‘Ways of Going Home’ in 1980s Chile

Posted February 16, 2014

“Ways of Going Home”
By Alejandro Zambra


Alejandro Zambra’s new novella, “Ways of Going Home”, reads like in a short daydream — short because the novella is only 139 pages long and a daydream in that Zambra blurs the line between reality and fiction.  Besides the brevity of the story, the work is brilliantly written.

919cF8R6-JL-1._SL1500_Set in 1980s Chile, in the early years of Pinochet’s dictator regime, the story follows a nine-year-old boy in his attempt to win the affection of an older girl named Claudia.  The later chapters captures the boy, now a young writer, living in post-Pinochet Chile, grappling to understand his childhood experience of vicarious terrorism, diluted by his infancy.

Since the fall of Pinochet’s regime in 1990, not many writers in fiction have captured the lives of Chileans during the oppressive rule.  Only famed Chilean novelist Isabel Allende comes to mind. Still, Zambra’s work is poetic and fresh, borrowing techniques from Hemingway’s simple narrative, Proust’s involuntary memory, with his own dazzling nuance.

At only 39 years old and two other books in his repertoire,Bonsai” (2006) and “The Tree of Lives” (2007),  Zambra has been figured on Granta’s list of best young Spanish­—language novelists, and the Bogotá39 project.  For his third book, “Ways of Going Home”, Zambra produces his deepest achievement.

Zambra grew up in Chile during the same time as the narrator, suggesting an autobiographical sensibility.  But again, Zambra never makes the distinction and nor is that his purpose for writing the novella.  The narrator is nameless, he is of no importance.

“The novel belongs to our parents…that’s what we grew up believing, that the novel belonged to our parents.  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,” Zambra wrote.

In the story, Zambra characterizes his generation as “secondary characters” who didn’t fully grasp the severity of the dictatorship.  Every major character is a minor character. 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.  The narrator felt protected within the streets of fictional names, “I lived on Aladdin (Street), between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria” while Claudia lived “in the neighborhood of real names … Lucila Godoy Alcayaga.”

The title itself, “Ways of Going Home”, symbolically touches the different ways of understanding, remembering, and accepting with the disorienting history.  While for the narrator’s parents’ generation this is silence – they are, like their homes at the time, “impregnable bastions” – he and his peers pick storytelling as an outlet for the past.

Zambra splits his novel between our narrator and a fictional narrator of the former’s creation; he tries to grasp the past via fiction.

”I’m waiting for a voice that isn’t mine – novelistic and solid,” he wrote.  He ultimately gives up on this fictional framing of real-life events, because it’s a story he’s already telling:  “Although we might want to tell other people’s stories we always end up telling our own.”  Dealing with the Pinochet aftermath is then at the duty of the writer’s creative anguish about his calling to write.

The style of alternating narrators may confuse readers, but it has a compelling effect.  Zambra is a literary writer who experiments with literary techniques.  He loves mentioning literary greats, Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Brovary” and Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” in his works —distinguishing the narrator’s writing style and preferences.  He aspires to not a good writer, but a great one.

In his past novel, “Bonsai”, he uses the same structure of novel written by the writer in the novel.  The protagonist of “Bonsai”, Julián, is writing something that seems very similar to Bonsai.  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,” Zambra wrote.

A recurring theme in Zambra’s stories is the journey of finding a voice and a story in a time where the protagonist doesn’t feel part of anything worth writing about.  He starts goes into bonsais and failing relationships, but doesn’t feel the significance that would make him a ‘great’ writer.  What Zambra fails to do, or subconsciously does, is realize that a dramatic plot driven story does not capture the reader, but his inner struggle to find his voice.

“Ways of Going Home”, complex yet sophisticated, the novel places Zambra at the zenith of a new Chilean fiction that weaves some of the continent’s most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.  The novella is pricey at $14,  however it is a collector’s item — and a great addition to any serious reader’s library.

  • “Ways of Going Home”
  • By Alejandro Zambra
  • Translation by Megan McDowell
  • Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Paperback 160 pages
  • $14
  • Release date Jan.14, 2014