Collateral Melancholy

Jules Law

Two children meet by chance on the night of a historic Santiago earthquake, develop a brief, tentative friendship around a secret task that neither of them understands too well, and then, years later, meet up as adults, both attracted and estranged by the silences and intersecting threads that had earlier entangled them. Alejandro Zambra’s third novel is a quiet and disquieting story about a generation of Chilean children who grew up during the Pinochet regime and reached adulthood in its aftermath. These are the children too belated to have lived through the upheavals that produced the junta: children living their parents’ political passions, fears, and commitments (or lack of commitments) at second hand.

It’s difficult to read this beautiful, painful, and elegantly constructed little book without brooding on the tragic political history of Chile in the late 20th century. Readers may of course know some of that history from seeing Costa-Gavras’s Missing, or reading Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits or Roberto Bolaño’s brilliant and chilling Distant Star. Ironically, however, Zambra has anticipated and complicated the vicarious emotions involved in recalling or recognizing the story of those years. And it is precisely his reflection on the complexity and instability of nostalgia for political tragedy that makes Zambra’s latest novel so compelling and absorbing. Ways of Going Home allows us to reflect on the melancholy of attenuation, on the uncanny experiencing of political passions at a remove, rather than on the tragedy of lives directly damaged or dramatically intensified by political struggle. In this lies its originality and urgency.

The novel is composed of two intricately interlaced first-person narratives. In the first, a nine-year-old boy befriends a girl whose family relationships are clouded by revolutionary politics. In the second, implicitly written from the perspective of the young boy now grown up, the narrator recounts his struggles to write a novel about his childhood. At times it is difficult to disentangle these two narratives. When the childhood narrative is brought up to the present, small details don’t comport with what we know about the narrator: a character’s name or the location of a house is changed; a conversation with the narrator’s mother is repeated almost verbatim, but with subtly important changes.

Unlike in Zambra’s previous work, the patterns of self-revision and repetition no longer feel like a game or exercise.

Zambra’s two earlier, even shorter novels, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees, were dominated by a deliberately detached meta-narratorial voice, the voice of the anonymous investigator or bureaucrat: “Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia.” But the voice in this latest novel is much more intense and personal, even if the existentialist ambivalence remains. The little gestures of self-conscious narrative fine-tuning are now in the service of emotional depth: “My mother doesn’t agree with what my father has said. Really, she more or less agrees, but she wants to do something to keep from spoiling the evening.” Unlike in Zambra’s previous work, the patterns of self-revision and repetition no longer feel like a game or exercise. One wants to know—but can only guess at—the pressures that bring about these tiny cracks in the narrative’s surface: desire? denial? uncertainty?

Further vexing the relationship between the two interlaced narratives is a pair of opposing mandates. On the one hand, the adult narrator—who seems to bear rough biographical similarity to Zambra, a 38-year-old Chilean poet and professor—holds it as an article of faith that good writing must proceed from personal experience. When his sister complains that her very existence has been excised from the clearly autobiographical novel he is writing, he protests—as if it were a matter of moral responsibility—that he doesn’t have a right to represent her. Later he goes so far as to scold his mother for her interest in the novels of another young Chilean novelist, Carla Guelfenbein, whose family was part of the Chilean cultural, political, and intellectual vanguard: “How can you identify with characters from another social class, with conflicts that aren’t, that could never be, conflicts in your life?” he demands. And yet at the same time he is plagued by the suspicion that any story about the dictatorship years (including both the explicit violence of the 1970s and the more muted self-repressions of the 1980s) can belong properly only to his parents, to the generation that lived through them as adults. He is haunted by the necessary and impossible task of seeing himself as a “secondary character.” He envies his friend Carla for being a secondary character in a tragedy; he fears that he is a secondary character in a story far less consequential or admirable.

Somewhere in all this the narrator is searching for an authentic sentiment, a past to which he can anchor his autobiographical novel.

In perhaps the most disturbing passage of this novel, the narrator and his childhood friend Claudia walk by Chile’s National Stadium, the infamous center of detention, torture, and in some cases execution for tens of thousands of political prisoners during the 1973 military coup. The year is now 2009. As children during the 1980s, both strollers recall, they were blissfully unaware of the stadium’s recent nightmarish past: the narrator’s memories of it are “happy, sportive ones. I’m sure that I ate my first ice cream in the stadium’s stands”; his companion recalls having dragged her parents to the stadium to see the performance of a visiting Mexican comedian. Now they are struck by the surreal displacements of such a childhood. Claudia now knows that for her leftist parents “that day had been torture,” that it had been grotesque to “see the stadium filled with laughing people.” In the intervening years she has tried to compel her parents to speak of that time: “I sat down and talked to my parents for hours, asked them for details, I made them remember, and I repeated those memories as if they were my own,” she tells the narrator; who observes: “In some terrible, secret way she was seeking her place in their story.”

The narrator’s own sense of unease is less precise. His parents eschewed involvement during the political convulsions of the 1970s and 1980s, and he himself has grown up in a nameless, anonymous suburb. He’s tried to reproach them with their apathy, but he feels that his indignation rings hollow, that he’s playing a melodramatic oedipal role. Somewhere in all this he’s searching for an authentic sentiment, a past to which he can anchor his autobiographical novel.

Zambra is painfully rigorous, even obsessive, in his attention to the perils of bad faith—in politics, in writing, and in personal relationships. But all this is accomplished with a spare elegance of prose and a subtly morbid sense of both humor and humility. The book’s deepest premise—that there are multiple ways and kinds of returning “home”—makes this a profound and moving meditation on politics, on writing, and on the ethics of personal intimacy. Beautifully translated by Megan McDowell, this compact volume is an important and compelling statement about hope, delusion, and the many paths struck between the two.