Ways of Going Homeby Alejandro Zambra, Megan McDowell (Translator)
A brilliant novel from "the herald of a new wave of Chilean fiction" (Marcela Valdes, The Nation)
Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home begins with an earthquake, seen through the eyes of an unnamed nine-year-old boy who lives in an undistinguished middle-class housing development in a suburb of Santiago, Chile. When the/i>/b>/b>/b>/i>
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A brilliant novel from "the herald of a new wave of Chilean fiction" (Marcela Valdes, The Nation)
Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home begins with an earthquake, seen through the eyes of an unnamed nine-year-old boy who lives in an undistinguished middle-class housing development in a suburb of Santiago, Chile. When the neighbors camp out overnight, the protagonist gets his first glimpse of Claudia, an older girl who asks him to spy on her uncle Raúl.
In the second section, the protagonist is the writer of the story begun in the first section. His father is a man of few words who claims to be apolitical but who quietly sympathizedto what degree, the author isn't surewith the Pinochet regime. His reflections on the progress of the novel and on his own lifewhich is strikingly similar to the life of his novel's protagonistexpose the raw suture of fiction and reality.
Ways of Going Home switches between author and character, past and present, reflecting with melancholy and rage on the history of a nation and on a generation born too latethe generation which, as the author-narrator puts it, learned to read and write while their parents became accomplices or victims. It is the most personal novel to date from Zambra, the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño.
“Even IKEA doesn't make so much of so little space as does this young Chilean novelist. His latest book revolves around a quartet of chapters, woven around one thread about a young boy growing up in the Pinochet years and another of the novelist writing his story. In many ways, the book recalls the miniature roominess Philip Roth achieved in his great novel, The Ghost Writer. The stories we tell imagine us as much as us them, Zambra reminds, with the power and intensity of a writer who grew up in the shadow of a terrible war.” John Freeman, The Boston Globe
“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.” Chris Barton, The Los Angeles Times
“[Zambra's novels] are written with startling talent. And Zambra's latest novel represents, I think, his deepest achievement . . . 'We go home,' Zambra writes, 'and it's as if we were returning from war, but from a war that isn't over.' This is the giant, poignant condition staged by the novel's playful doubleness--the way the best conjuring trick is the one where you're shown how it's done, which in no way contradicts your belief that what you've seen is magic.” Adam Thirlwell, The New York Times Book Review
“A fascinating reflection on historical complicity, translated with restrained elegance by Megan McDowell.” The Financial Times
“I read all of Alejandro Zambra's novels back-to-back because they were such good company. His books are like a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend, and afterward, I missed the charming and funny voice on the other end, with its strange and beautiful stories.” Nicole Krauss, author of Great House
“In Alejandro Zambra, the poet and novelist are organically fused. Nearly every line startles in one way or another, always propelling the story forward toward a complete emotional journey. Ways of Going Home is compact, intimate, but also sweeping--and Zambra is amazing!” Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name
“Alejandro Zambra is one of the writers of my generation whom I most admire. Never a wasted word. Never a false note. His is an utterly unique voice, one I go back to again and again.” Daniel Alarcón, author of Lost City Radio
“I envy Alejandro the obvious sophistication and exquisite beauty of the pages you are about to read, a work which is filled with the heartfelt vulnerability of testimony. I loved it and I read it with the great joy of anticipation that one has reading a writer one hopes to read more and more of in the future.” Edwidge Danticat, Granta
“Alejandro Zambra belongs to that rare species of writer who brings language back to life. The strength of Ways of Going Home, its potency, is in the way it unfolds language in order to place its readers at that almost ungraspable intersection between individual and collective history.” Valeria Luiselli, author of Faces in the Crowd
“Complex yet sophisticated, [Ways of Going Home] places Zambra at the spearhead of a new Chilean fiction and sets him alongside other Latin American writers such as Colombia's Juan Gabriel Vasquez, who weave some of the continent's most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.” Mina Holand, The Observer
“Ways of Going Home manages, in its sparse, moving, constantly smoking cool-eyed Chilean way, to add up to a stark and timely study of fiction, truth, memory, family, revolution, secrets, lies, sex, Pinochet and death . . . A wonderful book.” Stuart Hammond, Dazed & Confused
“Rising through the ranks of Latin American literature is Alejandro Zambra, a writer from Chile who has won over critics with his captivating work . . . Thought-provoking and inspiring, [Ways of Going Home] also echoes some of the author's own nostalgia of growing up during that turbulent time.” Abi Jackson, Manchester Evening News
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Read an Excerpt
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 who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
Dad watched quietly from the armchair. Sometimes I think he spent all his time just sitting there, thinking. But maybe he didn’t really think about anything. Maybe he just closed his eyes and received the present with calm or resignation. That night he spoke, though: “This is a good thing,” he told me. “You overcame adversity.” Mom looked at him suspiciously, but he went on stringing together a confused speech about adversity.
