Alejandro Zambra Talks to Matt Nelson (The Center for Fiction)

A new book is as much an opportunity for a new conversation as it is for a new read. After hearing rumors of Alejandro Zambra’s next English-translated novel, Ways of Coming Home, I knew this was my chance to start one such conversation. WCH is longer than Zambra’s normal novella length, a work detailing Chile like Dubliners details Dublin, which is to say that if you think the sole aim is geographical mimicry in either book, then you’re missing wide of the barn. Specific to Zambra’s novel’s success is how deftly and naturally it communicates to itself and the reader through intertwining sections. The reader, never told explicitly the design, makes herself aware of the doubling; as we read, we learn what exactly it is we are reading. Zambra’s writing always constitutes an experience for the reader, an experience that is enjoyable and worth sharing because of its intimacy. Through email, Zambra and I chewed the fat about last minute changes, how every life is a story, and why it’s so difficult to name his characters.

 

I’m sure to some WCM will be a great guide as to how to deal with the life of a writer, since the main character is writing a novel. But more importantly, WCM will be an example of how to deal with the necessary “other” in the life of wordsmiths, the readers. So if you don’t mind, this is where I’d like to begin. Who is your ideal reader?

 

I never visualize/imagine a concrete reader. I like Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world/ that never wrote me.” I like “that never wrote me” because it testifies to that uncertain state that leads us to write. Writing is searching, always. [Paul] Celan says it is a gift to the other, it is the looking for the other, the absolute other, who/which is at the end of oneself. Then what one is looking for is an instance of something beyond reason, in which only the text exists; the task is unfolding it, like a sculpture: You work on the stone to find the form already there.

 

When I write or when I publish (I write a lot of things I would never publish), I don’t think of a reader, any reader whatsoever. However, once finished I tend to share the pieces with a few friends, and their opinions are relevant to me. I enjoy that dialogue around the texts; I’ve written that way always. I’m fond of a Natalia Ginzburg text about that, called “Interlocutors.” In any case it is hard to consider a text as something finished. I used to change many things during the printing-proof-marks, causing  “emergencies” among the editors of Anagrama [the Spanish publisher of Zambra].

 

How do you write?

 

I draft a lot; I have a diary and take notes on irrelevant things. I try to free the space of writing from any commitment, obligation, or duty; I do not push myself to write a poem, a story or a novel. I do not intend to write  “good writing.” I just go on, write whatever comes. Sometimes an image takes some work, but it starts to become something. It has always been that way, clearly. And when I find the book, or when I think I found it (even though I make a lot of mistakes) I plunge into it obsessively.

 

 

You write in WGC, “That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.” How do you feel about the term  “finished”? Which books do you return to with new ideas after they’ve already been published? Do you constantly think of your books? You mentioned emergency proof changes at Anagrama. What is a type of correction you’ve made during these  “emergencies”? 

 

Ten years ago I published Mudanza [Moving], a book of poems, which is in fact one poem divided into six parts. Since then I’ve been writing that book: I have around 200 pages rewriting those fifteen pages. I guess it’s unrecognizable by now.

 

I like to think, for instance, that The Private Lives of Trees is a correction of Bonsai, and that WGH is a rewriting of PLT. When one starts writing another book it doesn’t happen because you  “must” do it, or because you are a writer (at least I’ve been aware to stay free from any commitment that could force me to publish; I publish because I want to or need to do it). Once you start to write a new book, in some way it happens because the previous book doesn’t fit you anymore.

 

I make all kind of corrections. Some hysteria as well, sure. Today, above all, it seems so aggressive to conclude a book, considering all the time one spends before the screen dealing with it. My first feeling, when I have the book printed, is: This is it, I can’t add or take out anything. When I publish I detach myself from what I’ve done. I don’t think again about it, I leave it behind. To publish is not like giving birth at all, (well, I haven’t given birth), but like when children leave home. You want them to succeed, to be treated well, but they are not “yours,” they really are not yours anymore. And you’re more focused on, you care more about, the one you are still raising.

 

Is there something beyond a moral that you want the reader to gain?

 

Talking about morality, I remember [Ezra] Pound’s “fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.” I deeply consider that all the phrases of a text are equally relevant, and each one of them should be precise in some way, in some sense. There you have its morality. I think also of [Walter] Benjamin when he says something about the “legality” of memories. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. Broadly speaking I think that literature conveys the complexity of the object/fact being watched/perceived; it never simplifies. That’s why I’m astonished when the expectation is to have clear-univocal messages from books. Just the idea of a “message” is a drag.

