By Ed Taylor
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
English, with myriad complexities and wild irregularities, is one of the tougher languages for non-natives to learn, but it’s also a blunt instrument in some areas.
For example, “I love my new phone” and “I love you” signify inner states so different that using a single word for both seems laughably crude.
Other languages can in some areas offer more nuanced information about the world. Reading the spare, marvelous novel “Ways of Going Home” by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra brings to mind “saudade,” a Portuguese word for which there is no real English equivalent. “Saudade” is a deep, complex, elegiac longing for something or someone absent, with an interwoven understanding that the absence will never end: a longing that, to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase, famishes the craving. The ache remains, never dulled.
“Ways of Going Home” is about varieties of home and “home,” from the past to childhood to romantic love, and the archetypal search for paths to it through the smoldering ruins and wastelands of Chile’s late 20th century history.
Chile from the 1970s to the 2000s is the novel’s context, and Zambra here adds a leaf to the book of testimony about Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s murderous (and American-supported) dictatorship from 1973 to 1990.
However, the wisdom and perceptions relayed through this poetic short novel radiate far beyond the specifics of place and era, to offer insight everywhere a generation’s horror becomes the next generation’s ancient history (civil rights-era black parents listening to their kids blasting hip-hop laced with “the n word,” for example).
Zambra’s narrative is woven from family, and millennial characters who were children during the Pinochet era – who, as he puts it, were learning to read and write while their parents were accomplices or victims.
Zambra uses a venerable meta-fictional strategy: the novel has four sections, with two being a novel, and two being diaristic narratives by the “author” writing the “novel.”
Together they offer approaches to childhood and parenthood, memory and history, to writing, and love: and to ways of creating home – always a generative process.
An unnamed narrator begins the story on the night of an earthquake in his childhood.
It’s an adventure – everyone outside, sleeping in tents, sitting around backyard fires – but one neighbor worries about his sister and her child, who he agitatedly disappears to find, and then brings back. Claudia, the 11-year-old niece, is two years older than the narrator, and the two, introduced, stick in each other’s minds.
Claudia and the narrator strike up a friendship, and, when things have returned to what passes for normal, she asks him to do something for her: to spy on her uncle and report who comes to his house.
The narrator accedes to this surprising request. After a few surreptitious visits and long bus rides, he tells Claudia, and eventually an older boy she introduces as a friend, what he sees.
Then, however, Claudia mysteriously moves away, as does the uncle, and the narrator’s childhood passes, as he wonders about Claudia and what happened.
This, the novel’s first section, is titled “Secondary Characters.” The second section, “Literature of the Parents,” is notes by the unnamed writer describing his attempts to write this novel of his childhood and history, and to reconcile with his wife, Eme.
“The novel belongs to our parents,” the writer thinks, as he attempts to explore what it was like for them, balancing horror and innocence, powerlessness and the need to protect, lies and truth.
“While the country was falling to pieces, we [the children] were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes. While the novel was happening, we played hide and seek, we played at disappearing.”
The writer remembers school, and how he and others studied novels such as “Madame Bovary,” and were taught by teachers “to be cheaters, to learn tricks”; to be given tests boiling books down to character identification, and having those tests focus only on secondary characters: “The less relevant the characters, the more likely we would be asked about them.”
And: “We [the children] were exactly that – secondary characters.”
The third section, “Literature of the Children,” shifts back to the “novel” and the narrator/Claudia story.
The narrator is now a writer and professor in his early 30s, and he decides to find Claudia. He does, and discovers she was not who she seemed, because of her parents, because of the regime, because of history.
The narrator and Claudia become lovers, at least in part from an inchoate belief that this can redeem the past, or at least help them understand it.
In a particularly powerful but typically quiet moment, the narrator describes a walk he and Claudia take through Santiago on which they arrive at the National Stadium.
For each of them, it’s just a building, and a happy childhood memory: for the narrator, watching soccer and eating ice cream for the first time; for Claudia, seeing a famous Mexican comedian with her parents.
Only as an adult did Claudia find out that childhood day, seeing the stadium filled with people laughing, tortured her parents.
The National Stadium, under Pinochet, served as a mass prison where thousands of arrested people were detained and tortured, and where thousands became “desaparecidos,” the “disappeared.”
The novel’s final section, ”We’re All Right,” shifting back to the “real” world, achingly shows how the author and his wife’s attempt at reconciliation fails – in part at least, because of their pasts – and how his parents age and attempt to understand being “accomplices and victims,” and how the narrator attempts to understand his parents and make a novel out of his life and his country’s life.
This subtle, profound work ends with another earthquake, but as his mother tells the writer when he is finally able to connect on the phone, “We’re all right” – the aging parent, still lying to create home for the child, and both deciding they need to, want to, believe it.
Ways of Going Home
By Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
Farrar Straus Giroux
139 pages, $23
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.