I lay back on the chair across from him and pretended to fall asleep. I heard them argue, always the same pattern. Mom would say five sentences and Dad would answer with a single word. Sometimes he would answer sharply: “No.” Sometimes he would say, practically shouting: “Liar.” Sometimes he would even say, like the police: “Negative.”
That night Mom carried me to bed and told me, perhaps knowing I was only pretending to sleep and was listening, curious and attentive: “Your father is right. Now we know you won’t get lost. That you know how to walk in the street alone. But you should concentrate more on the way. You should walk faster.”
I listened to her. From then on, I walked faster. In fact, a couple of years later, the first time I talked to Claudia, she asked me why I walked so fast. She had been following me for days, spying on me. We had met not long before, on March 3, 1985—the night of the earthquake—but we hadn’t talked then.
She was twelve and I was nine, so our friendship was impossible. But we were friends, or something like it. We talked a lot. Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.
The night of the earthquake I was scared but I also, in a way, enjoyed what was happening.
In the front yard of one of the houses, the adults put up two tents for the children to sleep in, and at first it was chaos because we all wanted to sleep in the one that looked like an igloo—those were still a novelty back then—but they gave that one to the girls. So we boys shut ourselves in to fight in silence, which was what we did when we were alone: hit each other furiously, happily. But then the redhead’s nose started bleeding, so we had to find another game.
Someone thought of making wills, and at first it seemed like a good idea; after a while, though, we decided it didn’t make sense, because if a bigger earthquake came and ended the world, there wouldn’t be anyone to leave our things to. Then we imagined that the earth was like a dog shaking itself so people fell off like fleas into space, and we thought about that image so much it made us laugh, and it also made us sleepy.
But I didn’t want to sleep. I was tired like never before, but it was a new tiredness that burned my eyes. I decided to stay up all night and I tried to sneak into the igloo to keep talking to the girls, but the policeman’s daughter threw me out, saying I wanted to rape them. Back then I didn’t know what a rapist was but I still promised I didn’t want to rape them, I just wanted to look at them, and she laughed mockingly and replied that that was what rapists always said. I had to stay outside, listening to them pretend that their dolls were the only survivors; they mourned their owners, crying spectacularly when they realized they were dead, although one of them thought it was for the best, since the human race had always seemed repellent to her. Finally, they argued over who would be in charge. The discussion seemed long to me, but it was easily resolved, since there was only one original Barbie among the dolls: she won.
I found a beach chair among the rubble and shyly approached the adults’ bonfire. It was strange to see the neighbors all gathered together, maybe for the first time ever. They drowned their fear in cups of wine and long looks of complicity. Someone brought an old wooden table and threw it casually on the fire. “If you want, I’ll throw the guitar on, too,” said Dad, and everyone laughed, even me, though I was a little disconcerted because Dad didn’t usually tell jokes. That’s when our neighbor Raúl returned, and Magali and Claudia were with him. “These are my sister and my niece,” he said. After the earthquake he had gone to look for them, and now he was coming back, visibly relieved.
Raúl was the only person in the neighborhood who lived alone. It was hard for me to understand how someone could live alone. I thought that being alone was a kind of punishment or disease.
The morning he arrived with a mattress strapped to the roof of his old Fiat 500, I asked my mother when the rest of his family would come; she answered sweetly that not everyone had family. Then I thought we should help him, but after a while I caught on, surprised, that my parents weren’t interested in helping Raúl; they didn’t think it was necessary and they even felt a certain reluctance toward that young, thin man. We were neighbors, we shared a wall and a privet hedge, but there was an enormous distance separating us.
It was said around the neighborhood that Raúl was a Christian Democrat, and that struck me as interesting. It’s hard to explain now why a nine-year-old boy would be interested that someone was a Christian Democrat. Maybe I thought there was some connection between being a Christian Democrat and the sad circumstance of living alone. I had never seen Dad speak to Raúl, so I was surprised to see them sharing a few cigarettes that night. I thought they must be talking about solitude, that Dad was giving our neighbor advice about how to overcome solitude, though Dad must have known very little about the subject.
Magali, meanwhile, was holding Claudia tightly in a corner, away from the group. The two of them seemed uncomfortable. I remember thinking that they must have been uncomfortable because they were different from the rest of the people gathered there. Politely, but perhaps with a trace of malice, one neighbor asked Magali what she did for a living; Magali answered immediately, as if she’d been expecting the question, that she was an English teacher.
It was very late and I was sent to bed. I had to reluctantly make space for myself in the tent. I was afraid I might fall asleep, but I distracted myself by listening to those stray voices in the night. I understood that Raúl had taken his relatives home, because people started to talk about them. Someone said the girl was strange. She hadn’t seemed strange to me. She had seemed beautiful. “And the woman,” said my mother, “didn’t have an English teacher’s face.”
“She had the face of a housewife, nothing more,” added another neighbor, and they drew out the joke for a while.
I thought about an English teacher’s face, about what an English teacher’s face should be like. I thought about my mother, my father. I thought: What kinds of faces do my parents have? But our parents never really have faces. We never learn to truly look at them.
