figure something out. Trying to look closer, understand the meaning of a pattern he’s just noticed. I swear that I felt this way long before I got to the end, where 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,” the little moments that Zambra captures, that lead the reader down emotional pathways he’d forgotten and that make this novel great.
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)Posted: February 6, 2013
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.
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.
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 denouement. Ways 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.
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.