Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home begins with an earthquake, seen through the eyes of an unnamed nine-year-old boy who lives in an undistinguished middleclass housing development in a suburb of Santiago, Chile. When the neighbors camp out overnight, the protagonist gets his first glimpse of Claudia, an older girl who asks him to spy on her uncle Raúl.
In the second section, the protagonist is the writer of the story begun in the first section. His father is a man of few words who claims to be apolitical but who quietly sympathized―to what degree, the author isn't sure―with the Pinochet regime. His reflections on the progress of the novel and on his own life―which is strikingly similar to the life of his novel's protagonist―expose the raw suture of fiction and reality.
Ways of Going Home switches between author and character, past and present, reflecting with melancholy and rage on the history of a nation and on a generation born too late―the generation which, as the author-narrator puts it, learned to read and write while their parents became accomplices or victims. It is the most personal novel to date from Zambra, the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño.
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Alejandro Zambra is a poet, novelist, and literary critic who was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1975. He is the author of two previous novels, The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsai, which was awarded a Chilean Critics Award for best novel. He was selected as one of Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was elected to the Bogotá39 list.
Megan McDowell is a literary translator living in Zurich, Switzerland. She also translated Alejandro Zambra's The Private Lives of Trees.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought that they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.
“You went a different way,” my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen.
You were the ones who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
Dad watched quietly from the armchair. Sometimes I think he spent all his time just sitting there, thinking. But maybe he didn’t really think about anything. Maybe he just closed his eyes and received the present with calm or resignation. That night he spoke, though: “This is a good thing,” he told me. “You overcame adversity.” Mom looked at him suspiciously, but he went on stringing together a confused speech about adversity.
I lay back on the chair across from him and pretended to fall asleep. I heard them argue, always the same pattern. Mom would say five sentences and Dad would answer with a single word. Sometimes he would answer sharply: “No.” Sometimes he would say, practically shouting: “Liar.” Sometimes he would even say, like the police: “Negative.”
That night Mom carried me to bed and told me, perhaps knowing I was only pretending to sleep and was listening, curious and attentive: “Your father is right. Now we know you won’t get lost. That you know how to walk in the street alone. But you should concentrate more on the way. You should walk faster.”
I listened to her. From then on, I walked faster. In fact, a couple of years later, the first time I talked to Claudia, she asked me why I walked so fast. She had been following me for days, spying on me. We had met not long before, on March 3, 1985—the night of the earthquake—but we hadn’t talked then.
She was twelve and I was nine, so our friendship was impossible. But we were friends, or something like it. We talked a lot. Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.
The night of the earthquake I was scared but I also, in a way, enjoyed what was happening.
In the front yard of one of the houses, the adults put up two tents for the children to sleep in, and at first it was chaos because we all wanted to sleep in the one that looked like an igloo—those were still a novelty back then—but they gave that one to the girls. So we boys shut ourselves in to fight in silence, which was what we did when we were alone: hit each other furiously, happily. But then the redhead’s nose started bleeding, so we had to find another game.
Someone thought of making wills, and at first it seemed like a good idea; after a while, though, we decided it didn’t make sense, because if a bigger earthquake came and ended the world, there wouldn’t be anyone to leave our things to. Then we imagined that the earth was like a dog shaking itself so people fell off like fleas into space, and we thought about that image so much it made us laugh, and it also made us sleepy.
But I didn’t want to sleep. I was tired like never before, but it was a new tiredness that burned my eyes. I decided to stay up all night and I tried to sneak into the igloo to keep talking to the girls, but the policeman’s daughter threw me out, saying I wanted to rape them. Back then I didn’t know what a rapist was but I still promised I didn’t want to rape them, I just wanted to look at them, and she laughed mockingly and replied that that was what rapists always said. I had to stay outside, listening to them pretend that their dolls were the only survivors; they mourned their owners, crying spectacularly when they realized they were dead, although one of them thought it was for the best, since the human race had always seemed repellent to her. Finally, they argued over who would be in charge. The discussion seemed long to me, but it was easily resolved, since there was only one original Barbie among the dolls: she won.
