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Ways of Going Home (paperback)

(Media Snobs is no more and my reviews will now be shown in their entirety here, as there is no longer another site to direct traffic to)

Genre: Drama
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Publisher: FSG
Type: Novel
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 4 / 5 – Exceptional

It may look like a beginner’s guide to Male and Female Brain Chemistry but in fact it is the latest novel from Chilean author Alejandro Zambra. At 139 pages, Ways of Going Home (2011; translated by Megan McDowell in 2013 and now out in paperback) is Zambra’s longest work. His previous novellas, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees, never even hit the hundred page mark. He’s mastered the art of brevity and paces his prose perfectly so that there is spaciousness to every scene and nothing feels rushed.

Most people who’ve read any Chilean literature will be familiar with either Isabel Allende or Roberto Bolaño. Zambra’s work takes the middle ground between Bolaño’s complexity and the straightforward narratives of Allende. He’s delicately somber, has a simple but lovely writing style and is a perfect go-to for those ready to explore further in Latin American fiction.

Ways of Going Home begins as the story of a child growing up in Pinochet’s Chile. His innocence protects him. To him, an earthquake is scary but it’s also an adventure and “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…” His troubles are minor; he’s a regular kid with an ordinary life, even in the midst of dictatorship. Some of it is quite funny while also painting a microcosm of human weaknesses.

Suddenly, that heavy atmosphere prevailed in which the only possible topic of conversation is the lateness of the food. Our order took so long that finally Dad decided we would leave as soon as the food came. I protested, or I wanted to protest, or now I think I should have protested. “If we’re going to leave, let’s go now,” said Mom resignedly, but Dad explained that this way the restaurant owners would lose the food, that it was an act of justice, of revenge.

The first segment of the novel is tellingly called “Secondary Characters”. It refers to children, whose lives are always shaped in the shadows of their parents’ own lives; yet it also refers to those parents, the faceless bystanders of history.

In the most important part of the story, the boy meets an older girl called Claudia, who asks him to spy on her uncle for her. The boy doesn’t understand what’s going on, but his glimpses of Claudia and her strange family will haunt him for many years.

The next segment switches gears and is told by the author of “Secondary Characters”. Zambra embroils his novel in three layers of metafiction. He’s based the author on himself and the author has based the boy on himself. Yes, it’s an old and tired postmodern ploy, and not one I find very interesting, but Zambra uses it to good effect. Scenes from one life cross over to the next, weaving together into a cohesive tale of memory and fantasy as the narratives switch back and forth.

Guilt is the paramount theme. In adulthood, it can no longer be avoided and the author looks back on his real boyhood feeling shame. The kid in “Secondary Characters” who believed, with calming certainty, that “my father isn’t anything” is rewritten as the author decides that “to be neither good nor bad … seemed to me, in the end, the same as being bad.” But not only is there the inherited guilt of non-partisan parents; there is also the guilt of a boy who never suffered during the regime, for whom no one disappeared and the dictatorship was only inconvenient.

The heart and soul of the novel thus becomes Claudia, the person missing from his life that the author feels compelled to invent – someone who did suffer and in doing so, affected him. Claudia as a child seems as innocent as the boy who aids her. Only in their adulthood is it revealed how serious her motives were. It is only as an adult that she can endure what happened. “Learning to tell her story as if it didn’t hurt”, trying to reclaim her past and yet leave the damage behind is what drives the second half of the book.

“My story isn’t terrible. That’s what Ximena doesn’t understand: our story isn’t terrible. There was pain, and we’ll never forget that pain, but we also can’t forget the pain of others. Because we were protected, in the end; because there were others who suffered more, who suffer more.”

If I have a complaint about this excellent novel, it is only that the metafictional plot is less interesting than the Claudia plot. Author inserts always seem to talk about the writing life in the most ponderous fashion imaginable. After a few Paul Austers it just gets really old and the pages devoted to the author’s trouble with his writing and his ex-wife struck me as distracting and unnecessary. On the other hand, in a book this size, at least it doesn’t last long.

Ways of Going Home is really the gentlest book imaginable and yet it brings to light the scars a regime like Pinochet’s can leave, even on the people who went under the radar. And Megan McDowell translates with a deft touch, ensuring that it’s a pleasure to read all the way through.


Alejandro Zambra