I thought we would spend weeks or even months outside, waiting for some far-off truck to bring supplies and blankets. I even imagined myself talking on TV, thanking my fellow Chileans for their help, the way I’d seen people do during the rainstorms. I thought about the terrible floods of other years, when we couldn’t go out and we were practically obligated to sit in front of the screen and watch the people who had lost everything.
But it wasn’t like that. Calm returned almost immediately. The worst always happened to other people. In that lost corner west of Santiago the earthquake had been no more than an enormous scare. A few shacks fell down, but there was no great damage and no one died. The TV showed the San Antonio port destroyed, as well as some streets I had seen or thought I had seen on rare trips to downtown Santiago. I confusedly intuited that the true suffering happened there.
If there was anything to learn, we didn’t learn it. Now I think it’s a good thing to lose confidence in the solidity of the ground, I think it’s necessary to know that from one moment to the next everything can come tumbling down. But at the time we went back, just like that, to life as usual.
Once we were back in the house, Dad confirmed that the damage was slight: just some plaster fallen from the walls and a cracked window. Mom mourned only the loss of the zodiac glasses. Eight of them broke, including hers (Pisces), Dad’s (Leo), and the one Grandma used when she came to see us (Scorpio).
“No problem, we have other glasses, we don’t need any more,” said Dad, and she answered without looking at him, looking at me: “Only yours survived.” Then she went to get the glass with the Libra sign, and gave it to me with a solemn gesture. She spent the following days a little depressed, contemplating giving the remaining glasses to Geminis, Virgos, Aquarians.
The good news was that we wouldn’t go back to school right away. The old building had suffered significant damage, and those who had seen it said it was a pile of rubble. It was hard for me to imagine the school destroyed, though it wasn’t sadness that I felt. I just felt curious. I especially remembered the bare spot at the edge of the playground where we went at recess, and the wall the middle school kids would scribble on. I thought about all those messages smashed to smithereens, scattered in the ash on the ground—bawdy sayings, phrases for or against Colo-Colo, or for or against Pinochet. One phrase I found especially funny: Pinochet sucks dick.
Back then I was, as I always have been, and I always will be, for Colo-Colo. As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched without saying a word, without acceding any movement other than a more forceful drag on the cigarette he always had glued to his lips.
Around then, the redhead’s father took a trip to Miami, and he returned with a baseball glove and bat for his son. The gift brought about an unexpected break in our routine. For many days we switched from soccer to that slow and slightly stupid game which nevertheless entranced my friends. It was absurd: ours must have been the only neighborhood in the country where the kids played baseball instead of soccer. It was hard for me to hit the ball or throw it straight and I was quickly sent to the bench. The redhead, who had been one of my best friends, suddenly became popular. Now he preferred the company of the older kids who were attracted by the foreign game and had joined our group. And that’s how, because of baseball, I was left friendless.
In the afternoons, resigned to solitude, I would leave the house, as they say, to tire myself out: I walked in wider and wider circuits, though I almost always respected a certain geometry of circles. I exhausted all possible routes, all the blocks, took in new landscapes, though the world didn’t vary too much: the same new houses, built quickly, as if obeying some urgency, but nevertheless solid and resilient. In a few weeks most of the walls had been restored and reinforced. It was hard to tell there had just been an earthquake.
Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed. We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home. Weren’t the streets of Maipú dangerous then? At night they were, and during the day as well, but the adults played, arrogantly or innocently—or with a mixture of arrogance and innocence—at ignoring the danger. They played at thinking that discontent was a thing of the poor and power the domain of the rich, and in those streets no one was poor or rich, at least not yet.
One of those afternoons I saw Raúl’s niece again, but I didn’t know if I should say hello. I saw her again several times in the following days. I didn’t realize that she was actually following me.
“I just like to walk fast,” I answered when she finally spoke to me, and then came a long silence that she broke by asking me if I was lost. I answered that no, I knew perfectly well how to get home. “It was a joke, I want to talk to you, let’s meet next Monday at five in the supermarket bakery.” She said it like that, in one sentence, and left.
The next day my parents woke me up early because we were going to spend the weekend at Lo Ovalle Reservoir. Mom didn’t want to go and she dragged out the preparations, confident that lunchtime would come and the plan would have to change. Dad decided, however, that we would have lunch at a restaurant, and we left right away. Back then, it was a real luxury to eat out. I sat in the backseat of the Peugeot thinking about what I would order, and in the end I asked for a steak a lo pobre. Dad warned me that it was a big dish and I wouldn’t be able to eat it all, but on those rare outings I was free to order whatever I wanted.
Suddenly, that heavy atmosphere prevailed in which the only possible topic of conversation is the lateness of the food. Our order took so long that finally Dad decided we would leave as soon as the food came. I protested, or I wanted to protest, or now I think I should have protested. “If we’re going to leave, let’s go now,” said Mom resignedly, but Dad explained that this way the restaurant owners would lose the food, that it was an act of justice, of revenge.
