Considering its turbulent modern history, there is surprising little literary work by contemporary Chilean authors, certainly not much that has made it into English translation.
Alejandro Zambra is probably the best known of the new wave of young Chilean writers. His first book, Bonsai, about a young man whose love disappears, won Chile’s Literary Critics Award for best novel and won international critical acclaim. The follow-up, The Private Life of Trees, about a man telling stories to his young daughter while nervously awaiting the return of his wife, saw him selected for Granta’s 2010 list of the Best of Young Spanish-language novelists..
His latest book, Ways of Going Home, was much anticipated. It’s a slim volume that focuses on life in Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. There are two narrators, both authors, one the literary creation of the other. Neither considers themselves the victims of the regime, nor owners of the story, rather “secondary citizens.”
The “real’’ character is using the book he is writing to win the approval of his lover Eme. He wants her to read the manuscript to validate his work and to hopefully keep her interest as a lover. But she is first coolly complimentary, then critical: ‘You told my story … and I ought to thank you, but no, I think I’d prefer it if no one told that story.” His protests are hollow, even to him.
The fictional character writes of his experiences as a young boy, never named, in a middle-class suburb of Santiago. He is enticed by Claudia, a girl on whom he has a crush, to spy on her uncle who is living alone in the neighbourhood. To him it is a game and he remains largely oblivious to the dangerous real-world in which he is operating. It is a world viewed through the eyes of a child one-removed from the shadow of fear that hung over the population: “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…” ,
Later, struggling with the conflicting emotions of his childhood, he tracks down Claudia and the two become lovers. But even as an adult, the balance of influence, remains unequal.
The Way Home is ultimately about the power and the rights of the individual. Zambra’s minutely-observed every day worlds make it an absolute delight, frequently disarmingly under-stated in its intensity. And, with an increasing number of novelists “borrowing”, sometimes quite extensively, from the real voices of others, it raises some important issues about whether there ownership of individual experience.