Alejandro Zambra has been making a splash in English reading circles over the past few years with translations of his short books Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees. In 2010 he was one of the twenty-two writers featured in Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists. It was there that I first read him and in fact first read a portion of what was to become this book, Ways of Going Home (Formas de volver a casa, 2011; tr. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013).
Ways of Going Home tells two stories in four fleeting chapters. The first begins with an earthquake in 1984. The protagonist, unnamed, is nine years old (as was Zambra at that time). Augusto Pinochet had been in power for over ten years, since the coup d’état on September 11, 1973, and he would continue to be the dictator for six more.
Much of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction deals with Pinochet’s time in power; indeed, Bolaño had personal confrontation with the regime: after the coup he was arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and was in custody for eight days, only to be rescued by prison guards who happened to be former classmates (see his story “Dance Card” for a fictional account). It should be noted that doubts have arisen as to whether this ever happened at all; nevertheless, Bolaño’s fiction gets up close and personal with the Pinochet regime. In contrast, the characters in Ways of Going Home, though living directly under the thumb of Pinochet, don’t have any of those kinds of encounters. This novel is, in part, a rumination on those children who were relatively well off, who grew up hearing stories of kidnappings and torture but who never knew anyone who suffered in such a way. It’s about one of those children growing up and becoming a writer, and wondering just what he has to write about.
Back to that first story: the young protagonist and his family gather with the neighborhood after the 1984 earthquake. His neighbor, Raúl, who has always been single, is with two people the young boy has never seen, a woman and a young girl, maybe a few years older than he. He is shocked when over the ensuing days he finds this girl, Claudia, following him around. Finally, they speak, and Claudia eventually asks him to spy on Raúl, who, she says, is her uncle. Intrigued, the young boy does as she asks. For the most part, it’s boring, but every once in a while he sees someone new enter Raúl’s home, and he duly reports to Claudia. One day, Raúl packs up and leaves. He is further surprised to find that Claudia has left. He has no idea what he’s been doing.
The mystery is interesting, and we certainly have our own suspicions about what’s going on at Raúl’s home. The young boy wonders about politics, but, again, he’s having what we might consider a relatively normal childhood. We might end this section wondering if the narrative has been following around the wrong character: “If there was anything to learn, we didn’t learn it.”
The second section begins the second story, comprised of the journal entries of a relatively young writer. It turns out, he’s writing the book we began in section one. Though the writer and the young boy share biographical details (with Zambra, aside from each other), he says Claudia is pure fiction:
I pass the time thinking about Claudia as if she existed, as if she had existed. At first I questioned even her name. But it’s the name 90 percent of the women of my generation share. It’s right that she should have that name. I never get tired of the sound, either. Claudia.
I like that my characters don’t have last names. It’s as relief.
As we read the writer’s thoughts, we see him struggling with the story as well as with an ex-girlfriend he hopes will continue to be his girlfriend, Eme. The novelist also struggles with his own, rather unremarkable past. Here he sits, trying to write something significant about life under Pinochet, but he knows he was relatively safe. He didn’t know anyone who died. He was always on the fringe, always a secondary character in this narrative. He might want to tell someone else’s story, but he feels that “we always end up telling our own.”
This sounds like a tricky novel — most metafiction is — but Zambra succeeds at presenting both stories (we do return to the young boy and Claudia, though they’ve grown up) with a clarity born out of his brevity. That’s not to suggest all answers are explained. While I know nothing about Zambra’s own life, I get the sense here that even if he did not experience the same things these characters did, he’s exploring the same themes as they relate to his own life — and how can we ever answer those questions?