Alejandro Zambra (Granta Books, 2013)
Delving into Chile’s turbulent past requires a thorough analysis of the country’s fragmented society, usually vaguely described and simplified as a split between socialists and Pinochet adherents. In ‘Ways of Going Home’, Alejandro Zambra portrays a deeper complexity which resonates through a technique of employing different narrators who are an extension of each other, striving to understand the macabre circumstances which altered life and perception.
Commencing with a compelling metaphor – a boy is lost and discovers another way home, the book plunges into the disorientation experienced by the child, whose perceptions are inextricably linked to silence – the silence emanating from a fear of dictatorship and its imposed culture of oblivion. On one hand, Pinochet is depicted as an annoying abstract – an unwanted interlude into a child’s life. However, the boy’s life is thwarted from innocence and truth by a prevailing mistrust and fear of association which the adults, having experienced the dictatorship and its atrocities, have employed as a possible means of escaping the ruthless regime. Zambra is careful to acknowledge the disorientation on various levels – notably the elders’ fears translating into an inconclusive issue for a child whose parents’ obsession with neutrality sought to alter, through a possibly unwanted means of protection, the tangible collective memory of Chile’s left-wing.
For the neutral parents, it is perhaps soothing to portray left-wing militants as having disturbed ‘the peace’ – an euphemism revealing the challenge for memory frameworks to emerge. As the narrator’s parents indulge in neutral rhetoric, ultimately seeking an ephemeral protection against the macabre culture permeating Chile, the narrator reveals an awareness of the alternative, and stronger, collective memory – that of psychological trauma, torture and disappearances, revealing the network of relationships forged across society once distanced from the family home. A discussion of political allegiances raises the ultimate reality of neutral stances, epitomised by “But we were never, your father and I, either for or against Allende, or for or against Pinochet” – an effective method of acquiescing to Pinochet’s imposed culture of oblivion.
The refusal to acknowledge passive support for the dictatorship leads to an outburst which pits time against What do you know about those things? You hadn’t even been born yet when Allende was in power. You were just a baby during those years.” here, knowledge is expected to have been gained solely through experience, despite the fact that an altered narration of memory deconstructs the process of knowledge. The victim’s narration remains embroiled in a continuous struggle with the society of spectators, which misconstrued a violent memory for a good story.
Zambra’s novel weaves a depth of dimensions and contrasts between the narrating voices, families, political perceptions and memory, depicting a lingering isolation which fails to resolve due to the characters’ reticence in reclaiming memory. With the story of the militant deconstructed into that of an abstract terrorist, Pinochet’s stronghold over Chile is reflected into the more mundane aspects of the story which deal with the narrator’s reflections regarding relationships and society. The absence of tenacity, the lack of solid identification with history possibly elicits a far deeper frustration – the urge to discover resistance is smothered within a series of anti-climaxes which indicate the continuous stifling of excruciating memory in return for a semblance of the neutrality which the narrator so vehemently abhors.