Whenever I hear someone speak of a “layered” novel, I am often guilty of translating that term as “convoluted” or “a gimmick.” I’m happy to report that Alejandro Zambra’s new book, Ways of Going Home, is neither convoluted nor gimmicky. And, even at a crisp 139 pages, written with an exactness and brevity reminiscent of poetry, it is satisfyingly “layered.”
This Chilean novel contains two narratives, broken down into four chapters. We begin with the story of a 9 year-old boy whose crush on a teenage girl prompts him to spy on one of his neighbors for her. The second chapter switches narratives to tell of a novelist struggling with the book he is writing and attempting to reconcile with the woman that loved him. We learn quickly that the novel he is writing is actually the first chapter of this book, and that the story of the woman with whom he is trying to reconcile is very much like the story of the girl from his novel, just as the boy from his novel is very much like him. The third chapter returns to the story of the “novel” he is working on, and describes the boy and girl as older and embarking on a fling, including a trip to the boy’s parents’ house. The final chapter returns to “reality."
The ghost of the reign of Pinochet haunts the work, alluding to families broken apart, people forced to flee, bitter memories, hiding, and secrecy, but the narrative structure, the reframing of a few events - through a “novel” and a “reality” – call into question the very nature of relating any story at all. Each event from the novelists life is recast in his novel, so that a sequence emerges and we watch as the past is reshaped, constantly revised, never dead. Even seemingly trivial incidents offer enticing contemplation, such as a chat in the middle of the night between mother and son. In the novelist’s life, the mother and son talk and the son convinces the mother to smoke – something she usually only does outside – in the kitchen, telling her his father will think it is him, not her. She is persuaded. In the novel, it is the mother who suggests smoking, much more defiant and self-controled than the ‘real’ mother. And even within the same narrative, on the same page, constant revision and distortion of the past is happening. After his estranged girlfriend tells him she has been with two men since they separated, he answers:
“’But I’ve been with two women,’ I told her. The truth is it’s been only one. I lied, maybe to even the score.”
Even the nature of the protagonist(s) is somewhat uncertain. Inquiring about the nature of the novel on which the novelist is currently working, his estranged girlfriend asks him at one point: “Do they fall in love? Is it a love story?”
Beyond the rich narrative structure, the prose is beautiful, brief, and poetic. I’ll leave you with two lines:
“My mother pretended to be scandalized. The gesture looked beautiful on her.”
“To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”