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Book Review: Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra
Posted By Kristine Rabberman On January 22, 2013 @ 9:01 am In Books,Fiction Reviews | 2 Comments
In spite of being described by some critics as “the next Roberto Bolaño” Alejandro Zambra makes his own mark in his third novel, Ways of Going Home. Like Bolaño, Zambra was born in Santiago, Chile. However, he was born later, in 1975, part of a generation that spent its childhood under Pinochet’s rule. In Ways of Going Home, Zambra depicts childhood experiences of trying to understand the cryptic comments and peculiar actions of adults, in an atmosphere where children’s simple pleasures – such as going to watch a soccer match at a municipal stadium — bring back memories of terror, incarcerations, and disappeared loved ones for their parents and neighbors. Perhaps more chillingly, Zambra also explores the other side of the Chilean experience of Pinochet’s rule – what happens when your parents sided for Pinochet, if not actively, passively, while watching TV and living their lives behind closed doors in Chilean suburbs? Is it possible to tell your story, your parents’ story, in an effort to understand, to meet them on equal footing? Zambra’s fictional narrator writes, “I thought about my mother, my father. I thought: What kinds of faces do my parents have? But our parents never really have faces. We never learn to truly look at them.” Ways of Going Home is a mirror Zambra holds up to his generation’s parents, in an effort to see them clearly, to make sense of a past that is not clearly shown in documentaries and books about Chile, and in so doing to navigate his way forward as an adult.
The novel’s title is apt. Zambra skillfully weaves many ways of coming home, all of them entangled in the misunderstandings, connections, and tensions between generations. In the novel’s opening lines, Zambra describes one such event in the life of the fictional narrator:
Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought that they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.
“You went a different way,” my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen.
You were the ones who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
Zambra provides many different examples of coming home: as a lost child, as an adult visiting his parents, as an adult mourning her parents, as an act of memory, as a step towards understanding, as a confrontation, as an act of love. He threads these homecomings throughout the novel, through past and present, fiction and memory. And throughout, he questions parents’ ability to know the way forward. They are not omniscient, and neither are their children. Zambra eloquently represents a very human fumbling to understand the past and the present, to determine the correct path to follow into the future.
Ways of Going Home is above all a novel about stories and the power of telling those stories as a means of understanding, of navigating memories and relationships and coming through the process with some sense of direction for the future. Zambra develops a metafictional structure for the novel, as he moves between telling the fictionalized story of our narrator, and framing it with the story of the author of that story. This author in turn sifts through memories and former relationships in an attempt to come to terms with the past – his past, his parents’ past, and their place in Chile’s past.
Throughout the novel, the author and the narrator both describe their childhood place as secondary characters, living in the shadows of adults’ decisions and conflicts. The author first introduces secondary characters as the focus of his studies in literature classes as a child. As described by the author,
Every test had a section of character identification, which included only secondary characters: the less relevant the characters, the more likely we would be asked about them, so we memorized names resignedly, though with the pleasure of guaranteed points… There was a certain beauty in the act, because back then we were exactly that: secondary characters, hundreds of children who crisscrossed the city lugging denim backpacks. The neighbors would test the weight and always make the same joke: “What are you carrying in there, rocks?” Downtown Santiago welcomed us with tear gas bombs, but we weren’t carrying rocks, we were carrying bricks by Baldor or Villee or Flaubert.
As the narrator and the author look back on their childhood experiences as adults, they question how they can emerge from this role of being secondary characters. How can they take a place in the world in which they are responsible and central, as opposed to being irrelevant and marginal?
Zambra’s exploration of the power of stories resonates with other manifestations of the centrality of stories in Chile, particularly the witness paid by friends and relatives to the torture, kidnapping, and murder of their friends and relatives by Pinochet’s regime. In his case, though, the witness he bears is to a parallel existence experienced by some children during the regime, as seen in these passages from the perspective of the narrator,
Back then I was, as I always have been, and I always will be, for Colo-Colo. 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, without acceding any movement other than a more forceful drag on the cigarette he always had glued to his lips.
Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed. We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home. Weren’t the streets of Maipú dangerous then? At night they were, and during the day as well, but the adults played, arrogantly or innocently—or with a mixture of arrogance and innocence—at ignoring the danger. They played at thinking that discontent was a thing of the poor and power the domain of the rich, and in those streets no one was poor or rich, at least not yet.
Even for children whose parents suffered the loss of loved ones under Pinochet, their childhood was marked by a strong sense of invisibility, of being secondary, even trivial. The author’s estranged wife Eme describes one such scene:
She was seven or eight years old, in the yard with other little girls, playing hide-and-seek. It was getting late, time to go inside; the adults were calling and the girls answered that they were coming. The push and pull went on, the calls were more and more urgent, but the girls laughed and kept playing.
Suddenly they realized the adults had stopped calling them a while ago and night had already fallen. They thought the adults must be watching them, trying to teach them a lesson, and that now the grown-ups were the ones playing hide-and-seek. But no. When she went inside, Eme saw that her father’s friends were crying and that her mother, rooted to her seat, was staring off into space. They were listening to the news on the radio. A voice was talking about a raid. It talked about the dead, about more dead.
“That happened so many times,” Eme said that day, five years ago. “We kids understood, all of a sudden, that we weren’t so important. That there were unfathomable and serious things that we couldn’t know or understand.”
The author continues this section with a passage that exemplifies the conflicts he and his peers faced in childhood, “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.”
In essence, Ways of Going Home is Zambra’s attempt to put his generation at the center of the novel he is writing. The novel’s metafictional structure provides Zambra with a platform to explore the process of writing his way to understanding his past, while also conveying the many challenges posed by this effort. In addition to trying to see his parents clearly, the author also is trying to understand his own efforts clearly, as seen in a passage late in the novel,
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’s true. We remember the sounds of the images. And 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. 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.
In Ways of Going Home, Zambra is stepping out from the shadows of his childhood. He writes eloquently, intertwining memories, reflections, acts, and consequences of these acts for his characters. The structure of the novel is complex, and requires careful reading to trace the interconnections of the storylines and themes. It is also engaging, particularly in Zambra’s refusal to accept simple answers to understand the past or how to engage with the past in the present. If he is critical of adults’ decisions in the past, he is also critical of his generation. This novel provides valuable insight into the experiences of a generation of Chileans. However, its relevance is not confined to understanding Chile. In his exploration of generational conflict and connection, Zambra provides his readers with a touchstone to their own struggles coming home to their parents in a way that is honest and human.
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