Translated by Megan McDowell
“Raúl was the only person in the neighborhood who lived alone. It was hard for me to understand how someone could live alone. I thought that being alone was a kind of punishment or disease.”
In the suburbs of Santiago, Chile, under the shadow of the Pinochet regime, a nine-year-old boy is asked by his neighbour’s niece to spy on her uncle. This is the beginning of a strange friendship, chronicling clandestine meetings with Claudia so that he can relate Raúl’s comings and goings. From there, the perspective shifts to the author of the novel we read in the first part. The writer is struggling with his manuscript, as well as his recent separation from his wife. Writing and life become intertwined as the author reveals his own childhood, and echoes of his present life begin to slip into the story, which contemplates home, identity, and family.
Ways of Going Home is a short book of only 160 pages, divided into four sections. It is more than short enough to read in a single sitting, but I found myself parceling it out, one section per day. This helped preserve the separation between the parts, but also gave me a chance to do some background reading. Ways of Going Home was written in Spanish for a Chilean audience, and assumes that readers will understand the political context. (The novel was translated into English by Megan McDowell. Though not a native speaker, Zambra does speak English, and worked closely with McDowell on the translation.) Reading a brief summary of the Pinochet dictatorship and the fall of the regime might prove helpful for those who are not familiar with that history, but it is not essential.
Though Claudia and the unnamed boy seem at the beginning to be the protagonists, their section is entitled “Secondary Characters”, suggesting that perhaps they are not the main thrust of the story after all. Or maybe it is just that, as Zambra put it in an interview, “there’s nothing heroic or ‘spectacular’ about them.” They are ordinary children trying to lead normal lives under trying circumstances that they do not fully understand. This section has a smoothly flowing first person narrative style. By contrast, the writer’s point of a view is more fragmented; he is recording dribs and drabs of his daily life in a diary, recounting what seems important to him at the time, and venting his frustrations about his lack of progress on the novel.
The writer himself is not a terribly interesting character as an adult. He is struggling to move on from his recent separation, still hoping that he and his wife might get back together. Yet he seems to miss her most because she was once integral to his writing process; reading his manuscript aloud to her would help him work through the problems. Stuck on his current project, he is desperate to convince her to resume that role, much more than he seems to miss her as romantic partner. What is more interesting is to see how the echoes of this slip into his work, as Zambra interrogates the relationship between life and fiction, art and reality.
Both the writer and his character are grappling with having been children at such a critical time in Chile’s history. Parents were choosing sides, or in the case of the writer’s parents, trying to remain neutral. But as an adult, he must contend with the idea of his father’s neutrality as an act of quiet complicity with the dictatorship. Thought the situation is specific and essentially Chilean, the inter-generational conflict of values is more broadly recognizable. The dictatorship is an essential part of Chilean history and identity, and yet one that the children who grew up under it could not fully engage with until after it was already gone. The result is a ghost that is felt throughout Ways of Going Home.
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