Ways of Going Home is the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra’s third novel; all have been translated into English, highlighting the fact that from the publication of his first novel, Bonsai, he has been seen as an important writer in his homeland and internationally. It is, however, my own first acquaintance with his work and I cannot say if it is typical, though at 139 pages, it is the longest.
It begins on the night of the 1985 earthquake, narrated by a ten year old boy, a contemporary of the author’s. On that night he meets Claudia, a little older, the niece of his neighbour, Raul. She asks him to spy on Raul and report to her:
“I had to watch over Raul; not take care of him but rather keep an eye on his activities and make notes about anything that seemed suspicious.”
He does this assiduously, at one point following him out of town, but his spying zeal slackens when he sees Claudia with an older boy, and shortly after that Raul moves. Behind this lies the political situation in Chile at the time, the Pinochet dictatorship which lasted from 1973 until 1990. (We will discover that there is a political reason for Claudia’s request). This is, of course, presented from a child’s point of view:
“Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed. We lived under a dictatorship; people talked crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but, even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home.”
In the novel’s second section we are transported from the world of the novel to the world of its creation:
“I’m advancing little by little in the novel. I pass the time thinking about Claudia as if she existed, as if she had existed.”
Here we learn of Zambra’s life in the present, his relationship with his girlfriend Eme, and also his parents. Zambra does this not for the B. S. Johnson shock factor nor to be playfully postmodern, but to present the novel as an imaginative investigation of his childhood. In case you think I am merely supposing the similarities, Zambra makes it obvious by transposing events from the novel’s second section into the fictional world of its third. For example, a conversation where his mother tells him, “I identified with the characters, the book moved me,” and he replies, “And how is it possible for you to identify with characters from another social class…” is repeated almost verbatim.
In the novel’s third section, the narrator’s relationship with Claudia resumes years later when she returns to Chile for America after her father’s death. She describes the relationship as “a trip back to my childhood that maybe I needed.” The novel’s fourth and final section return us to Zambra and allows him to conclude with another earthquake, presumably that of 2010.
The novel explores both narrators’ relationships with their parents, the one set a fictional representation of the other. This in itself is interesting as parents often disappear from fiction once a character reaches adulthood. Zambra also seems to intend through this to discover something about his generation’s relationship with his country’s past. All this is done very elusively, ending with an enigmatic image of Zambra watching cars pass as he thinks of his father’s old cars:
“It’s overwhelming to think that in the back seats children are sleeping, and that every one of those children will remember, someday, the old car they rode, years before, with their parents.”
This short, meditative novel is an absorbing read, but I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t as meaningful as it seems to think it is.