In the generation after World War II, German writers like Heinrich Böll and artists like Anselm Kiefer felt compelled to investigate the sins of their fathers. And their works burn with a ferocity earned from their task. They needed to know, was it something about the German nature that laid waste to an entire continent? Was it perhaps something that existed inside them as well? Or was it part of a grand historical tradition, the slash-and-burn, annihilating energy that has caused so many wars and atrocities before, something that might be inherent in everyone?
It’s part of a grand literary tradition, the writer questioning the inheritance they were bequeathed by the generation before. And now the generation who grew up in the atrocities of the break up of Yugoslavia, in the Dirty War of Argentina, in the communist break up of Russia, and the Pinochet regime in Chile, are joining their forebears to question the present by dealing with the past.
Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home comes out of this post-dictatorship Chile, and in it a son, a writer who bears resemblance to Zambra, begins to question his father. It is, as Zambra explained it to me over email, “a novel about parents and children, and also as a novel in which I introduce territories and groups not represented before; the history of a significant part of the population which–because of fear, ignorance, or because of systematic mass media manipulation by Pinochet’s regime, or in order to protect their children, or who knows why–didn’t face actively against dictatorship.” The family at the center of Ways of Going Home did not suffer, and so they did not struggle. They did not smuggle resistance fighters or carry coded messages. They did not join in demonstrations and they did not meet up with fellow believers in underground meetings. They simply lived their lives and didn’t think too much about what was going on.
It’s what most people do in these situations, which is why dictatorships and authoritarian regimes continue to exist. And while the narrator just wants to write his novel and sleep with this girl here or this other girl over there, other characters are much more engaged with post-dictator politics. Zambra is also more politically engaged than the narrator, telling me about the situation on the ground in Chile. “Sometimes the battle is symbolic and ideological (the battle of the memory), in other occasions it is quite concrete (the battle to regain what Pinochet stole, wasted or annihilated, the battle to put Victor Jara’s assassins behind bars, the battle to dignify our whole public education, public health services, which is now a system based on usury from any point of view).” But at other times, “the battle is more literal,” Zambra told me, “the clashes between police and mapuches (one of Chilean’s native people) and the landlords … down in the south of the country, for example, things present in all the TV news while I answer [these] questions.”
Ultimately, though, Ways of Going Home is not fierce. It’s an interesting story, but a little, dare I say it, twee. It seems to have started from an interesting impulse, but Zambra meanders greatly, quite the feat in such a short novel, over his thoughts about women. He repeatedly interrupts the novel to interject his thoughts about how he thinks the writing is going. “I told [Eme] about the new novel,” he writes in the new novel upon which he is commenting. “I said that at first I was keeping a steady pace, but little by little I had lost the rhythm, or the precision.” The rhythm was what I kept losing while reading the book, as Zambra writes his autobiographical asides again and again. I was perhaps more engaged with the idea of the book than the book itself.
I asked Zambra how autobiographical the book is, and he evaded. “How autobiographical the novel is, well, many things are ‘true,’ or maybe ‘verifiable,’ but they are not ‘true’ anymore once mingled with other things, I guess,” he wrote. “Naturally, the distinction is irrelevant. No character here is developed as ‘unique’ or ‘one of a kind,’ exceptional or heroic, even less the first person.” And he did not like being questioned about the real-life situation–the dictatorship and the international influence on that dictatorship–that provides the backdrop to the story. “It is not an essay nor a feature-report nor a ‘Wikileak,’ but a novel,” he wrote, when I tried to question him about the repetitive mention of American corporations in Ways of Going Home.
In the end, the meandering, the talking around the subject of the regime, the lack of drama or intensity left me feeling unengaged with Ways of Going Home. My correspondence with Zambra was more stimulating. “The narrator sometimes feels [survivor guilt], and he feels, also, some surprise about the fact of having lived and not lived at the same time through that period: that’s something that as adults we always feel considering childhood,” he wrote. “But in this case the feeling is more acute, more intense, because we know we were there even though we didn’t understand what was going on. And although we didn’t understand, it is true that it’s something we did understand anyhow.
“Every remembrance turns sour, bitter, stale, even the bright ones, because one knows that as one smiled for the picture, Chile was falling into pieces,” he continued. “The return to democracy at the beginning of the ‘90s coincided with the adolescence of our generation. I think we tried then, for a while, to assume our parents’ responsibilities as ours. That meant to kill them or make them killed, or to try them in any case,” he wrote. “All this, I think, in a country which considered itself as a democratic one, but it was still far from being that properly.”
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.
Photo credit Mabel Maldonado.