We continued our journey ill-humored and hungry. I didn’t really like going to the reservoir. They wouldn’t let me wander very far by myself and I got bored, though I tried to have fun swimming for a while, fleeing from the rats that lived among the rocks, looking at the worms eating the sawdust and the fish dying on land. Dad settled in to fish all day, and Mom spent the day watching him, and I watched Dad fish and Mom watch him and it was hard for me to understand how that was, for them, fun.
Sunday morning I faked a cold because I wanted to sleep a little longer. They went off to the rocks after giving me endless superfluous instructions. A little while later, I got up and turned on the tape player so I could listen to Raphael while I made breakfast. It was a cassette of all his best songs that my mother had recorded from the radio. Unfortunately, my finger slipped and I pressed “REC” for a few seconds. I ruined the tape right in the chorus of the song “Que sabe nadie.”
I was desperate. After thinking a bit, I decided the only solution was to sing over the chorus, and I started practicing the lyric, disguising my voice in a way that seemed convincing to me. Finally I decided to record. I listened to the results several times, thinking, somewhat self-indulgently, that it was good enough. I was a little worried, though, about the lack of music during those seconds.
My father would yell at me, but he didn’t hit. He never hit me, it wasn’t his style; he preferred the grandiloquence of phrases that were impressive at first, because he said them seriously, like an actor in the final episode of a soap opera: “You’ve disappointed me as a son, I can never forgive you for what you’ve done, your behavior is unacceptable,” et cetera.
Nonetheless I harbored a delusion that someday he would beat me almost to death. I have a persistent childhood memory of an imminent beating that never came. Because of that fear, the return trip was excruciating. As soon as we set off for Santiago, I declared I was tired of Raphael, and that we should listen to Adamo or José Luis Rodríguez.
“I thought you liked Raphael,” said Mom.
“Adamo’s lyrics are better,” I said, but then it was out of my hands—I accidentally opened up a long discussion about whether Adamo was better than Raphael. Even Julio Iglesias was mentioned, which in any case was absurd, since no one in our family liked Julio Iglesias.
To demonstrate Raphael’s vocal quality, my father decided to put in the tape, and when “Que sabe nadie” came on I had to improvise a desperate plan B. This consisted of singing very loudly right from the start of the song; I figured that when the chorus came my voice would just sound louder. They yelled at me for singing so loud, but they didn’t notice the adulteration in the tape. Once we were home, however, as I was digging a small hole next to the rose garden to bury the tape, they found me. There was nothing I could do but tell them the whole story. They laughed a lot and listened to the tape several times.
That night, though, they came to my room to tell me I was grounded for a week, and couldn’t leave the house.
“Why are you grounding me after you laughed so much?” I asked, angry.
“Because you lied,” said my father.
So I couldn’t keep my date with Claudia, but in the end it was better, because when I told her that story she laughed so much I could look at her without anxiety, forgetting, to some extent, the strange bond that was beginning to connect us.
It’s hard for me to remember the circumstances in which we saw each other again. According to Claudia, she was the one who sought me out, but I also remember wandering long hours hoping to run into her. However it happened, suddenly we were walking next to each other again, and she asked me to go with her to her house. We took several turns and she even stopped in the middle of a passage and told me we had to turn around, as if she didn’t know where she lived.
We arrived, finally, at a neighborhood with only two streets: Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A lot of the streets in Maipú had, and still have, those absurd names: my cousins, for example, lived on First Symphony Way, near Second and Third Symphony, perpendicular to Concert Street, and close to the passages Opus One, Opus Two, Opus Three, et cetera. Or the very street where I lived, Aladdin, between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria; obviously, toward the end of the seventies some people had a lot of fun choosing names for the streets where the new families would later live—the families without history, who were willing or perhaps resigned to live in that fantasy world.
“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” said Claudia on the afternoon of our reencounter, looking seriously into my eyes.
“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” she said again, as if she needed to start the sentence over in order to go on: “Lucila Godoy Alcayaga is Gabriela Mistral’s real name,” she explained. “And Neftalí Reyes Basoalto is Pablo Neruda’s real name.” A long silence came over us, which I broke by saying the first thing that came into my head:
“Living here must be much better than living on Aladdin Street.”
As I slowly pronounced that stupid sentence, I could see her pimples, her pink-and-white face, her pointed shoulders, the place where her breasts should be but where for now there was nothing, and her hair, unstylish because it wasn’t short, wavy, and brown, but rather long, straight, and black.
We spent a while talking next to the fence, and then she invited me in. I wasn’t expecting that, because back then, no one expected that. Each house was a kind of miniature fortress, an impregnable bastion. I myself wasn’t allowed to invite friends over; my mother always said the house was too dirty. It wasn’t true, the house sparkled, but I thought that maybe there was some kind of dirt that I simply couldn’t see, and that when I grew up maybe I would see layers of dust where now I saw only waxed floors and shining wood.
