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 that went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
Chliean author Alejandro Zambra and fellow Chilean Roberto Bolaño are often mentioned in the same sentence but the fact that they are both from Chile is where the comparison ends. They write very differently although they both address Chile’s violent and repressive recent history in their novels. What sets them apart, aside from style, is their generation. Zambra was born two years after the September 11th coup which ousted and killed Salvador Allende and installed (with the U.S.’s help and blessing) the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. It is from this vastly different generational perspective that Zambra approaches his fiction and it is very apparent in this brilliant novel.
Like Zambra’s previous two works, this is a short novel, but never will you read so much depth in such few pages. Clocking in at around 140 pages, so much is being said and so much is going on, in which many novelists would need a much broader canvas in order to convey. This is what is remarkable about Zambra’s talent as a writer.
It is a meta-meta-fictional journey. The book is framed by a story about a young boy who befriends a neighborhood girl soon after the 1985 earthquake in Santiago. The girl, Claudia, asks him to spy on one of his neighbors and report back to her about his comings and goings as well as who his visitors are. We follow the unnamed protagonist as he takes on his “mission” as well as follow him through the normal childhood excursions, get to know his parents, and the vastly different effect the Pinochet years seemed to have on them. Once the second section of the novel begins, we learn that the first section is actually the novel the protagonist in the second section is writing. Now in his late 30s, separated from his wife, he struggles with the complexities and the nuances of the work at hand. We get a glimpse into his life and how his life serves as the raw material for the tale he is trying to write. He goes home, visits his parents, and they open up to him in ways that were unimaginable in his younger years - and he learns a lot about them, what they thought, and how the years of the dictatorship effected them. When the story returns to the novel the narrator is writing, we see what he uses from it in order to flesh out the characters and move the story along. Set twenty years later from the beginning of the story, the protagonist seeks out Claudia in order to reunite with her. A lot had changed since their childhood. We learn how differently certain families were effected by the dictatorship years. According to the story, the nameless narrator “never had anyone in his family die” whereas the man the boy was asked to spy on - thought to be Claudia’s uncle - was actually her father who went underground during those years. As the story unfolds, the complexity of their relationship grows as well as the chasm between them. Little by little we see the echoes of the author’s real life working its way into the story.
The novel ends with the more recent earthquake in Santiago (which killed many people) bringing everything around full circle (I’m not giving anything away by revealing this). It is a very complex structure but it is handled beautifully, with immense skill. The theme of “going home” weaves its way throughout both narratives: the visits to parents, finding one’s way home after being lost, through memories, and so on. It is also a story about the “generation after”, those who were brought up during the tumultuous times, and, as the author-narrator puts it, “learned to read and write while their parents were either victims or accomplices”. Highly recommended.