 

I hear what you’re saying. The whole idea of some “message” is kind of a slap in the reader’s face. To force onto them something they may or may not agree with or need (as if you can determine what a reader needs) is to skew the balance between reader and author, and it puts the narrative in the advantage of having the final say re: conclusions. Not a message, WGC feels more like an opportunity for experience. There are often sentences in your other books that give the reader a look into the world of an author. But WGC enters something new or different. I felt like there was a moment of aha! when I figured out the mirror between narrators and it made me think about how I read—and what, textually, made me think about how I was reading. What do you hope a reader of WGH thinks of while reading, and then, after completing the book?

 

Yes, I agree, the reader completes the whole thing. I’ve also felt that sense of “being gently maneuvered,” which is a sort of initiation to a certain thought or an action that involves us as human beings, vitally speaking. And, at last, I believe the book is open to any kind of appropriation by anyone. As a reader one steals the book from the author, allowing the book to say many things at the same time. One explores its meanings, its layers. That’s what I enjoy as a reader and as a writer, and that’s why we re-read books. I reckon, answering your question, that a reader of WGH would likely wonder similar things to the ones I wondered when I was writing the book; then he/she fills the empty spaces with his/her own experience. I like the idea of that happening. I like the idea of literature as something that pushes us constantly to check our convictions.  In any case, thinking of those books that have moved me above all, I think I have never got them, understood them, utterly, really. In good books you always find a sort of opacity; they have margins of illegibility. So it is odd to see those attempts to simplify literature. I remember a note about PLT in which the critic stated that the novel was good even though it was not “truly” Latin American literature. Funny idea, that of understanding Latin American literature as a literary genre. The expectation that one doesn’t write novels, but  “Latin American” novels. And, in any case, what is that? What does it mean?

 

In all of your books there are secondary characters.. Often you won’t give a name, or the name isn’t stable at first, or it seems arbitrary. Any way you put it, a hierarchy is established. It’s like you’re telling us, don’t pay too much attention to these people; they’re just secondary characters, even though they come back and affect the story. This is indicative of the way information is given as well, combining the specific with the ambiguous. Why not tell us all the information up front at the beginning?

 

I like the idea that all my characters are secondary ones. There’s nothing heroic or  “spectacular” about them. It happened, and it still happens, that to name them is extremely difficult. It was absurd, I felt ridiculous choosing names for them. Considering that in a book the relevance of a name is utterly different from the meaning of a name in  “real life.” I never conceal that sort of trouble; I try to use names, to give characters a sense in writing. It was hard to focus on social conventions; it’s still hard to do, and I’ve decided to take advantage of that discomfort. This is quite clear in Bonsai. It is, in many senses, a novel written against the rhetoric of novels, and in favor of those odd books I’ve always enjoyed by Macedonio Fernandez, Felisberto Hernández, Juan Emar, and in some other way by José Santos González Vera, Adolfo Couve, and María Luisa Bombal. And evidently Borges’ advice about writing like drawing up a summary of a text already written. I considered his idea a luminous one to attempt in my writing.  I like the metaphor of the iceberg, of course. Reading many novels I thought it would be better if I avoid telling everything, prune some paragraphs, some hundreds of pages. I think that comes from all the poetry I started to read before all this, Ezra Pound, or Japanese poetry, or, in Chile, the work done by Gonzalo Millán, masterpieces of concentration and synthesis. I was deeply impressed by that, by far more than the “big” rhetoric or grandiloquence you see in Pablo Neruda.

 

There is a moment in WCH when the narrator’s sister asks if she is going to be in the new novel. The narrator says no, he is protecting her by keeping her out. Later in the novel, the narrator visits a young author and brings up a piece of dialogue in the young author’s book that must absolutely be straight from life, due to it’s uniqueness. These two instances are very different examples of reality’s intrusion into what we write. How do you feel about writing from life? Do you censor yourself in terms of certain people? How do people close to you react to your work?

 

I have no interest in telling my life. If asked what I write about, I would never answer “about my life.” I write about things I know, about spaces/scenarios I know well as I’ve inhabited them. I write about spaces/scenarios I know and that know me; there are coincidences, sure, but they have no relevance at all, because my life is not extraordinary. The story told in WGH is the story of many Chileans of my age, and I guess those tensions between parents and their children are present in the life of almost anybody.

 

Of course I care about people I love, but not by self-censorship. As I said before, this is not referential. Anyway, sure, there are reactions and confusions, but the people I love tend to be people who love me and they accept and understand that this has nothing to do with being literal.

