Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra

I am wondering, though maybe after yesterdays post I should be careful what I say here, if there is a genre to describe when an author writes their book about writing their book, be it in a fictional or non fictional way? Is it simply metafiction? This is part of what Alejandro Zambra’s latest English PEN winning novel, if that is the right term, ‘Ways of Going Home’ does and I have also seen this in a recent Graham Greene read and ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet, a book that I need to get back to. It is a style that I find I liked and wasn’t expecting when I picked this latest book up completely by whim – it was the cover that did the trick, though I was in the mood for a book and author I knew nothing about; we all get that craving now and again don’t we? This appealed because I know little about Chilean fiction and I also want to read more translated fiction. All boxes ticked then!

**** Granta Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 139 pages, translated byMegan McDowell, kindly sent unsolicited by the publisher

‘Ways of Going Home’ opens during at time of both a political time of unease and natural physical concerns in Chile. General Pinochet is dictator of the country and there is murder and torture going on, oblivious to this, initially, is a young unnamed boy who is camping out on the streets as the Santiago has been hit by an earthquake. On that night the boy meets a mysterious girl called Claudia who he becomes infatuated with and who asks him to spy on his neighbour who turns out to be her cousin. The boy doesn’t know why but does it, and we are left to work it out ourselves.

Suddenly though we are drawn out of that narrative to find that we are now in the mind of the author who himself is writing about a young boy who meets a mysterious girl called Claudia on the night of an earthquake. Is this in fact a fictionalisation of his childhood of relative safety under the rule of a dictator that he is looking back on and dealing with the guilt of coming away from such a time so apparently easy? Well the thing is we are never really sure and this adds intrigue along to an already very interesting premise. Is the boy therefore really Zambra? Is the ‘writer’ that we meet? We are never really sure, either way Zambra uses this double narrative and fictional hindsight, as it seems to be, to look at a man’s thoughts at that slightly naive time in youth and then now with adult eyes.

“Back then I was, as I always have been, and I always will be, for Colo-Colo. As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched without saying a word, without acceding any movement other than a more forceful drag on the cigarette he always had glued to his lips.”

The fact this second section, which alternates with the younger aspect again once more in this very short book (which is actually Zambra’s longest at 139 pages), then comes into play made the book doubly intriguing for me. I found this ‘fictional narrators’ reaction of guilt at not being a victim of Pinochet oddly fascinating though I did feel that this reaction in itself highlighted to me that no one in a country where such things are going on ever comes away with an easy mind. Zambra’s writer, and therefore Zambra either way that you look at it (though it can hurt your head), also discusses how writing and reading deal with these things also.

“To read is to cover one’s face, I thought.
To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”

As much as ‘Ways of Going Home’ looks at the Pinochet regime in Chile and how it affected the country afterwards, how hingsight comes into play, how children of the murdered and murderers going to school together etc. It is also a book about the importance, and indeed the power, of books and the relationship between reader and writer and fictional and the non fictional. It is a book that leaves you with a long list of other books to read and plenty to go away and think about and discover more on too.

Has anyone else read this novel and what did you make of it? Are Zambra, the boy and the fictional author all one and the same? Has anyone else read any of Zambra’s other works? If they are as interesting as this one I will have to seek them out.


Filed under Alejandro Zambra, Books in Translation, Granta Books, Review

11 responses to “Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra

  1. I loved the feel of this one simon ,finished it earlier in the month just not got to it something very telling about Chile and growing up in chile about it and what your parents did at the time pinochet was there ,all the best stu

    • I thought of you when I had finished this Stu, I was wondering if you would have read it as I thought it would be just your cup of tea, it appears I guessed right.

      Oh and you are to thank for always being in the back of my head saying ‘read more translated fiction, read more translated fiction’… if that doesnt sound weird.

  2. Delyn

    This book interests me greatly but are there descriptions of brutality as in Isabelle Allende’s ” The House of the Spirits”? I admired that book immensely but, reading some scenes, I had to put the book down and go out of the room! Don’t think I can put myself through that torture again despite what Will Schwalbe’s mother had to say about the need to read unpleasant things in ” The End of your Life Book Club”.

    • I am with Will Schwalbe’s mother on this one I have to say. I think we need to read books that offer an honest, sometimes so honest it’s hard to read, portrayal of life. Being fiction it does have that one step removed and we know its fiction but it confronts us. I think that’s a good thing.

      That said, you’d be fairly safe with this book. Most of the issues are implied, which actually leaving it to your imagination, can be worse for some. Val McDermid is brilliant at this in her crime novels. Or maybe it’s my mind lol. Anyway, there’s nothing graphic in this book. It’s implied.

      Sorry went off on a tangent there.

  3. coolarmen

    I read this and his 2 other books (Bonsai and The private lives of trees which we read at the book group) and I’ve enjoyed all of them. Read Bonsai first, if you want to read.

    • Was Bonsai your choice at The Riverside Readers by any chance Armen? You always made wonderful choices, feel free to recommend books to me regularily, I miss your wonderful diverse taste.

      • Armen

        No Simon, the other one was my choice. Kim and Sakura reviewed it on their blog. and thank you, you’re very kind.

  4. Ruthiella

    Great review Simon. I read far too little translated fiction! I just checked my 2012 list and found I had only read 4 books in translation, which was only 4% of my total books read

    • I am bad with translated fiction too Ruthiella, I think many of us are. This is why a blog like Stu’s (comment from him above) are so important and why I do try and make it a staple part of my reading diet if I can.

  5. Have you read The Afterparty by Leo Bendictus? The book unfolds at the same time as the story – including character name changes as a result of the email exchanges between the (supposed) author and his agent printed between the chapters – a very cool book!


    • I haven’t though I think it has entered this house, the question is has it left again?!? (This happens too often with books.) I am going to see if I can hunt it down as it sounds like I might like it a lot more than I expected I would from your review.

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