PEN Atlas editor Tasja Dorkofikis talks to Alejandro Zambra about his new novel, the responsibility of memory and the nation of Chile being in a period of convalescence
Translated from the Spanish by William Rowlandson.
Ways of Going Home presents your parents’ generation as either victims or accomplices of the Pinochet regime. It was hard to remain neutral. Is trying to establish what happened during those dark years essential to moving on?
It is essential, necessary and also inevitable, and Chilean society has understood it as such. Those of us who were children during those years were able to take shelter in the idea that we were not really there, that we knew nothing; and in one sense it actually was like that. But there were certain things, certain movements, certain ideas that we did understand and that we were able to intuit. I feel that it is extremely important to recover that world which we half inhabited. We could never have known whether our parents were the way they were because that is how adults are, or whether they were actually scared.
Your generation lives with the spectre of the past, yet, as you say in the novel, they were only secondary characters. ‘We grew up believing that the novel belonged to our parents. We cursed them, and also took refuge in their shadows, relieved. While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner.’ That must be a heavy burden to live with. Is that how you see it?
I see it like a responsibility or a burden that one can never relinquish, and I suppose one has to learn to live with it. You see, it is not only about personal stories; it is about a first-person plural ‘we’, a community of voices who only begin to define themselves late in life, with a sense of collective shyness, but also with determination and drive. Our adolescence coincided with the so-called return to democracy, and yet the grave error of those years – the early 1990s – was, precisely, believing that it was a democracy, when all the while Pinochet was still very much in power. We had no idea what a democracy looked like; we had been born in a dictatorship and for that reason we accepted the limited freedom – that pastiche of freedom – as if it were some wonderful prize. Democracy only really began to return when Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998.
‘We reach the National Stadium. The largest detention centre in 1973 was always, for me, no more than a soccer field.’ Your characters remember the past in a different way. Is trying to establish the real version of the past possible at all?
Well I don’t believe that the process has ended, nor that it can end. I suppose that, in many different ways, the whole of Chilean society has been looking for those truths, those realities, and sharing them. I think that many happy memories later become bitter through the mediation of other memories. The child who used to go to the National Stadium and eat ice cream and watch football matches later learns of the horrible things that happened there and only then do his happy memories darken. Individual happiness becomes absurd, empty, irrelevant, against the injustice, violence and brutality of the dictatorship. I would say that understanding the past – I mean for those who were not victims – in some sense is about getting ever closer to the real victims.
‘Instead of howling, I write books.’ You started your novel with that quote from Romain Gary. Is that how you see the role of a writer in Chile today?
Not necessarily. I mean, it works for me, but I would not project it upon the role of writer in Chile. I can identify myself with that sentence of Gary most of all because as a child and during the dictatorship I would spend much time thinking, and very often what I was thinking and what I was feeling had no form, it seemed to me incommunicable, like a cry of despair, a howl, an unfathomable protestation of absolute bitterness. Eventually I found a way to communicate my thoughts and feelings of that time. I feel that writing a book is opening oneself up to deep inner scrutiny, to a long contemplation in a glass that is sometime a window and other times a mirror. When I came across that wonderful line of Romain Gary, I understood that I subscribed to it fully. It is a type of motto for me.
Do you believe that Chileans today need to face the past, admit to their role in the past? In what way can that be done?
Well yes, I think so. By questioning what is happening today, simply enough. The past has not passed: a significant proportion of today’s problems in Chile have their origins in the dictatorship, and we are still bound by the constitution of 1980, which was written by the military. Don’t ever stop looking at the past, because we need that contemplation of the past in order to understand what is happening in the present.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez in an interview here for the PEN Atlas said that he sees remembering as a moral act? Would you agree with him?
Absolutely. To remember with accuracy, with the sharpest precision possible. To remember is to explore. To remember is to know not only the names of the people who appear in the photograph, but the name of the person who took the photo, when they took it, and why. To try to know all that is necessary.
Your narrator is embarrassed about the fact that he lost nobody during the dictatorship, his family were indifferent or supportive of the regime. Is society nowadays divided along those lines?
Well it is an ambiguous sentiment: what the narrator wants is to understand the pain, and he comes to realise that he will never understand it properly because he never suffered it. Claudia is also aware that although she was a victim, many others suffered far more than her. I think that it is better to say that Chilean society today is divided between those who want to turn the page and forget the whole sorry business and those who want to remember, and who are seeking images to express the past, which in turn expresses the present.
Your narrator writes poetry as well. Do you believe that poetry might be closer than prose to reflecting the essence of images from the past?
To be honest I have no idea. When I think about those years I think above all in bare images, with no literary embellishments. I imagine photographs, documentary films. In addition to the documentary films of Patricio Guzmán, I would like to mention other documentaries that seem to me of crucial importance: “La ciudad de los fotógrafos” [“The city of photographers”] by Sebastián Moreno; “Actores secundarios” [“Secondary players”], by Jorge Leiva and Pachi “Bustos, “El edificio de los chilenos” [“The Chilean Building”], by Macarena Aguiló, among others.
There is a sense that your narrator handles his material very carefully, almost tentatively. Is that because you believe that recollection of the past is a fragile process?
Yes. I like the image of the convalescent, as Baudelaire said, he who is returning from an illness, returning, in some sense, from death. The whole of Chile is convalescing; it is awakening, recovering its senses. And the narrator tries to reflect that.
The final part of your book is entitled We Are All Right. Is that ultimately what describes your generation?
No. Perhaps some people think that, but they are a minority. The rest of us have been living a permanent state of crisis that perhaps only now is making us strong. Now that we are no longer children, now that we are not only not children but are parents ourselves, what makes us strong is precisely the consciousness of that crisis, that precariousness.
Alejandro Zambra is a poet, fiction writer, and literary critic. He currently teaches at the School of Literature at the Diego Portales University in Santiago. His first novel, Bonsái, was awarded the Chilean Critics Award for best novel of the year in 2006 and attracted much attention in Chile. Zambra featured in Hay Festival’s Bogotá39 and was selected as one of Granta’s best young Spanish-language novelists in 2010. The book is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
Tasja Dorkofikis is the editor of the PEN Atlas as well as a freelance editor and publicist. She used to work as Publicity Director at Random House and most recently at Portobello Books as Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor. Tasja shares her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.
You can read more about Alejandro’s new book on Granta’s website.