Claudia’s house seemed fairly similar to my own: the same horrible raffia swans, two or three little Mexican hats, several minuscule clay pots and crochet dishcloths. The first thing I did was ask to use the bathroom, and I discovered, astonished, that the house had two bathrooms. Never before had I been in a house that had two bathrooms. My idea of wealth was exactly that: I imagined that millionaires must have houses with three bathrooms, or even five.
Claudia told me she wasn’t sure her mother would be happy to see me there, and I asked if it was because of the dust. She didn’t understand at first but she listened to my explanation, and then she chose to answer that yes, her mother didn’t like her to invite friends over because she thought the house was always dirty. I asked her then, without thinking about it too much, about her father.
“My father doesn’t live with us,” she said. “My parents are separated, he lives in another city.” I asked her if she missed him. “Of course I do. He’s my father.”
In my class there was only one boy with separated parents, which to me was a stigma, the saddest situation imaginable.
“Maybe they’ll live together again someday,” I said, to console her.
“Maybe,” she said. “But I don’t feel like talking about that. I want us to talk about something else.”
She took off her sandals, went to the kitchen, and came back with a bowl filled with bunches of black, green, and purple grapes; this struck me as odd, because in my house we never bought such a variety of grapes. I took advantage of the chance to try them all, and while I compared the flavors, Claudia filled the silence with general, polite questions. “I need to ask you something,” she said finally, “but not till after lunch.”
“If you want, I’ll help you fix the food,” I said, though I had never cooked in my life, or helped anyone else cook.
“We’re already having lunch,” said Claudia, very seriously. “These grapes are lunch.”
It was hard for her to get to the point. She seemed to speak freely, but there was also a stutter to her words that made it difficult to understand her. Really, she wanted to keep quiet. Now I think she was cursing the fact that she had to talk in order for me to understand what she wanted to ask me.
“I need you to take care of him,” she said suddenly, forgetting all her strategy.
“My uncle. I need you to take care of him.”
“Okay,” I answered immediately, so reliable, and in a split second I imagined that Raúl was suffering from some horrible disease, a disease maybe even worse than solitude, and that I would have to be some kind of nurse. I imagined myself walking around the neighborhood, pushing him in his wheelchair and blessed for my selflessness. But evidently that wasn’t what Claudia was asking me for. She spilled out the story all at once, looking at me fixedly, and I agreed quickly but at the wrong time—I agreed too quickly, as if confident that I would figure out later on what Claudia had really asked of me.
What I eventually understood was that Claudia and her mother couldn’t or shouldn’t visit Raúl, at least not often. That’s where I came in: I had to watch over Raúl; not take care of him but rather keep an eye on his activities and make notes about anything that seemed suspicious. We would meet every Thursday, at the random meeting point she had chosen, the supermarket bakery, where I would give her my report and then we would talk for a while about other things. “Because,” she told me, “I’m really interested in how you’re doing.” And I smiled with a satisfaction in which fear and desire also breathed.
I started spying on Raúl right away. The job was boring and easy, or maybe it was difficult, because I was searching blindly. From my conversations with Claudia I was vaguely expecting to see silent men with dark sunglasses traveling at midnight in foreign cars, but nothing like that went on at Raúl’s house. His routine hadn’t changed: he went out and came back at regular office hours, and he greeted people he met with a stiff and friendly nod that precluded all possibility of conversation. In any case, I didn’t want to talk to him. I was just waiting for him to do something unusual, something that was worth telling his niece.
I arrived on time or early to my meetings with Claudia, but she was always already there, in front of the pastry case. It was as if she spent the entire day looking at those pastries. She seemed worried about our being seen together, and every time we met she pretended it was coincidental. We walked around the supermarket, peering attentively at the products as if we really were out shopping; we left with nothing but a couple of yogurts that we opened at the end of a zigzagging route that began in the plaza and followed side streets to the Maipú Temple. Only when we sat down on the temple’s long steps did she feel safe. The faithful few who appeared at that hour passed by with lowered gazes, as if getting a head start on their prayers or confessions.
More than once I wanted to know why we had to hide, and Claudia would only say that we had to be careful, that everything could be ruined. Of course, I didn’t know what it was that could be ruined, but by that point I’d already gotten used to her vague answers.
However, on a whim one afternoon I told her that I knew the truth: I knew that Raúl’s problems had to do with the fact that he was a Christian Democrat, and she burst out in a long, excessive peal of laughter. She seemed to regret it immediately. She came over, put her hands ceremoniously on my shoulders, and I even thought she was going to kiss me; but that wasn’t it, of course.
“My uncle isn’t a Christian Democrat,” she told me in a calm and slow voice.
Then I asked her if he was a Communist and she fell into a heavy silence.
“I can’t tell you any more,” she answered finally. “It’s not important. You don’t need to know everything in order to do your job.” She decided, suddenly, to follow that train of thought, and she talked quickly and a lot: she said she would understand if I didn’t want to help her, and maybe it would be better for us to stop seeing each other. When I pleaded for our meetings to continue, she asked me to just concentrate on watching Raúl in the future.
