Ways of Going Home
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Genre: Literary Fiction, Latin American Literature, Contemporary Fiction
Illustration on title page by Charlotte Strick
Setting: Santiago, Chile
Published January 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I want to read more translated literary works this year and I chanced upon Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home. It looked like something I will enjoy, considering some of the praises it got. He’s also compared to Roberto Bolaño whom I’ve heard so much about.
“It’s strange, it’s silly to attempt a genuine story about something, about someone, about anyone, even oneself. But it’s necessary as well.”
– Alejandro Zambra
Before Ways of Going Home, I have not read any book from Alejandro Zambra. I can tell that this is a very personal piece of metafiction which lends voice to writers and explores how their lives are a constant search of what and how to tell a story. His writing is simple but he writes from the heart. There is this sense of sincerity within the lines, made more palpable by his unadorned writing.
The switching perspective, between author and character left me a little confused but I eventually got used to it. This is not, I guess, meant to fault the author. I found out recently that there are some books that I really need time to get into. Mr. Zambra’s technique or methods of presenting a story is somewhat different. While most of the books I’ve read are more ‘flowing’, Ways of Going Home was a little disjointed for my taste. At times it left me frustrated.
That’s not to say that I didn’t like this book. His reflections about life and writing are fascinating. I liked how he presented the ambiguities of our youth and how growing up changes us. I guess, for most of us, in our younger years, we have led a life dictated and influenced by our parents and yet inevitably, almost inexplicably, we morph into something completely new and distinct from them. Our opinions may set us apart from them, our preferences may differ, our life views and all the other things we didn’t care about when we were children are there for the taking, whether we like it or not.
In the book, the main character’s view about his parents vary- ranging from affection and love, to sometimes being incongruous. At times he becomes too critical of his father and mother, making them guilty of things they did in the past. It seems to me that the character in the story is still trying to come to terms with his past, his uncertainties-even his guilt, are directed towards his parents. Mr. Zambra also tackled how our parents’ choices are weaved into our lives. A single decision can change everything. This is exemplified in Claudia’s life – a character in the first part of the story. She had to endure a life without her father, who had to assume a new identity during Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Life those days were tumultuous and violent, and as such people were living in fear. Mr. Zambra believed that this fear was only present in adults at that time- children being spared the ‘true’ story. In a way, their ignorance and innocence have protected them and in doing so, their lives seem to be ‘another’ story- completely different from the lives their parents have to face day by day.
It is a tough book to read but there are rewards to be collected from reading it. I find that his insights are universal and timeless. The veracity of the story is palpable all throughout. There’s a feeling of nostalgia as he recounts his childhood. Somehow I was reminded of how carefree it is to be a child- oblivious to the world’s difficult times and issues, and how everything seems to be an adventure of some sort.
I guess writers will appreciate this book more. In a way, it opened my eyes into the world of writing and how at times a writer struggles and gets ‘lost’ at some point of the story. It’s also evident from the book how personal experiences mold a story they want to tell. In the end though, as Alejandro Zambra said so well, “I knew little, but at least I knew that: no one could speak for someone else. That although we might want to tell other people’s stories, we always end up telling our own.”
- Alejandro Andrés Zambra Infantas is a poet, novelist, and literary critic
- He was born in 1975 in Villa Portales, a district of Santiago, Chile.(Source)
- His previous novels include: The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsai. Bonsai was later awarded a Chilean Critics Award for best novel in 2006.
- He was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was elected to the Bogotá-39 list. (Source)
- Alejando Zambra studied at the Instituto Nacional General José Miguel Carrera and the University of Chile, from where he graduated in 1997 with a degree in Hispanic literature. He won a scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies in Madrid, where he obtained an MA in Hispanic studies. (Source)
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