Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra

I’m not prone to personal reviews, those that track how intimately a book travels along paths I have worn well in my own mind, or in my own life. It feels impossible not to do this with Ways of Going Home. Even the title appeals to my own interests: what is home in terms of locality, relationships, within the self?

This is a novel written for someone who spends a lot of time questioning their interest in writing, interrogating that need to create a whole from the dissperate moments of existence, that desire to observe, record and make sense of what happened and is happening around us. In Alejandro Zambra’s case this is especially important because he is trying to remember what it was like to be a child under the Pinochet regime in Chile. He is trying to document how children grow to understand the complexities and uncertainties of adult life when, if they are lucky, they are ‘running fearlessly around those streets, safe from history’ (p137).

This short, eloquent, self-reflexive and honest novel moves between chapters of a writer’s novel, about a man recounting his relationship with a woman he first met during the earthquake of 1985, and passages of his diary in which he writes about his own childhood and his relationship with his ex-wife. We see how supposedly real events – the narrator’s ex-wife shares some of his character’s experiences, his parents appear in the novel almost exactly as they do in the diary, he even meets Alejandro Zambra (it’s hard not to think of Fernando Pessoa and his many hertonymns) – are transposed into novel narrative. The narrator’s ex-wife tells him writing is good for him because ‘it protects you’ (p47). And this messy art of trying to write in fiction about things that are true involves a lot of contemplation of protection: if a real person is fictionalised are they exposed?; much of our experiences, especially as children, if we are lucky, are mediated by the protection of our families, just as the narrative techniques of marketing, television, films, other novels, all work towards framing our perspectives, recontextualising experience as we have had it or might want to experience it; trying to expose ourselves, reveal our own story is perhaps all we can do and that then both protects and exposes us – we find the closure of narrative (at least for a time, before being compelled to start again as experience breaks beyond the bonds we created for it), but expose our beliefs and feelings to anyone who cares to read them.

In a diary passage, the narrator recounts a memory from childhood of blackouts. His parents used to gather them all together around the candles and tell the same joke about a family, in the days before electricity, who had crooked mouths and couldn’t blow out their candle until the grandmother does it with fingers wet with her saliva.

‘My father laughed at the joke, too. They were there so we wouldn’t feel afraid. But we weren’t afraid. They were the one’s who were afraid.

That’s what I want to talk about. Those kinds of memories.’ (p124)

A little later on, he is working on his novel, staying up late and revising it.

‘And then when I wake up I write verses, and I realize that was everything: to remember those images fully, no compositions of place, no unnecessary scenes. To find a genuine music. No more novels, no more excuses.’(p135)

So while this novel is about unpicking what was happening to his country during his childhood, this novel is also about everyone’s need to rethink themselves in the light of greater knowledge. However, understanding the political, historical situation better, and therefore contextualising our childhood, doesn’t necessarily reveal the truth of how childhood was experienced. We are back to the idea of protection again. A state of being ‘safe from history’ seems desirable, but its reality is confusing. The fragment becomes increasingly important as a way of expressing some kind of truth because it doesn’t try to be anything sustained, it highlights the importance of being in the moment. It laughs at any attempt to try to shape multiple moments into coherent stories. And yet, here we have a novel.

The characters of Ways of Going Home are all trying to find the home that exists in their memory. It may be the home of their childhood, it may be the home of a relationship, or the safety of structured words, but all are trying to rebuild a feeling of safety, a sense of secure identity that Alejandro knows can always come tumbling down. This is why the earthquake is so central to the novel.

I love this book. I think it is what post-modernism should look like: self-conscious, yes; pretentious, no. Why hadn’t I read Alejandro Zambra before? If you haven’t, go and buy one of his books right away!

Next week I’m reading The Girls by Emma Cline.