Alejandro Zambra’s novella, Ways of Going Home, which was first published in 2011, was chosen for the stop in Chile on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I had originally decided that the novella would be the last stop on my reading journey, but I was so intrigued that I just had to pick it up earlier. This particular winner of the English Pen Award is set in Pinochet’s Chile, circling around districts of the capital city, Santiago. This particular edition has been translated from its original Spanish by Megan McDowell.
Every single review which I had seen of Ways of Going Home prior to reading it myself was highly positive. Nicole Krauss notes that ‘Zambra’s novels are like a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend, and afterward, I missed the charming and funny voice on the other end, with its strange and beautiful stories.’ Edwige Danticat proclaims: ‘I envy Alejandro the obvious sophistication and exquisite beauty of the pages you are about to read, a work which is filled with the heartfelt vulnerability of testimony.’ The Observer calls it ‘Complex yet sophisticated… Zambra [weaves] some of the continent’s most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.’
The blurb on the Granta edition is beguiling in its sparsity: ‘A young boy plays hide-and-seek in the suburbs of Santiago, unaware that his neighbours are becoming entangled in the brutality of Pinochet’s regime. Then, one night a mysterious girl appears in his neighbourhood and makes a life-changing request.’ Claudia, this ‘mysterious girl’, meets the narrator on the 3rd of March 1985, the night of an earthquake in Santiago. Of their ensuing relationship, which is more of an infatuation than a friendship, the narrator tells us: ‘She was twelve and I was nine, so our friendship was impossible. But we were friends, or something like it. We talked a lot. Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.’
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’
The undercurrents of politics are interpreted by the child narrator in very thoughtful ways. The angle from which the perspective has been shaped is fascinating, and adds so much depth to the whole. Zambra shows rather than tells, demonstrating that though young, his child narrator knows that horrendous things are happening to people he knows due to the regime. He cannot quite fathom why, however and, quite like Scout in Harper Lee’s wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, he devotes a lot of thought to the hatred present around him, and whether any justified reasoning can possibly explain its existence. Of his young life in Santiago, for instance, the present-day narrator writes: ‘Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed. We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home.’ He goes on to say, rather poignantly, ‘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.’
Zambra has been selected as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists for a reason. Ways of Going Home drips with beauty, and vocalises the impact of violence in such a harrowing and memorable manner. It is beautiful; it is striking; it is profound. It is my first taste of Zambra’s work, but I am certain that it will not be the last.