In a summary, most literary careers nowadays — in New York or Zagreb — can look eerily similar. Take, for instance, the case of Alejandro Zambra. Zambra is a Chilean who has so far written three novels. He was born in 1975, and teaches literature at the Diego Portales University in Santiago. He has figured on Granta’s list of best young Spanish-language novelists, and the Bogotá39 project. His career, in other words, has the usual global vibe. But if you held his novels in your hand, then something much stranger would be immediately apparent. “Bonsai,” his first, takes up only 86 miniature pages. His second, “The Private Lives of Trees,” requires 98. His third, “Ways of Going Home,” which has just been published in a translation by Megan McDowell, uses a comparatively gargantuan 139. All of them are marked by a uniquely manic brevity.
Their other distinguishing characteristic is that they are written with startling talent. And Zambra’s latest novel represents, I think, his deepest achievement. It is the most intricate of his experiments with brevity. But first, therefore, the international reader requires some kind of description.
There are two stories in “Ways of Going Home” — described in just four chapters, with a simple alternating rhythm. The first chapter describes a nameless 9-year-old boy who, in the 1980s near Santiago, during the era of Pinochet, spies on a neighbor for an older girl he adores, called Claudia. The neighbor, she says, is her Uncle Raúl. Another girl visits Raúl, and so — wanting to impress Claudia — the boy follows this girl to her home. But when he later goes to meet Claudia, to tell her his discovery, she is with another boy — and so, piqued, he says nothing. Over time, they begin to drift apart until, a while later, both Raúl and Claudia’s family move away.
The second chapter introduces a nameless novelist, who is writing the story described in the first chapter. Meanwhile, he is trying to get back together with a woman he used to live with, called Eme. In some way, the reader discovers, the story of Claudia resembles the story of Eme, just as the story of the boy overlaps with the story of the novelist.
Then the third chapter returns to the fiction. It is now roughly the present moment. The era of Pinochet is over. The protagonist meets Claudia again, and they have a brief affair, during which Claudia explains to him what the real situation had been when she asked him to be her spy. The final, fourth chapter returns to the story of the novelist — whose break with Eme is irreparable. The last image is of him alone with his manuscript, watchful in the night.
In this high-speed description, the novel might seem a minute study, a sketched memoir of the fallout from the Pinochet era. In fact, this small novel contains a surprising vastness, created by its structure of alternating chapters of fiction and reality: the story of the boy and the story of the novelist. From this structure an intricate pattern — of time frames, and levels of fiction — gradually emerges. Almost every miniature event or conversation is subject to a process of revision, until you realize that Zambra is staging not just a single story of life under political repression, but the conditions for telling any story at all.
You can make a mini-taxonomy of these revisions in the novel. The largest is to the protagonist’s idea of what was happening during that time in the 1980s, in a suburb of Santiago. A much darker story, he discovers, was being played out. But then there are further subtle revisions — not just within the fiction, but among the novel’s different levels. Scenes from the fiction are later revealed as based on the novelist’s own past. Or scenes from the novelist’s own life are openly reused later as fiction. In fact, Zambra’s nameless novelist argues, at the deepest level revision is inherent in every description of one’s past. For every image and memory comes with its own stains and sounds — but “sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance toward something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end.” The only solution, he argues, is a process of patient distillation — trying “to remember the images fully, no compositions of place, no unnecessary scenes. To find a genuine music. No more novels, no more excuses.” Brevity is the only route to truth.
This systematic zigzag of revisions, of sideways moves, also has a lovely extra effect. Every major character is a minor character, too. The protagonist thinks he is the hero of a love story with Claudia, but really he is a secondary character in a sadder drama. Likewise, the novelist’s childhood in a suburb of Santiago now seems only minor in relation to the major and tragic events of Chile’s recent past. Every story might be nested inside a larger story, of which it is unaware. On the one hand, therefore, the novel’s structure is a self-reflexive device, designed to examine its own premises. But it is also a way of examining a global condition. The central two chapters are called, very simply: “Literature of the Parents” and “Literature of the Children.” For the deep structure being examined here, in the end, is the relation between parents and children. All of us grow up into a family whose past we do not know. All of us live in the shadow of a private back story. And so the truth of the world is always, necessarily, some kind of incomprehension and loss: “Parents abandon their children. Children abandon their parents. Parents protect or forsake, but they always forsake. Children stay or go but they always go.” This is the novel’s inner core, its painful essence.
And I know: The novel that’s being written by a novelist in the novel — this is not a structure that appeals to every reader. It can seem a fashion that is no longer chic. The worried reader will perhaps not be reassured to discover that both of Zambra’s previous novels have also featured variants on the story within the story, or that each of his novels even contains its own compressed reflection in another. Julián, the protagonist of Zambra’s second novel, is writing something that seems very similar to “Bonsai,” Zambra’s first. At the same time, he seems to want to write a novel that resembles “Ways of Going Home”: like the novelist in “Ways of Going Home,” Julián also comes from a family where “there were no dead.” His friends have tragic histories, but he does not. And so he imagines a future novel that would examine this condition of ignorance, or innocence.
“He has definitely been wasting time with his fixation on bonsais. Now he thinks the only book that would be worth writing is a long story about those days of 1984. That would be the only permissible book, the only necessary one.”
The somber tone to these sentences is a clue, I think, that the reader’s worry is also unnecessary. Really, the metafictional is just a neutral mode like any other. It is capable of multiple uses. And in “Ways of Going Home,” Zambra uses the metafiction to create the most concision. It allows him to skip unnecessary scenes; to avoid composition of place — to analyze his themes directly. It’s an instrument, therefore, not of modish skepticism but of truth-telling.
And the truth this light novel describes is heavy with anguish. For what is it to be born into this generation? “We go home,” Zambra writes, “and it’s as if we were returning from war, but from a war that isn’t over.” This is the giant, poignant condition staged by the novel’s playful doubleness — the way the best conjuring trick is the one where you’re shown how it’s done, which in no way contradicts your belief that what you’ve seen is magic.
March 29, 2013
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
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.
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.
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