Love and Disaster in a Post-Everything World: A Review of Alejandro Zambra’s “Ways of Going Home”

Ways of Going Home
by Alejandro Zambra; translated by Megan McDowell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux;  160 p.

All novels attempt to answer a question. Lolita, for example, attempted to answer the question of whether Nabokov could write one of the greatest and most beautiful novels ever around a revolting character and topic? (“Yes. Obviously,” the book replies with insouciance.) Many of the writers living under dictatorships  or totalitarian or fascist regimes asked the same abiding question: How do you retain humanity under inhumane circumstances? How do you define sexuality, politics, love, family, loyalty, in a world in which the government co-opts language for its own nefarious ends? From Koestler to Kundera, to Garcia Marquez and Havel, those whose childhood and adulthood clashed with regimes, who experienced dashed dreams of political rebellion, they could not escape this question.

The next generation of writers in these traditions, writers who grew up under the silencing shadow of disappearances, torture, and revolution, as children intuitively aware of an unspoken reality in the quiet conversations of adults, now ask different questions. Living in a “post” world (post-communism, post-fascism, post-revolution, post-ideological) abounding with freedom, albeit a freedom often suffocated by the ghosts of memory, they need to create a new lexicon. They teeter between forgetfulness and nostalgia (a sort of forgetfulness in its distortive abilities) attempting to feel comfortable in the freedom they did not fight for, uncomfortably aware a horrific past they cannot, and do not want to discard. In this landscape of once enemies, of neighbors who sold out their friends for money, protection, or prestige, how do you continue as if the past is a footnote to a boring book? Moreover, how do you live in the present fully aware of the sacrifices and heroism of the past?

Alejandro Zambra — poet, novelist, and one of the most talented writers to come out of Chile since Bolano — was brought up in the times of Pinochet, and now lives there in a democratic Chile. He has emerged as one of the most poignant and eloquent writers of this generation. In his newly translated book Ways of Going Home, his most autobiographical work yet, Zambra struggles with these questions:

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…Because back then we were exactly that: secondary characters, hundreds of children who crisscrossed the city lugging denim backpacks.

Zambra wants to feel comfortable in his life of relative luxury, but he also knows that as a writer, as a human being, he owes a debt to the past a debt that encompasses more than the bland demand to “Never Forget.” Yet, he also understands that try as he might, he cannot find his way out of the past either:

Last night I walked for hours. It was as if I wanted to get lost down some unknown street. To get absolutely and happily lost. But there are moments when we can’t, when we don’t know how to lose our way. Even if we always go in the wrong direction. Even if we lose all our points of reference. Even if it begins to grow late and we feel the weight of morning as we advance. There are times when no matter how we try to find out what we don’t know, we can’t lose our way. And perhaps we long for the time when we could be lost. The when all streets were new.

Zambra’s novel starts with an earthquake in the year 1985, and ends with an earthquake almost 30 years later. The chaos of the earthquake externalizes the internal chaos of a scared society, allowing children to peer into the secret world of adults:

Back then death was invisible for children like me, who went outside, running fearlessly along those fantastical streets, safe from history. The night of the earthquake was the first time I realized that everything could come tumbling down. Now I think it’s a good thing to know. It’s necessary to remember every second.

There our young 9 year old narrator, Alejandro, meets Claudia, a 12 year old girl who lives in a neighborhood close by. She enlists the fawning boy as a spy to watch over and report back on the comings and goings of her uncle who lives next door to young Alejandro. The novel shifts back and forth into the past of childhood and the nowness of the present where the author confronts his past. In the present, the narrator, now an established writer, divorced from his wife Eme, reunited shortly with his childhood love Claudia, attempts to write the novel we are reading. This conceit is less a postmodernist tool than a method to explore the politics of storytelling. As Zambra himself notes,

I come from a family with no dead, I thought as my classmates told their childhood stories. At that moment I had a strong memory of Claudia, but I didn’t want of didn’t dare to tell her story. It wasn’t mine. I knew little, but at least I knew that: no one could speak for someone else. That although we might want to tell other people’s stories, we always end up telling our own.

In this new world of porous identities, in the breakdown of traditional narratives, the greatest transgression lies in telling someone else’s story. Whereas in the previous world of regimes, for writers, telling the story of others was a courageous act of rebellion, in the world of unfettered freedom it transforms into a grave sin, in a sense, undermining the very act of writing. For each person, salvation emerges from the ability to tell their own story, not through the lens or voice of someone else:

The thing she most wished for during that long trip to Santiago was for the stranger traveling next to her wake up and ask: Who are you, what’s your name? She wanted to answer him quickly, cheerfully, even flirtatiously. She wanted to tell him, like they do in novels: My name is Claudia, I’m thirty three years old, and this is my story. And then begin to tell it, finally, as if it didn’t hurt.

Obviously, Zambra sees the tension and irony in both telling everyone else’s story but also seeing that same act as inappropriate. This is another bind he cannot write or think himself out of. This speaks to the exigent importance of Zambra as a writer, as an ambivalent voice of world, uncertain of their future, uncomfortable with their past, and ambivalent about the present. He is a writer aware of the weighty significance of his task, but as aware of his insignificance, the unsolvable dichotomies of writing:

It’s late. I’m writing…I think naively, intensely, about suffering…And about this profession, this strange, humble and arrogant, necessary and insufficient trade: to spend life watching, writing.

It is precisely this uncertainty that Zambra emerges as an unparalleled voice and writer. With his sparse, minimalist style, one taken from the world of poetry, Zambra manages to capture both the mundane and the lofty, the joyous and the terrible in deceptively simple sentences. Ultimately, he doesn’t cower before the ambiguity of it all. He revels in the questions and emerges with nothing but more questions.

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