To me, a Communist was someone who read the newspaper and silently bore the mockery of others—I thought of my grandfather, my father’s father, who was always reading the newspaper. Once I asked him if he read the whole thing, and the old man answered that yes, when it came to the newspaper you had to read it all.
I also had a memory of a violent scene, a conversation at my grandparents’ house during independence week. They and their five children were sitting around the main table and I was with my cousins at what they called the kids’ table, when my father said to my grandfather at the end of an argument, almost shouting: “Shut up, you old Communist!” At first everyone was quiet, but little by little they started laughing. Even my grandmother and my mother laughed, and even one of my cousins, who certainly didn’t understand the situation. They didn’t just laugh, they also repeated it, openly mocking: you old Communist.
I thought my grandfather would laugh too, that it was one of those liberating moments when everyone gives themselves over to laughter. But the old man stayed very serious, in silence. He didn’t say a word. They treated him badly and back then I wasn’t sure he deserved it.
Years later I learned he hadn’t been a good father. He wasted his life gambling away his laborer’s salary, and he lived off his wife, who sold vegetables and washed clothes and sewed. Growing up, it was my father’s duty to go around to the dive bars looking for him, asking for him, knowing that in the best of cases he would find him hugging the dregs of a bottle.
Classes started up again and they replaced our head teacher, Miss Carmen, which I was grateful for with all my heart. She had been our teacher for three years, and now I think she wasn’t a bad person, but she hated me. She hated me because of the word aguja, which for her didn’t exist. For her, the correct word was ahuja. I don’t know why one day I decided to take the dictionary up to her and show her she had it wrong. She looked at me in panic, swallowing saliva, and she nodded, but from then on she no longer liked me nor I her. We shouldn’t hate the person who teaches us, for better or for worse, to read. But I hated her, or rather I hated the fact that she hated me.
Mr. Morales, on the other hand, liked me from the start, and I trusted him enough to ask him one morning, while we were walking to the gym for P.E. class, if it was very bad to be a Communist.
“Why do you ask that?” he said. “Do you think I’m a Communist?”
“No,” I said. “I’m sure you’re not a Communist.”
“And are you a Communist?”
“I’m a kid,” I told him.
“But if your father was a Communist, you might be one, too.”
“I don’t think so, because my grandfather is a Communist and my father isn’t.”
“And what is your father?”
“My father isn’t anything,” I answered, with certainty.
“It’s not good for you to talk about these things,” he told me, after looking at me for a long time. “The only thing I can tell you is that we live at a time when it isn’t good to talk about these things. But one day we’ll be able to talk about this, and about everything else.”
“When the dictatorship ends,” I told him, as if completing a sentence on a reading test.
He looked at me, laughing, and affectionately patted my hair. “Let’s start with ten laps around the field,” he shouted, and I started trotting slowly as I thought confusedly about Raúl.
Since we had to make up the days we had lost to the earthquake, the school day was extremely long. I got home only half an hour before Raúl, which made my espionage dangerously useless. I decided I had to go deeper, I had to take decisive action, do my job better.
One night, I was walking along the top of the brick wall and I fell into the bushes. I fell hard. Raúl came out right away, very frightened. When he saw me he helped me up and told me I shouldn’t be doing that, but that he understood, it was his own fault. I tensed up, not knowing what he was talking about, but then he came back with a tennis ball. “If I’d known it was yours I would have thrown it over into the yard,” he said, and I thanked him.
A little later I heard, clearly, Raúl’s voice talking to another man. Their voices sounded close by, they had to be in the room contiguous to my bedroom. I’d never heard any sounds coming from that room before, although I was in the habit of putting my ear to a glass against the wall and listening. I couldn’t make out what they were talking about. I did notice that they talked very little. It was not a fluid conversation. It was the kind of conversation that happens between people who know each other well or very little. People who are used to living together, or who don’t know each other at all.
The next morning I got up at five thirty and patiently waited until I could find out if the man was still there. Raúl’s Fiat 500 left at the same time as always. I hung recklessly out the window and saw that he was alone. I faked a stomachache and my parents let me stay home. I listened silently for a couple of hours until I heard the pipes. The man had to be in the shower. I decided to take a risk. I got dressed, threw the ball at Raúl’s house, and rang the bell several times, but the man didn’t come out. I waited without ringing again. I saw him leave the house and walk down Odin, so I ran along Aladdin to circle the block and meet him head-on. I stopped him and told him I was lost, and asked if he could please help me get home again.
The man looked at me with barely concealed annoyance, but he went with me. When we arrived he didn’t mention that he had spent the night at Raúl’s house. I thanked him and then I had no other option: I asked him if he knew Raúl, and he answered that they were cousins, that he lived in Puerto Montt, and that he had stayed at Raúl’s house because he had an errand to run in Santiago.
“I’m Raúl’s neighbor,” I told him.
“See you later, Raúl’s neighbor,” said the man, and he set off quickly, almost running.
