Author Alejandro Zambra. (Mabel Maldonado / Farrar,…)
Ways of Going Home
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 160 pp., $23
In an age when writing careers can be born on the strength of 140-character tweets, massive word counts aren't required to make an impression. While many novelists create doorstop-sized statements in their reach for something profound and canonical, Chilean poet and novelist Alejandro Zambra is an adherent to the idea that less is more.
His previous novels, "The Secret Lives of Trees" and "Bonsai," earned acclaim while coming in at fewer than 100 pages, and his latest effort, "Ways of Going Home," is Melville-esque by comparison, topping out at 160. But though the book looks lean, don't mistake it for something slight, as Zambra thoughtfully — even beautifully — navigates through larger themes of loss, political oppression and the nature of writing against the backdrop of Chile during and after the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Zambra finds an original way to evoke life in a time of oppression and political terror by turning his book inward, shifting between fiction and a sort of meta-memoir. "Ways to Go Home" begins with spare innocence in a story of a young boy growing up in a suburb of Santiago.
Apart from an earthquake in 1985, the boy's childhood seems ordinary, full of minor events that sound familiar to anyone who grew up during the time, such as trying to repair an accidentally damaged mixtape or harboring a confused crush on a mysterious older girl new to the neighborhood, Claudia. The brutality of the Pinochet regime is referenced but with only glancing, child-like acknowledgment of politics. "To me, a Communist was someone who read the newspaper and silently bore the mockery of others," the boy admits.
The 9-year-old is a player in a drama he doesn't understand — a "secondary character," as Zambra calls him in the title of the opening section. He doesn't know exactly why Claudia moves away as abruptly as she appeared or why she asks him to spy on Raul, a mysterious neighbor, in her absence.
Part 2 of the book jumps 20 years into the future, where a new narrator (ostensibly Zambra, though we can't be quite sure) struggles to fashion the story of the boy and Claudia into a novel while wrestling with a crumbling marriage.
As he poetically lingers on his gestating story, the shadow of the Pinochet era moves closer to the foreground. After a conversation with his estranged wife (who is introduced as an inspiration for Claudia's character), the narrator closes in on a childhood that shielded him from his country's history of terror and disappearances for those who opposed its regime.
"The novel belongs to our parents," he writes. "While our country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk … while the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing."
That contrast between the worlds of parent and child continues as the book returns to the boy and Claudia, who are reunited as adults. After the mystery surrounding Claudia's departure is revealed as a byproduct of a splintered family under Pinochet's regime, the two begin a romance that's as much fueled by a memory just as it seems destined to collapse under the weight of it.
One is recovering from a childhood shattered by oppression while the other's past remained superficially intact by remaining apolitical. Eventually the young man — still struggling to understand his own story — confronts his parents about their complicity and, tellingly, an earlier exchange Zambra used between the writer and his mother is repeated, a moment that functions as something of a reveal as the book's tangled divide between fiction and nonfiction disappears.
Full of deceptively simple passages that examine the act of writing, the book and its memoir-adjacent construction resemble elliptical works such as Nick Flynn's "Another . . . Night in Suck City" and a recent, similarly self-reflective novel by the poet Ben Lerner, "Leaving the Atocha Station."
"To read is to cover one's face," Zambra's narrator observes, watching a woman in the park while he struggles to keep writing the novel in our hands. "To write is to show it."
Funny, contemplative and quietly moving, "Ways of Going Home" pulls off the intoxicating trick of making the world feel smaller in its familiar touchstones found in a time of unique tragedy. The book's hazy, nesting doll structure of parallel narratives can be difficult to pin down, but it becomes its most bewitching trait as the border between fact and fiction isn't just difficult to see, it ultimately doesn't exist.
"Although we might want to tell other people's stories," Zambra writes in another pointed passage, "we always wind up telling our own."