ways of going home alejandro zambra novel cover

The Chilean earthquake of March 3, 1985 is bound to be the scene that everyone finishing Alejandro Zambra’s deft novella Ways of Going Home remembers as the book’s first. But this is not entirely true. The story’s momentum does begin in the aftermath of that cataclysm, but Zambra’s narration and his introduction of the story’s protagonist, a young boy who by the novella’s end has become a novelist, begins with a memory so sparsely told that it reads like a myth. And it has all the power of explanation that a myth contains. Its power over the story is strong enough to lend the book its title, and for that reason alone it should not be overlooked.

The story is simple. The narrator gets separated from his parents one afternoon while the three of them are walking home. He finds his way back while they stay out, roaming the streets in search of him. When his parents return home they chastise him. But then, first his father and then his mother come to realize that their son’s navigation of the neighborhood is a sign of his maturity. “You overcame adversity,” his father says. “Now we know you won’t get lost,” his mother says, “but … you should walk faster.”

This single line sets a dark mood, which is carried forward into the first scene, although it’s already dark on its own, in virtue of it being set in the aftermath of an earthquake. But coupled with the book’s indefinite title—Ways of Going Home, which suggests that there are short ways and long ways, smooth ways and rough ways, bright ways and dark ways, better ways and worse—the boy’s mother seems to be warning her son about some fate that might chance upon him  if he gets lost in the streets or if he dallies. It is one of the many moments in Ways of Going Home when parental fears pass almost unnoticeably onto their children.

As this is a novella about a writer dealing with his childhood, which was largely spent in innocence and ignorance of Pinochet’s regime and their crimes, these moments resonate with a sense of a young boy’s shame at being so unaware of the world around him. It is almost comical the way the narrator first mentions Pinochet:  “To me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that.” The comedy here  might have been successful in a troubling sort of way if the narrator happened to like what he calls “those inconvenient shows” on “the stuffy national channels,” yet somehow in his naivety this boy knows enough to recognize that Pinochet is a tyrant. Whether dictating orders, killing detractors, or interrupting the normal ebb and flow of television programs is irrelevant. Only one of is acts is sufficient to provoke the young boy’s hatred.

Not even when a young girl named Claudia approaches him in the street after following him for weeks, she says, and asks him to spy on his neighbor, whom she claims is her uncle, does the narrator begin to question the peculiarity of the times he’s living in. Claudia says that her uncle is a communist. The young narrator barely knows what that means. The image he conjures in his mind is that of an old man who’s always reading the newspaper and is a bit of a joke to those around him. This image, we learn, is based on his grandfather, whom his father and his siblings ridicule.

The narrator’s game of espionage with his neighbor named Raul takes up most of the first part of the novella. The section is called “Secondary Characters,” a title that refers as much to Claudia and Raul as it does to the narrator’s parents.

In the novella’s second section, “Literature of the Parents,” the narrator has grown up and become a successful writer, though now he’s struggling with a project and is having difficulty with his relationship. The book, we learn, is that which we’ve been reading in the first part, the story of a young boy, a girl named Claudia, and the game of espionage she asks the young boy to play.

In this section, the narrator remembers details of his later youth. Most notably he reflects on his schooling in the city center of Santiago, where he attends an accelerated school established by the democracy that followed Pinochet. There he first watched the pro-democracy film, The Battle of Chile, and had as a history teacher a man who was tortured under the regime, yet still his political conscience—and even more deeply, his moral compass–is undeveloped. In other words, he’s still innocent. He thinks:  “I wasn’t good or bad. But that was difficult:  to be neither good nor bad. It seemed to me, in the end, the same as being bad.

His feeling about his childhood is best expressed in a joke he makes up. A boy tells his father he wants to be a secondary character when he grows up. The father asks why that is and the boy responds, “Because the novel is yours.” The narrator sees his life through the lens of history, in which his story is clearly secondary to that of those who were mature during the regime. The games of his youth are nothing compared to the world-shattering activities of the dictator and those who fought against him. At best, if they were all to be told in the same novel, they would be diversionary adventures used to make the brutality more bearable, to break away from the heroism and despotism of the adult world with games of soccer and a few faulty attempts at espionage. In his wish to see himself as a secondary character, his shameful ignorance of the first part of the novella has transformed into a feeling of guilt. He has deemed himself unworthy, too weak, to take a leading role in any story that’s worth telling.

This feeling of inadequacy is sutured to his understanding of his profession as a writer. When he sees a young girl reading in the park, covering her face with a book, he thinks, “To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.” He’s made a profession of revealing his secondariness to the world.

A few pages later, after he tells an old woman that he’s a writer and she asks what his pseudonym is, the narrator responds that he doesn’t have one, and the old woman says “Not to worry, maybe soon [you] will come up with a good [one].” Not only is his age and his youthful ignorance shameful but also his chosen profession, being a writer whose words take little risk and pose none to himself. In the reflection of the old woman’s sensibilities about what a writer is we see the narrator suddenly as an effete navel-gazer, too self-absorbed to be engaged with his nation or even to maintain a relationship with his long-time girlfriend, Eme, who in the beginning of the second section beginning has moved into a shared house with two other girls.

