“Ways of Going Home” by Alejandro Zambra

“Ways of Going Home” by Alejandro Zambra (2011) – 139 pages   Translated by Megan McDowell

 “Although we might want to tell other people’s stories we always end up telling our own.” 

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Alejandro Zambra is a young writer from Chile, and “Ways of Going Home” is the first of his novels I’ve read.   It contains some great lines, and I believe Zambra has the potential of writing a great novel.  However “Ways of Going Home” was much too digressive, disjointed, and self-reflexive to entirely hold my interest.

“Ways of Going Home” starts about 30 years earlier from now when the dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile.  The novelist/narrator was only a nine-year-old child then.

In order to get my facts accurate regarding this era in Chile, I will quote directly from Wikipedia.

 “As a result, the Richard Nixon administration organized and inserted secret operatives in Chile, in order to quickly destabilize Allende’s government.  In addition, American financial pressure restricted international economic credit to Chile.”    

” Finally, a military coup overthrew Allende on 11 September 1973. As the armed forces bombarded the presidential palace, Allende apparently committed suicide.   A military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, took over control of the country. The first years of the regime were marked by human rights violations. On October 1973, at least 72 people were murdered by the Caravan of Death. According to the Rettig Report and Valech Commission, at least 2,115 were killed, and at least 27,265 were tortured (including 88 children younger than 12 years old).”

 Gruesome politics aside, our narrator meets an older girl on the beach, Claudia,  during an earthquake, and she wants him to spy on his neighbor.

The novel then goes to the present time which is 2010.  Chile has just elected its first Right-Wing government since Pinochet.  It turns out that the neighbor was the girl’s father who was helping people who might have become victims of Pinochet escape from Chile.  Meanwhile the narrator’s father supported Pinochet or at least did not speak out against him which would have been a dangerous thing to do. Another earthquake in Chile actually occurs in 2010, and I wonder if the author is setting up some correspondence between the cataclysms of the return of a right-wing government to Chile and the earthquake.

“Ways of Going Home” starts out in the first section as if it were going to be plot-driven, but then in the modern sections the plot almost disappears, and the novel becomes more a meditation on writing and on Chile that includes some poetry.  The fairly lengthy parts of the novel about the difficulty of writing the novel were not very compelling, and the poetry did not strike me as particularly involving.

A more subtle understanding of the situation in Chile today might have helped me.   However, it is up to the author to provide all the necessary background for the readers to fully appreciate the novel, and for me Zambra was unsuccessful in doing that.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I just love the quote you have chosen to open with – so true, so poignant and so powerful!! I will keep a watch for the development of this author!

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    • Hi Justine,
      Yes, that is a real good line. I think one has to understand the subtleties of post-Pinochet politics in Chile to fully appreciate this story.

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  2. You know, this discursiveness has been my problem with everything I’ve read from Latin America. There must be other authors whose work is not like this, but I haven’t come across it….

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Discursiveness was not a problem for Latin American fiction for me back about 20 years ago. Writers like Jorge Amado, Mario Vargas Lhosa, Manuel Puig, and Julio Cortazar were my favorites. It is only since Roberto Bolano that I’ve had some problems with Latin American fiction.
      In my next article, I’ll be discussing a new Latin American author I really like.

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      • I haven’t read enough of Latin American writing: I don’t like Allende or Marquez, and I don’t think I understand Bolano, so I’m keen to see your review and maybe discover something to enjoy:)

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