Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (trans Megan McDowell). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 160pp, $23.00.
As Americans, what historical period do we feel most nostalgic for? A time when life seemed easier, like the 1950s? Or a time when we banded together to show a true national spirit, like in 1930s and ’40s? Or is it simply a time when we felt safer—anything before 9/11?
Setting aside our cultural milieu, we can also individually feel nostalgia for whenever it was that we felt young and innocent. In Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra’s new novel, Ways of Going Home, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia for the 1980s, the years in which the double narrators (as well as the author) were children growing up in bland suburbs. I am just a few years younger than the author and grew up in a similarly bland suburb; among my peers I have noticed a similar nostalgia for the music, styles, toys of the period. The difference is, in Chile those same years of childhood were also a period of atrocity. They coincided with the middle of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, which began with an overthrow of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. During this time, thousands were disappeared, murdered, and tortured.
In Ways of Going Home, Zambra explores this tension between feeling nostalgia for one’s own childhood and putting it into a historical and cultural perspective. The two narrators recognize how, in a sense, their childhood ignorance of what was happening in the country was at the same time innocence, culpability, and impotence.
The novel consists of two interwoven stories, with virtually identical nameless, male first-person narrators who grew up in a suburb of Santiago, Chile, in the 1980s. In the frame story—what I’ll call the “writer’s” story—the narrator has separated from his wife, Eme, and is trying both to finish a novel and reignite the relationship. The second story, the “spy” story, is the novel that he is writing. This story’s narrator recalls how, in the days of the dictatorship, he met a pretty older girl named Claudia. Claudia asked him to spy on his neighbor, her uncle Raul, who was unique in the neighborhood both for being single and for being rumored to be a Christian Democrat (a centrist party that opposed the dictatorship of Pinochet). Without any idea of why or what he is looking for, the besmitten young boy complies. Twenty years later, he finds himself back in the old suburb, wandering and wondering about Claudia. They meet again, have a brief and doomed relationship, and the narrator finally discovers the true story about Claudia and Raul (who was, to put it briefly, not a Christian Democrat).
The writer’s story and the spy’s story fold together like an accordion, touching in numerous places and seeming to wholly overlap in others. In fact, the narrator tells us that the idea for the novel came from an anecdote that Eme had told him years before about playing hide-and-seek while her parents mourned the real disappeared.
Although Eme and Claudia are both the focus of and impetus for these stories, they are less about love than about parents and children; love allows the narrators to re-enter and re-evaluate childhood. As the narrators tell us, children growing up in the 1980s were the secondary characters in the novel of their own lives: the real protagonists were their parents who caused or fought the dictatorship. Claudia, the youngest child and always the last to know everything, struggled to find her own place. As boys, the narrators were even less relevant to Chile’s greater story—whereas Claudia’s and Eme’s families were at least involved in the struggles of the era, the narrators’ families seem mostly oblivious. At one point, the writer tells his high school teacher, a victim of torture, that “during the dictatorship my parents kept to the sidelines.” The teacher looks at him with “disdain,” because, as the teacher, the reader, and the adult narrator now all know, there were no sidelines during the dictatorship. The writer later hints to his sister that making his parents into characters in his own novel becomes a sort of reluctant revenge, a way of forcing them to “attend a masked ball and not understand very well why they are there.”
Regardless of politics, the secondary characters must abandon the novel and find their own peripatetic plotline: “parents abandon their children. Children abandon their parents. Parents protect or forsake, but they always forsake. Children stay or go, but they always go. And it’s all unfair . . .” That’s what novels are usually about, Claudia reflects. In fact, her family, the most political in the book, risked everything to fight the dictatorship but is finally destroyed in an argument over what Dad wanted of his children and what to do with the house after the parents dies. Politics is not the real story; dealing with the most prosaic legacy of your parents is.
How does a secondary character regain his novel? It appears, not by looking forward but by endlessly reentering the past. This becomes how the characters search for their way back home. Although the writer tells us that, “I’m against nostalgia,” he immediately backtracks. “I’d like to be against nostalgia. Everywhere you look there’s someone renewing vows with the past. We recall songs we never really liked, we meet with our first girlfriends again, or classmates we didn’t get along with, we greet with open arms people we used to reject.”
In other words, rather than explain why the narrator would like to oppose it, why he does not, or even why nostalgia is so attractive, Zambra slides into telling us what we do, all of us. This is a sneaky move, but at the crux of the novel. In this point of view, the Pinochet dictatorship is significant not because of the kidnappings or torture, not because of the imposition of free market changes which led to vast increases in economic inequality, and not because of suppression of political opposition. No, it is important because it is the backdrop to a time the narrator was young. The dictatorship has morphed into a pop cultural memory, like that song from the ’80s that you didn’t like a lot but now sing along to—something that may not be good, but reminds you of the past.
This is an interesting point. We feel nostalgia, not because the time was better, but because it feels like we were better then. Even though the narrator frequently turns out to be on the wrong side of history, he was also innocent and pure, simply because he was young. We don’t choose the period we grow up in; we can’t be blamed for privately pining after a time that is publically acknowledged as a horror. As the writer says, “I’d rather stay there, inhabit the time of the book, cohabit with those years, chase the distant images at length and then carefully go over them again. See them badly, but see them. To just stay there, looking.” Fittingly, Eme has the writer’s collection of Wes Anderson films; like a Wes Anderson film, his youth is revealed to be twisted, fierce, yet ultimately precious and redeeming.
The weakness of Ways of Going Home is related to this embrace of nostalgia, this balancing act between innocence and knowingness, which ends up always tipping towards innocence. Zambra’s earlier books, particularly Bonsai, had a spareness that added a mocking edge. In Bonsai Zambra took on a trite concept—teenage love. His stripped-down language and metafictional commentaries point out how love is a story that we tell ourselves, yet they also paradoxically redeem the sweetness at the core of those trite stories. However, in Ways of Going Home he takes on serious concepts—understanding the past, the futility of love between parents and children, cultural memory—and tips over into the nostalgia he decries. Take, for example this passage:
The novel belongs to our parents, I thought then, I think now . . . . We cursed them, and also took refuge in their shadows, relieved. 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. While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.
It is an interesting idea, but the convergences feel too spelled out to really resonate. While Bonsai knowingly unpacked the fiction of the love story, this passage—and too frequently the novel it sits in—seems pre-packaged, the clever language tying everything up with a bow.
Nevertheless, there are many fine moments in Zambra’s latest work. It does often capture that intensity of childhood emotions. The interactions between the adult narrators and their suburban parents, each offering something that is clearly heartfelt but not nearly enough, ring simple and true. Zambra is a talented writer, and this book feels like an attempt to break out of the style of his two previous books, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees. Those works were short (each under a hundred pages) and symbolically rich, but are also noticeable for feeling fresh and new. Yet, that can be an artistic cul de sac—a writer cannot constantly be fresh. In Ways, Zambra moves on to new aesthetic territory, wrestling with a weightier topic and taking a heavier hand. It feels like a transitional work, and we can only hope that he will find his feet again in his next novel.
Elizabeth Wadell is a longtime contributor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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