“It’s possible,” said Claudia, to my surprise, when I told her about the stranger. It was possible that Raúl had a cousin in Puerto Montt? Wouldn’t that cousin, then, be related to Claudia?
“We have a very big family,” said Claudia, “and there are a lot of uncles in the south I’ve never met.” She serenely changed the subject.
* * *
There were five other men at Raúl’s house in the following months, and each time Claudia seemed unaffected by the news. But she had a very different reaction when I told her that a woman had stayed there, and not for one night, as usual, but for two nights in a row.
“Maybe she came from the south, too,” I said.
“Could be,” she answered, but she was obviously surprised, even angry.
“She could be a girlfriend. Maybe Raúl isn’t alone anymore,” I said.
“Yes,” she answered, after a while. “Raúl is single, it’s entirely possible he could have a girlfriend. In any case, I want you to find out everything you can about that possible girlfriend.”
She seemed to be struggling not to cry. I looked at her closely until she stood up. “Let’s go inside the temple,” she said. She dipped her fingers into the bowl of holy water and used it to cool her face. We stayed on our feet next to some enormous candelabra with wax dripping from the candles—some new and others about to burn out—that people would bring when they prayed for miracles. Claudia put her hands over the flames as if to warm them; she dipped her fingertips in the wax, and played at making the sign of the cross with her wax-coated fingers. She didn’t know the sign of the cross. I taught her.
We sat in the first pew. I looked obediently at the altar, while Claudia looked to the sides and identified, one by one, the flags that flanked the statue of the virgin. She asked me if I knew why the flags were there. “They’re the flags of the Americas,” I said.
“Yes, but why are they here?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Something about the unity of the Americans, I guess.”
She took my hand and told me that the prettiest flag was Argentina’s. “Which one do you think is prettiest?” she asked me, and I was going to say the United States flag but luckily I kept quiet, because then she said the United States flag was the ugliest, a truly horrible flag, and I added that I agreed, the United States flag was really disgusting.
For weeks I waited fruitlessly for the woman to return. Then she appeared, finally, one Saturday morning. She was a girl, really. I figured she was around eighteen years old. She could hardly have been Raúl’s girlfriend.
I spent hours trying to hear what she and Raúl talked about, but they exchanged barely a few sentences that I couldn’t understand. I thought she would spend the night, but she left that same afternoon. I followed her, absurdly camouflaged by a red cap. The woman walked quickly toward a bus stop and when I got there, next to her, I wanted to say something but my voice wouldn’t come.
The bus pulled up and I had to decide, in a matter of seconds, whether I would follow her onto it. At that time I already rode the bus alone, but only on the short, ten-minute ride to school. I got on and rode for a long time, a bold hour-and-a-half foray I spent rooted to the seat right behind hers.
I had never traveled so far from home on my own, and the powerful impression the city left on me is, in some way, the one that still rears up now and then: a formless space, open but also closed, with imprecise plazas that are almost always empty, and people walking along narrow sidewalks, gazing at the ground with a kind of deaf fervor, as if they could only move forward along a forced anonymity.
Night fell over that forbidden neck as I looked at it ever more fixedly, as if staring would free me from that flight, as if watching her intensely would protect me. By that point the bus was starting to fill up and one woman looked at me, expecting me to give her my seat, but I couldn’t risk losing my place. I decided to act like I was mentally retarded, or the way I thought a mentally retarded boy would act—a boy who looked straight ahead, entranced and completely absorbed by an imaginary world.
Raúl’s supposed girlfriend got off the bus suddenly and almost left me behind. I barely made it to the door, elbowing my way out. She waited for me and helped me down. I kept moving like a retarded child, though she knew full well that I wasn’t a retarded child but rather Raúl’s neighbor who had followed her, who seemed resolved to follow her all night long. There was no reproach in her gaze, though—only an absolute serenity.
I ventured with pointless discretion into a maze of streets that seemed big and old. Every once in a while she would turn around, smile at me, and speed up, as if it were a game and not an extremely serious matter. Suddenly she started to trot and then took off running, just like that, and I almost lost her; then I saw her go into a shop far ahead. I climbed a tree and waited several minutes for her to finally come out, assuming I would be gone. Then she walked just half a block farther, to what had to be her house. I waited until she had gone in and I went closer. The fence was green and the facade was blue, and that caught my attention, because I had never seen that color combination before. I wrote the address in my notebook, happy to have gotten such exact information.
I had a hard time getting back to the street where I had to catch the return bus. But I remembered the name clearly: Tobalaba. I got home at one in the morning, and I was so frightened that I couldn’t even outline a convincing explanation. My parents had gone to the police, and the affair had leaked to the neighbors. I finally told them I had fallen asleep in a plaza and had only just woken up. They believed me, and later they even made me see a doctor who checked me for sleep disorders.
Emboldened by my discoveries, I arrived at our Thursday date firmly intending to tell Claudia everything I knew about Raúl’s supposed girlfriend.