In the novella’s third part, “Literature of the Children,” the narrator reencounters Claudia and in doing so he comes to better understand his relationship to the stories he’s been telling. Repeating a sentiment from the first pages of the book, he says, after his first meeting with the girl, “I’d like to remember each of her words now, with absolute precision, and write them down in this notebook with no additional commentary.” His wish is to efface his role as the author and to speak only as the prominent characters of his story do.

This is a refinement of the problem posed in the previous section. As a secondary character, living in the shadow of Claudia, his parents, and others, his ultimate problem is that he exists, that he must be alive to witness their actions and to verify that they took place.

The narrator spied on his neighbor for Claudia. This strange request stands as a proof of a far more frightening truth that he learns only as an adult, that his neighbor was in fact Claudia’s father who was living in hiding under the assumed identity of his brother. Claudia never knew that her father was living in her neighborhood until the night of the earthquake, when she and her mother ran into him in the streets during the aftermath. Her request to the young narrator was a strategy to soothe herself with always-current knowledge that her father had not been disappeared.

Yet again, the narrator’s life is secondary. His actions in the world lie in the shadows of others’. Knowledge he’s gained in his adult life shows that his memory is composed of half-truths and whole-hearted lies. “No one [can] speak for someone else,” he thinks. “Although we might want to tell other people’s stories we always end up telling our own.”

During a brief stay in Chile (Claudia spends most of her time in the US) as well as a brief separation from Eme, Claudia and the narrator have an affair. Their union suggests a search for something which their childhood selves lacked and which their adult selves remember the other having:  the narrator seeing in Claudia a life more closely tied to history and Claudia seeing in the narrator a blissful naivety and an innocence of which she was robbed. As the narrator puts it,  “We [were] united by a desire to regain the scenes of secondary characters. Unnecessary scenes that were reasonably discarded, and which nonetheless we collect obsessively.”

In their brief relationship, in the easy routine in which they live for a few weeks, the narrator gains sight of himself as something other than secondary. He begins to see his active role in the world, both as a child and as an adult. He glimpses the role that the writers of his generation must play. In a phrase he uses to describe Claudia’s childhood, he writes that she “[learned] to tell her story as if it didn’t hurt.” It is with such a mind that Chilean writers like himself must approach the past, because that is how the past was approached by those who survived it. Setting himself this goal of documenting memory, of purifying language to its barest emotionless descriptors, the narrator sees his profession as a renewed and worthwhile task.

And during a trip to visit his parents in Maipu, where he and Claudia grew up, the narrator comes to appreciate his former innocence for what it was. After troubling conversations with his mother and father that confirm for him their tacit acceptance of the Pinochet regime, the narrator succumbs for a moment to the childish delight of being secure and comfortable in his parent’s home. Asleep in his room, which has been preserved as it was when he was a child, though now it has the addition of a miniature shrine with all of his books, Claudia wakes when the narrator comes in after a midnight cigarette with his mother and says, “We can’t miss this chance to make love in your parent’s house.” It is a touching moment that suggests more about those two characters’ need for love than momentary pleasure.

These themes and near resolutions are echoed in the book’s final section, “We’re All Right.” Though Claudia has left for the US, the narrator and Eme seem to be getting on better. She agrees to read his manuscript and to pretend as though they’re meeting for the first time. The novelist commits himself again and again to the task of describing what happened as it happened, with no embellishment. And he thinks of that earthquake in 1985, recalling that it was the first time he ever thought of death. “The night of the earthquake was the first time I realized that everything could collapse. Now I think it’s a good thing to know. It’s necessary to remember it every second.”

There’s another earthquake in the novella’s final pages, and as the narrator walks his neighborhood of Santiago, he offers some final words on life and his profession and the relation of one to the other. “I think naively, intensely, about suffering. About the people who died today, in the south. About yesterday’s dead, and tomorrow’s. And about this profession, this strange, humble and arrogant, necessary and insufficient trade:  to spend life watching, writing.”

It is inevitable that Roberto Bolaño will be discussed in the same breath as Alejandro Zambra. Their national tie offers too much for the critic to ignore. But I am not an expert on Bolaño. I’ve read only one of his books, as I’ve read only one of Zambra’s. In my limited view, I can say that the time separating Zambra from Bolaño seems immense. Where The Savage Detectives is impulsive, ‘visceral’ as it likes to say, and violent, with an almost mythical view of literature that borders on nihilism, Ways of Going Home is optimistic and for that reason it is self-critical, it adjusts its path because it knows where it has to go even if it doesn’t always know the best way to get there. At times it moves quickly because that is the nature of those times, and at others it moves slowly, dallying over detail, deliberating because democracy affords that luxury. If Bolaño describes the tyranny of the now, Zambra is pained to understand the past. He breathes life into this struggle, ultimately vindicating the present as the time when the past can be given its truest expression, thus overwhelming the tide that threatens to overwhelm us from our memories.

Ways of Going Home was translated by Megan McDowell and is available now from Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.