I found a beach chair among the rubble and shyly approached the adults’ bonfire. It was strange to see the neighbors all gathered together, maybe for the first time ever. They drowned their fear in cups of wine and long looks of complicity. Someone brought an old wooden table and threw it casually on the fire. “If you want, I’ll throw the guitar on, too,” said Dad, and everyone laughed, even me, though I was a little disconcerted because Dad didn’t usually tell jokes. That’s when our neighbor Raúl returned, and Magali and Claudia were with him. “These are my sister and my niece,” he said. After the earthquake he had gone to look for them, and now he was coming back, visibly relieved.
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.
The morning he arrived with a mattress strapped to the roof of his old Fiat 500, I asked my mother when the rest of his family would come; she answered sweetly that not everyone had family. Then I thought we should help him, but after a while I caught on, surprised, that my parents weren’t interested in helping Raúl; they didn’t think it was necessary and they even felt a certain reluctance toward that young, thin man. We were neighbors, we shared a wall and a privet hedge, but there was an enormous distance separating us.
It was said around the neighborhood that Raúl was a Christian Democrat, and that struck me as interesting. It’s hard to explain now why a nine-year-old boy would be interested that someone was a Christian Democrat. Maybe I thought there was some connection between being a Christian Democrat and the sad circumstance of living alone. I had never seen Dad speak to Raúl, so I was surprised to see them sharing a few cigarettes that night. I thought they must be talking about solitude, that Dad was giving our neighbor advice about how to overcome solitude, though Dad must have known very little about the subject.
Magali, meanwhile, was holding Claudia tightly in a corner, away from the group. The two of them seemed uncomfortable. I remember thinking that they must have been uncomfortable because they were different from the rest of the people gathered there. Politely, but perhaps with a trace of malice, one neighbor asked Magali what she did for a living; Magali answered immediately, as if she’d been expecting the question, that she was an English teacher.
It was very late and I was sent to bed. I had to reluctantly make space for myself in the tent. I was afraid I might fall asleep, but I distracted myself by listening to those stray voices in the night. I understood that Raúl had taken his relatives home, because people started to talk about them. Someone said the girl was strange. She hadn’t seemed strange to me. She had seemed beautiful. “And the woman,” said my mother, “didn’t have an English teacher’s face.”
“She had the face of a housewife, nothing more,” added another neighbor, and they drew out the joke for a while.
I thought about an English teacher’s face, about what an English teacher’s face should be like. I thought about my mother, my father. I thought: What kinds of faces do my parents have? But our parents never really have faces. We never learn to truly look at them.
I thought we would spend weeks or even months outside, waiting for some far-off truck to bring supplies and blankets. I even imagined myself talking on TV, thanking my fellow Chileans for their help, the way I’d seen people do during the rainstorms. I thought about the terrible floods of other years, when we couldn’t go out and we were practically obligated to sit in front of the screen and watch the people who had lost everything.
But it wasn’t like that. Calm returned almost immediately. The worst always happened to other people. In that lost corner west of Santiago the earthquake had been no more than an enormous scare. A few shacks fell down, but there was no great damage and no one died. The TV showed the San Antonio port destroyed, as well as some streets I had seen or thought I had seen on rare trips to downtown Santiago. I confusedly intuited that the true suffering happened there.
If there was anything to learn, we didn’t learn it. Now I think it’s a good thing to lose confidence in the solidity of the ground, I think it’s necessary to know that from one moment to the next everything can come tumbling down. But at the time we went back, just like that, to life as usual.
Once we were back in the house, Dad confirmed that the damage was slight: just some plaster fallen from the walls and a cracked window. Mom mourned only the loss of the zodiac glasses. Eight of them broke, including hers (Pisces), Dad’s (Leo), and the one Grandma used when she came to see us (Scorpio).
“No problem, we have other glasses, we don’t need any more,” said Dad, and she answered without looking at him, looking at me: “Only yours survived.” Then she went to get the glass with the Libra sign, and gave it to me with a solemn gesture. She spent the following days a little depressed, contemplating giving the remaining glasses to Geminis, Virgos, Aquarians.
The good news was that we wouldn’t go back to school right away. The old building had suffered significant damage, and those who had seen it said it was a pile of rubble. It was hard for me to imagine the school destroyed, though it wasn’t sadness that I felt. I just felt curious. I especially remembered the bare spot at the edge of the playground where we went at recess, and the wall the middle school kids would scribble on. I thought about all those messages smashed to smithereens, scattered in the ash on the ground—bawdy sayings, phrases for or against Colo-Colo, or for or against Pinochet. One phrase I found especially funny: Pinochet sucks dick.
