"In fiction you are closer to the truth, because everything you say is, from the start, arguable." — Alejandro Zambra in McSweeney's
How do you understand who you are if you can't trust your memories? How do you find meaning in your life when you feel like a secondary character in the lives of others? Alejandro Zambra's slim novel, Ways of Going Home, asks big questions about a generation that grew up under the brutal dictatorship of Chile's Augusto Pinochet. It was a generation of children who, shielded by their parents, played games and learned to walk and talk and live happily without knowing the reality of what was happening around them.
Zambra's 2013 novel tells two separate but connected stories in four alternating chapters. The first story unfolds with a fictional account of a nine-year-old boy who we later meet as a 20-year-old in chapter three. In the other chapters we meet the novelist who's writing the fictional story in the first and third chapters and is struggling with where to go with it. The parallel narratives raise questions about the manner in which we reap and revise memories to try and construct and communicate the stories that define who we are. "This small novel contains a surprising vastness, created by its structure of alternating chapters of fiction and reality," writes The New York Times. "Almost every miniature event or conversation is subject to a process of revision, until you realize that Zambra is staging not just a single story of life under political repression, but the conditions for telling any story at all."
The novel opens in the aftermath of an earthquake. A boy develops a crush on Claudia, an older girl who asks him to spy on a suspicious man named Raul who lives alone and who instills fear in the boy's guarded parents. Years later, he tries to write a novel but comes up short on material from his own, uneventful childhood. Instead, he tracks down Claudia to learn the real reason for her interest in Raul and about her traumatic history. In the second chapter, we're introduced to the restless novelist who is writing the story in chapter one about the boy and Claudia and Raul. The novelist is trying to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, Eme. He feels stifled by nostalgia and the frustration of writer's block.
As Zambra ruminates on larger issues, he also hones in on singular moments that may seem innocuous but that tap into deep and common emotions. The boy at the beginning of the novel, for example, gets lost and separated from his parents. He's scared, but finds his way home before they do. His parents keep searching for him and are scared, too. The boy, safe at home, imagines that they are the ones who are lost. Once they are all home, his mother, full of love and still fraught with fear, asks why he went a different way; the boy doesn't answer.
Later in the novel, the character, older now, reflects on an intense conversation with classmates in which they shared stories about their families, stories about the dead and whom they left behind. He feels strangely bitter for not being able to share a similar story. Instead, he thinks about sharing Claudia's story, but has an epiphany: her story is not his story. Finding and sharing our own stories, he implies, is one way of "going home."