Monday, May 24, 2010

The Elegance of the Bonsai

The Private Lives of Trees
By Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
98 pages
Open Letter Press
July 20, 2010

When someone doesn't come home in a novel, Julián thinks, it's because something bad has happened. But this is not, fortunately, a novel: in just a few minutes Verónica will arrive with a real story, with a reasonable excuse that justifies her lateness, and then we will talk about her drawing class, about the little girl, about my book, the fish, the need to buy a cell phone, a piece of casserole that's left in the oven, about the future, and maybe a little, also, about the past.

Alejandro Zambra, born in 1975, has been acclaimed by his fellow Chileans as one of the greatest writers of his generation. He is also a poet, critic, and professor of literature at Diego Portales University in Santiago. The Private Lives of Trees (La vida privada de los árboles) is his second novel, following the widely celebrated Bonsái.

Julián is a university professor who dreams of becoming a writer. After several years' labor his novel of a man tending his bonsai has been pared and pruned from 300 pages to a mere 47, leaving him to wonder if what he has created is art or just a sheaf of paper. At present, however, Julián is giving his stepdaughter Daniela another installment of their improvised bedtime story about two trees in a park that are best friends. And his wife Verónica still hasn't come home from her art class. As Daniela sleeps, Julián will wait through the night, thinking about the history of his relationship with Verónica, the story of himself and ex-girlfriend Karla, and of Daniela's future without her mother.

Both of Alejandro Zambra's novels begin with the image of the bonsai, a tiny tree grown in a container and carefully cultivated to a certain shape and size. Says Zambra,
At one point, Chile was full of bonsais. I don’t know if I liked them, but they had rare beauty, this fragility. . . . At first, the only thing I had in mind was the image of someone who had a bonsai, took care of it, wanted it to have a certain form, and understood that it was a true work of art because it could die.
Human bonds are vulnerable as well, must be nourished over time, and always head towards an inevitable end - either the death of one or by simple dissipation. "The book goes on even if it's closed," Julián muses, but this book will only end with Verónica's return. Other stories will sprout from this one, of course: Daniela (Julián imagines) will go to college, maybe for psychology, and maybe she will have a boyfriend named Ernesto whom she will take to the bridge where she once stood with her stepfather. The elegance of the bonsai is that of living art which grows and flourishes only briefly.

The disappearance of Verónica also recalls the hundreds of disappearances that occurred during Chile's recent military regime. Julián remembers quiet evenings with his parents as curfew fell. He was the only one of his classmates "who came from a family with no dead, and this discovery filled him with a strange bitterness: his friends had grown up reading the books that their dead parents or siblings had left in the house." As such, The Private Lives of Trees can also be read as an elegy for Pinochet's victims and a portrayal of the initial effects of loss on the victims' families. The frailty of the bonsai and Julián's transformation of reality into a story - a form of detachment - acquire an even more poignant note.

Macedonio Fernández, a fellow South American author, tried to understand the existence of love and beauty in the face of death. His novel didn't want to begin, knowing full well that something that begins has to eventually end. Alejandro Zambra, by contrast, has written novel that doesn't want to end even though the present seems frozen in worried suspense. As the publisher's copy recommends, The Private Lives of Trees is best read in a single sitting so that reader's experience is analogous to that of Julián. We wait too, and move through the night with him, wondering what has happened to Verónica.

But what is with that ugly cover?!

The one thing even the best of recordings on the best of sound systems lacked—all that movement. The weave of the baton, the stroke of the bow, fingers blurring on glittering brass. A symphony was a life lived in exaltation and killed with triumph. Eternity made the best of music monotonous, the best of lives meaningless. The performance was made wondrous by the fact that it would end. - Eugene Woodbury

Review Copy


Emily said...

This sounds lovely - I really liked the quotes you pulled, & I dig the "novel of quiet introspection" genre. Will have to check it out! (Don't even mind the cover that much, but I'm going through a 1970s phase right now...)

E. L. Fay said...

I cannot see, for the life of me, how anything that came out of the 70s could possibly have been, at any point, considered attractive. This cover is totally retro and not in a good way.

Emily said...

Haha, I feel that way about the 80s! :-) Neon blazers with shoulder pads...*shudder*

parrish lantern said...

loved this book & thought your review did it justice, just about to start Distant Star, having loved 2666, Last Evenings on Earth, The Savage Detectives & Amulet.

E. L. Fay said...

Oooh, I didn't know about Distant Star. It sounds excellent! Can't wait for your review.

parrish lantern said...

Distant Star takes the story of Carlos Wieder from Nazi Lit & expands it into a book of 149 pages, following his tale, but with the usual Bolano sidetracks & lateral storytelling.

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