 

I really like this answer. You mentioned self-censorship and the idea of spaces/scenarios. I wonder if the spaces/scenarios dichotomy institutes an objectification of the spaces/scenarios. Spaces are geographically objects, so we can ignore those. But scenarios are often shared or affected by others in real time. Hypothetically, pretend you aren’t writing a character or a scene in reference to someone you know or an event that affected you or someone you know, but you start to notice that the scene or the character would be recognizable by the real person. Is it more important to change certain arbitrary facts to guarantee that those close to you do not get hurt, or is it better to go with your first instinct, even if your character is named Herbert and your real- life friend who has the same eye color is named Hamilton? I’m sorry if I’m not making this clear.

 

I understand your question perfectly, and I think that in every case, with every text, the answer would be different. It is one of the many things for which there are no rules in literature: There are directions, but no rules. If you use first-person singular and talk about your mother, sure, the text will deal with that tension, always, with that possibility, but there are searches which need precisely that tension. As it is not  “easy” to be a writer, it is not  “easy” to be the husband, mother, or child of somebody who writes because a writer, in some way, will be always “writing you,” even when he/she is not talking about you. That’s a major issue in WBH, if writing protects you or exposes you instead, as in the episode concerning the main character’s sister. I thought it was interesting to question the narrator’s authority; the narrator is always authoritarian, even when he/she doesn’t want it, because he/she feels the right to tell a story. From Author, “authority,” “authoritarian.”

 

Who has been your most fully formed character?

 

Mmmmm. Sincerely, I have no idea.

 

Sorry, that was a cheap shot because I didn’t define “fully formed.” So instead: What is a fully formed character? What characters in the books you’ve read (not written) stay in your mind?

 

Well, it’s still a hard question. The character must looks like everybody, anybody, and nobody. (You know, yes, of course you know: “Here Comes Everybody.” Joyce tried— tons of pages poetry included—, did he succeed?)

 

How important is the perspective of the narrator? Is there a connection between perspective and truth? Bonsai and PLT are both in third-person, while WCH is in first. Why the change?

 

I like to think of the difference between the novels considering the distance between the narrator and the main character, which is decreasing; as in Bonsai, the narrator looks at the characters with more distance. That allows him to laugh at them a bit, to judge them, and also to help them, forgive them, love them. In PLT I think the narrator is closer; what’s going on there hurts (the narrator) almost as much as it hurts Julian, to the point in which the third person seems false: Someone is talking about himself using the third person. Well, in WCH, you have a first-person narrator; the distance dissolves, although there you have two narrators or one double narrator.

 

From my point of view that’s the most important decision: the voice. And I think the only method is by trial and error. There were also versions of Bonsai and PLT using first-person, the same way in which I wrote this third novel. I’m interested in it as an exercise, although I knew that this novel would be in first-person, to write it completely in third-person just to see how it goes. That’s the advantage of writing short novels; you can type many tries.

 

This is great. I agree. But even a short novel takes time. The “error” half of  “trial and error” assumes that you know what an error is. How do you know you’re writing something wrong? I guess I’m trying to get the order of the writing. Do you compare the writing of different voices, or do you work in one direction, feel falseness and then try something new?

 

Mostly the second way: I transcribe the stuff written, to feel it again (a bit esoteric, but it is what it is), and I try hard to feel, to detect, any trace of falseness. Almost always you know better what you don’t want than what you want.

 

The narrator at one point sees a women reading a book, her face between the pages, and he notes that reading is a way of hiding, in this case physically, but also mentally from reality. Are books just trees to hide behind? Or are they something else? And what does that make writing? Particularly about the past?

 

I think books allow us to know ourselves better. I have no doubts about that. To know ourselves intensively so we lie less to ourselves, and then we can admit that the best and the worst of ourselves are intermingled. It is like staring at a glass that is sometimes a mirror, sometimes a window. Then you lose the notion; you’re not sure if you’re watching yourself or someone else. Sometimes we feel we open ourselves, or that we hide, but writing is not exactly to open or conceal oneself. It overcomes that dichotomy. To write is to admit we need to search into the mystery we are. In spite of the ego, we are not more complex than anybody else. If we really knew how to read we would know that: Anybody’s life is a complete, terrible, and joyful novel.

 

When writing I feel I’m looking for answers to the oldest questions, the impossible ones. You don’t find answers but sometimes their faint air, or imminence. I like Borges’ expression: “the imminence of a revelation which does not happen.”

 

I don’t get that about the past. I think we always write about the past. We always arrive late to the actual present.