But things didn’t turn out that way. Claudia arrived late to the meeting, and she wasn’t alone. With a friendly gesture she introduced me to Esteban, a guy with long blond hair. She told me I could trust him and that he knew the whole story. I tensed up, disconcerted, not daring to ask if he was her boyfriend or cousin or what. He must have been seventeen or eighteen years old: a little older than Claudia, a lot older than me.
Esteban bought three marraquetas and a quarter of a kilo of mortadella at the supermarket. We didn’t go to the temple. We stayed in the plaza to eat. The guy didn’t talk much, but that afternoon I spoke even less. I didn’t tell Claudia what I had discovered, maybe as a form of revenge, since I wasn’t prepared for what was happening; I couldn’t understand why someone else was allowed to know what I was doing with Claudia, why she was allowed to share our secret.
I acted like the child I was and missed our meetings after that. I thought that was what I should do: forget about Claudia. But after a few weeks I was surprised to get a letter from her. She summoned me urgently, asking me to come see her anytime; she said it didn’t matter if her mother was home or not.
It was almost nine at night. Magali opened the door and asked my name, but it was obvious she already knew it. Claudia greeted me effusively and told her mother that I was Raúl’s neighbor, and Magali made excessive gestures of delight. “You’ve grown so much,” she said, “I didn’t recognize you.” I’m sure they were performing a rehearsed introduction, and the questions the woman directed at me were entirely studied in advance. A bit bewildered by the situation, I asked if she was still an English teacher, and she answered with a smile that yes, it wasn’t easy to stop, overnight, being an English teacher.
I asked Claudia to tell me what had happened: How had things changed so much that now my presence was legitimate?
“It’s more like things are changing little by little,” she told me. “Very slowly, things are changing. You don’t need to spy on Raúl anymore, you can come and see me whenever you want, but you don’t have to make any reports,” she repeated, and all I could do was leave, brooding over a deep disquiet.
I went to Claudia’s one or two more times, but I ran into Esteban again. I never found out if he was her boyfriend or not, but in any case I detested him. And then I stopped going, and the days went by like a gust of wind. For some months or maybe a year I forgot all about Claudia. Until one morning I saw Raúl loading up a white truck with dozens of boxes.
Everything happened very quickly. I went up to him and asked where he was going, and he didn’t answer: he looked at me with a neutral and evasive gesture. I took off running to Claudia’s house. I wanted to warn her, and as I was running I discovered that I also wanted her to forgive me. But Claudia wasn’t there anymore.
“They left a few days ago,” said the woman next door. “I don’t know where they went, how should I know that?” she said. “To another neighborhood, I guess.”
Copyright © 2011 by Alejandro Zambra and Editorial Anagrama, S. A.
Translation copyright © 2013 by Megan McDowell
What People are Saying About This
“In Alejandro Zambra, the poet and novelist are organically fused. Nearly every line startles in one way or another, always propelling the story forward toward a complete emotional journey. Ways of Going Home is compact, intimate, but also sweeping—and Zambra is amazing!” —Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name
“Alejandro Zambra is one of the writers of my generation whom I most admire. Never a wasted word. Never a false note. His is an utterly unique voice, one I go back to again and again.” —Daniel Alarcón, author of Lost City Radio
“I envy Alejandro the obvious sophistication and exquisite beauty of the pages you are about to read, a work which is filled with the heartfelt vulnerability of testimony. I loved it and I read it with the great joy of anticipation that one has reading a writer one hopes to read more and more of in the future.” —Edwidge Danticat, Granta
“Alejandro Zambra belongs to that rare species of writer who brings language back to life. The strength of Ways of Going Home, its potency, is in the way it unfolds language in order to place its readers at that almost ungraspable intersection between individual and collective history.” —Valeria Luiselli, author of Faces in the Crowd
“Complex yet sophisticated, [Ways of Going Home] places Zambra at the spearhead of a new Chilean fiction and sets him alongside other Latin American writers such as Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vasquez, who weave some of the continent’s most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.” —Mina Holand, The Observer
“Ways of Going Home manages, in its sparse, moving, constantly smoking cool-eyed Chilean way, to add up to a stark and timely study of fiction, truth, memory, family, revolution, secrets, lies, sex, Pinochet and death . . . A wonderful book.” —Stuart Hammond, Dazed & Confused
“Rising through the ranks of Latin American literature is Alejandro Zambra, a writer from Chile who has won over critics with his captivating work . . . Thought-provoking and inspiring, [Ways of Going Home] also echoes some of the author’s own nostalgia of growing up during that turbulent time.” —Abi Jackson, Manchester Evening News
Meet the Author
Alejandro Zambra is a poet, novelist, and literary critic who was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1975. He is the author of two previous novels, The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsai, which was awarded a Chilean Critics Award for best novel. He was selected as one of Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was elected to the Bogotá-39 list. Megan McDowell is a literary translator living in Zurich, Switzerland. She also translated Alejandro Zambra's The Private Lives of Trees.
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