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.
Around then, the redhead’s father took a trip to Miami, and he returned with a baseball glove and bat for his son. The gift brought about an unexpected break in our routine. For many days we switched from soccer to that slow and slightly stupid game which nevertheless entranced my friends. It was absurd: ours must have been the only neighborhood in the country where the kids played baseball instead of soccer. It was hard for me to hit the ball or throw it straight and I was quickly sent to the bench. The redhead, who had been one of my best friends, suddenly became popular. Now he preferred the company of the older kids who were attracted by the foreign game and had joined our group. And that’s how, because of baseball, I was left friendless.
In the afternoons, resigned to solitude, I would leave the house, as they say, to tire myself out: I walked in wider and wider circuits, though I almost always respected a certain geometry of circles. I exhausted all possible routes, all the blocks, took in new landscapes, though the world didn’t vary too much: the same new houses, built quickly, as if obeying some urgency, but nevertheless solid and resilient. In a few weeks most of the walls had been restored and reinforced. It was hard to tell there had just been an earthquake.
Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed. We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home. Weren’t the streets of Maipú dangerous then? At night they were, and during the day as well, but the adults played, arrogantly or innocently—or with a mixture of arrogance and innocence—at ignoring the danger. They played at thinking that discontent was a thing of the poor and power the domain of the rich, and in those streets no one was poor or rich, at least not yet.
One of those afternoons I saw Raúl’s niece again, but I didn’t know if I should say hello. I saw her again several times in the following days. I didn’t realize that she was actually following me.
“I just like to walk fast,” I answered when she finally spoke to me, and then came a long silence that she broke by asking me if I was lost. I answered that no, I knew perfectly well how to get home. “It was a joke, I want to talk to you, let’s meet next Monday at five in the supermarket bakery.” She said it like that, in one sentence, and left.
The next day my parents woke me up early because we were going to spend the weekend at Lo Ovalle Reservoir. Mom didn’t want to go and she dragged out the preparations, confident that lunchtime would come and the plan would have to change. Dad decided, however, that we would have lunch at a restaurant, and we left right away. Back then, it was a real luxury to eat out. I sat in the backseat of the Peugeot thinking about what I would order, and in the end I asked for a steak a lo pobre. Dad warned me that it was a big dish and I wouldn’t be able to eat it all, but on those rare outings I was free to order whatever I wanted.
Suddenly, that heavy atmosphere prevailed in which the only possible topic of conversation is the lateness of the food. Our order took so long that finally Dad decided we would leave as soon as the food came. I protested, or I wanted to protest, or now I think I should have protested. “If we’re going to leave, let’s go now,” said Mom resignedly, but Dad explained that this way the restaurant owners would lose the food, that it was an act of justice, of revenge.
We continued our journey ill-humored and hungry. I didn’t really like going to the reservoir. They wouldn’t let me wander very far by myself and I got bored, though I tried to have fun swimming for a while, fleeing from the rats that lived among the rocks, looking at the worms eating the sawdust and the fish dying on land. Dad settled in to fish all day, and Mom spent the day watching him, and I watched Dad fish and Mom watch him and it was hard for me to understand how that was, for them, fun.
Sunday morning I faked a cold because I wanted to sleep a little longer. They went off to the rocks after giving me endless superfluous instructions. A little while later, I got up and turned on the tape player so I could listen to Raphael while I made breakfast. It was a cassette of all his best songs that my mother had recorded from the radio. Unfortunately, my finger slipped and I pressed “REC” for a few seconds. I ruined the tape right in the chorus of the song “Que sabe nadie.”
I was desperate. After thinking a bit, I decided the only solution was to sing over the chorus, and I started practicing the lyric, disguising my voice in a way that seemed convincing to me. Finally I decided to record. I listened to the results several times, thinking, somewhat self-indulgently, that it was good enough. I was a little worried, though, about the lack of music during those seconds.
My father would yell at me, but he didn’t hit. He never hit me, it wasn’t his style; he preferred the grandiloquence of phrases that were impressive at first, because he said them seriously, like an acto...
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