 

Issue 12, march 2013, here


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


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.


Ways of Going Home (New Orleans Review)

Alejandro Zambra’s much-anticipated third novel, Ways of Going Home, is a timely and intimate meditation on Chile. It is ambitious in its understated earnestness, provocative in its political messaging, and universal in its grasp at memories for meaning, identity, and voice.

As the title suggests, this novel is concerned with literary ways of probing memories that connect to home. In this case, home is Chile but is equally the 1980s, parents, family, friends, neighbors, and literature. The memories are those of the generation who were children during the regime of Augusto Pinochet.

The novel unfolds in four parts, alternating between a childhood and present day (i.e., the Chilean presidential election of 2009-2010). The past is a memoir of a nine-year-old boy in the mid-80s and then twenty years later; the present is a diary by its author. While it could be argued that these inconsistent narrative techniques do not coexist well, that these even unravel each other, there is a moving effect in the struggle on the author’s part to work toward a voice, and even language, for the complicity and victimization of one’s parents under a brutal regime.

In the novel’s opening, a boy of six or seven gets lost from his parents and finds his way home. This is in Santiago, the city where they live. Though frightful for anyone who has experienced the threat of losing sight of his or her child, the episode devolves into an amusing anecdote. The boy doesn’t react with this heightened fear but instead simply finds his way home. And then at home, after some time has passed, he begins to worry that his parents got lost: “I knew how to get home and they didn’t.” It’s a wonderfully circular meditation, a kind of misdirection on the author’s part that turns the camera from the child to the parents. All of this in the opening sets the stage for a story in which turning of the camera emerges as a pattern: the boy regarding his parents and his parents’ generation in the context of what was happening in Chile.

An earthquake begins this boy’s story which revolves around his relations with a girl, Claudia. During the earthquake, neighbors come together in a rare moment of camaraderie around a bonfire: “It was strange to see the neighbors all gathered together, maybe for the first time ever.” Again, an insightful observation within the context of Chile’s troubled times. The family’s neighbor, a man named Raul, has brought his sister and niece to the gathering, and though there is some sense of neighborhood, there is not a sense of belonging together. Later Claudia asks him to spy on her uncle Raul, and there is much speculation about events witnessed and people encountered while spying on Raul. It is not until much later that we are able to piece together a reasonable version of what was occurring and its significance.

The other two sections are made up of a diary by the fictional author of the boy’s story. Probing his generation’s memories is this author’s work at hand even in his diary. One of the central characters is a past lover Eme (in fact, the author’s diary largely obsesses with Eme’s reading of his manuscript). In one of the diary entries, he recounts Eme’s story of when, at seven or eight years old, she played hide-and-seek with other girls late in the day in the yard. When the parents stopped calling for them, the children realized that inside the house “her father’s friends were crying and that her mother…was staring off into space” while listening to news on the radio about a raid that had happened, and “about the dead, about more dead.” Later in the book, the children—including the author—turn out to be secondary characters.

And here in closing this diary entry of Eme’s story, he writes a moving reflection that again asserts Zambra as one of the most important writers of the new wave of Chilean authors: the author explains that his generation grew up believing that the “novel” belonged to their parents—Zambra has said that those of his generation in the 80s were secondary characters in the literature of their parents. The children cursed their parents while taking “refuge in their shadows, relieved.” He writes: “While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.”

It seems evident that Zambra would like us to weigh his stories within the context of Chile’s recent presidential election. How much of this book does Zambra intend to serve as a wake-up call following the 2009-2010 election of Chile’s first right-wing president in two decades? And the upcoming 2013 bids for the presidency? One of the most direct instances of political messaging, after noting that Sebastián Piñera will win: “It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories.” The diary language here is notably passive; there is a despair, almost a resignation. One might hope for more, but melodrama is not Zambra’s style.

In the diary section that closes Ways of Going Home, while the fictional author continues to struggle in his effort to find voice and rationale for his novel, an earthquake hits Santiago, as it did for him twenty years earlier—the earthquake scene with which he opened his novel. Out on the streets afterward, he encounters people who say to him, We’re all right. It is the title and theme of the closing. The author experiences “a strange flicker of happiness,”—“strange” because otherwise the mood is grim, the writing work must continue to give meaning to all that has happened in past, present, and future.

 

Feb 2013, here.


Fiction review: Ways of Going Home (John Wilmes, NewCity Lit)

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


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.


“Ways of Going Home,” by Alejandro Zambra, Ren Khodzhayev (The Rumpus)

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