Book Review: Ways of Going Home
by Alejandro Zambra
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Calling Alejandro Zambra “the most important Chilean writer since Roberto Bolano” (as a few too many people have already done) seems both unfair and premature – unfair because that leaves Zambra vulnerable when the bubble of hysterical Bolano-overestimating finally bursts, and premature because, with two novels and a new memoir every year, Bolano doesn’t seem to need a successor. Besides, even when it’s done with the best of intentions, such a comparison imposes a hierarchy, one that might not be fair to Bolano and certainly isn’t fair to Zambra.
Zambra was born in Santiago, Chile in 1975 and rose to instant fame in the vibrant Chilean literary world with his 2006 novella Bonsai, the single most electrifying intertwining of sex and book-reading since Paolo and Francesca (Junot Diaz called it quite simply “a total knockout,” and he was right). The book was slim, sexy, intelligent, and widely popular – in other words, it should have been a career-ender. But Zambra followed it in 2007 with La vida privada de los arboles, very ably translated into English by Megan McDowell (for the alluringly-named Open Letter Books) as The Private Life of Trees – a short story (I believe it was 30 pages long – perhaps 41 or 42 – hugely entertaining to read critics rhapsodize that it “demanded” to be read in a single sitting! It couldn’t avoid being read in a single sitting) of such remarkable power and grace that it silenced all thought of Bonsai being some kind of isolated incident.
As good as Megan McDowell was in her handling of the nervous, dreamlike atmosphere of The Private Life of Trees, she’s even better in translating Zambra’s latest, Ways of Going Home, and the book (at 139 pages, we must call it Zambra’s most ambitious to date, although still firmly in the single-sitting range) is eminently worthy of her efforts. This is a hauntingly memorable, extremely accomplished little novella.
The story weaves fiction and meta-fiction in the healthy tradition of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; events open with a little boy in Santiago experiencing an earthquake in 1985, meeting a girl named Claudia, and being dimly, innocently aware of the tensions the adults around him felt over the rule of Augusto Pinochet. “Back then death was invisible for children like me,” the story’s narrator later reflects, “who went outside, running fearlessly along those fantastical streets, safe from history.”
The comparative innocence of the little boy is heavily colored by the reflections of that later narrator, a young novelist writing a lightly fictionalized version of his childhood, trying, like so many of Zambra’s characters, to make sense of life through literature. That young novelist rolls his own lost innocence around in his mouth like a bitter taste. “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.”
The two stories – the little boy and Claudia, first as children and then meeting again as adults, and the young writer working on a novel about them and showing it bit by bit to his girlfriend Eme – blur and reinforce each other. Eme and the narrator talk about books and writing (when she asks him why he doesn’t just write his novel “all at once,” he wants to answer: “I’m waiting for a voice. A voice that isn’t mine. An old voice, novelistic and solid”); Claudia and the narrator’s narrator talk mostly about smoking. Each narrative throws shards of light on the other, and the whole is bound together with a voice, a sensibility, that’s calmly expert and, in some ways, oddly sweet:
I go to the university, teach a not-so-good class, go home. I had imagined the scene, but it still surprises me to open the door and see Claudia stretched out in the easy chair. “Your beauty does me good,” I say to her, without thinking about it much. She looks at me cautiously and then lets out a guffaw, but she comes over, puts her arms around me, and we end up screwing standing up in a corner of the kitchen.
Zambra may possess more sheer literary talent than most of his writing peers, but he shares one thing in common with almost all of them: he’s about as anti-climactic as a suicide note. He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about providing his readers with what writing teachers used to refer to as a satisfying denouement. Ways of Going Home ends with an earthquake just as it began with one – the first happening to the narrator’s narrator, the second happening to the narrator, and it’s almost clear from the text that Zambra considers this a conclusion when in fact it’s just a contrivance.
It’s frustrating, but only momentarily so – and it may speak to a newer iteration of fiction, in fact it almost certainly does. “We give up on a book when we realize that it wasn’t for us,” the narrator says at one point, clearly speaking for Zambra and perhaps for his generation. “We were tired of waiting for someone to write the books that we wanted to read.”
But anomie hasn’t replaced drama, only dramatics: Ways of Going Home is a sedately confident minor work of art, skilled enough when its more worldly characters make political talk (and when Zambra gives us the book’s one refreshingly complex portrait of marriage) and, as usual for this author, exquisitely spot-on and thought-provoking when the focus is on writing, reading, and books. It’s not a historical novel, and it’s certainly not a love story; it contains no violent action (other than smoking), and it isn’t particularly experimental – and yet it will make you smile with satisfaction. And whatever it is, it will stay in your memory long after your single sitting is over.