Alejandro Zambra’s “The Private Lives of Trees”

Reviewed by Jessica Loudis

Image of Alejandro Zambra’s “The Private Lives of Trees”

“He has just finished a very short book; nevertheless, it took several years to write. At first he gathered materials: he accumulated almost three hundred pages; but he gradually reversed course, throwing more and more away, as if instead of adding stories he wanted to subtract or erase them. The result was paltry:  an emaciated sheaf of forty-seven pages that he insists on calling a novel.”                                                                  

The Private Lives of Trees

In his first work of fiction, Alejandro Zambra introduced himself to readers with a slim novella that wears its architecture on its surface, a love story that begins by announcing its ending, and ends right back at the beginning. Bonsai opens on Emilia and Julio, a pair of college students who meet, read Proust and follar, until on page 35, their stories diverge. Per the first paragraph, Emilia dies and Julio does not, spending his days transcribing a failed novel called “Bonsai.” At 83 pages with ample margins, Bonsai is more of a prose poem than a novella, and were it not for Zambra’s habit of revealing his literary designs, it might be mistaken for one, too.

“A bonsai is an artistic replica of a tree, in miniature,” Julio learns in a manual on plant care. "It consists of two elements: the living tree and the container.” The bonsai makes its first appearance as a metaphor for love, but fittingly, it grows beyond its confines. Appearing in both of his novels, the bonsai mimics the duality of Zambra’s literary approach. It connotes love and the fictions that maintain it, the novel itself, and the act of writing. Both efforts are bound by a leap of faith, and the bonsai—in all its forms—marks this motion. “Once outside its flowerpot, a tree ceases to be a bonsai,” Julio’s manual says, and the novel’s self-consciousness sustains this balance. By calling attention to fiction—and reminding readers that his characters are just that—Zambra powerfully evokes the tension between reality and literature.

As a poet, critic, and novelist, Zambra is a young and rising star in his native Chile. Prior to Bonsai, he published two books of poetry, taught literature at a private Santiago university, and worked as a critic at a handful of newspapers. Following the novella’s 2006 release, his reputation surpassed Chile’s borders. Zambra was awarded a national Critics’ Prize for Bonsai, and ranked among the “Bogota 39”—one of the top 39 Latin American authors under that age.

In 2007’s The Private Lives of Trees, Zambra returns to the intersection of art, life and the botanical with the story of Julián, a literature professor who distracts his young stepdaughter as he worries that his wife may never come home. “Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with ‘The Private Lives of Trees,’ an ongoing story that he’s made up to tell her at bedtime,” the book begins, setting the 98-page novella over the course of an evening. The plot is a riff on the Arabian Nights, but rather than spare Julián from his agony, words accentuate it. When Daniela falls asleep, Julián tells himself his own story, merging memory and speculation in the style of a fever dream.

Between stories about trees and recollections of lovers, Julián imagines the worst for his wife. “It’s 4:00 in the morning, and Julián reconsiders a possibility that earlier he had thoroughly rejected: Veronica is not held up on a distant avenue, but rather in the house of a man who this time has convinced her not to go home.” He vacillates between anger, loss, and negotiation. “’If we get out of this,’ thinks Julián, ’we’ll save some money and go on vacation to Valdivia or Puerto Montt, or maybe its better not to hope too much: if we get out of this we will go, on Saturday, finally, to see the snow.” While Bonsai’s narrator has the smugness of omniscience, Julián does not, and the cruelty of time lies in unforeseeable futures. Eventually, urgency gives way to dreaming, and Julián becomes a secondary character in his own story.

Private Lives is more personal than Bonsai, but it lacks its predecessor’s intimacy. If Bonsai is about how the shared deceptions of love are created and broken (“the first lie Julio told Emilia was that he had read Marcel Proust") then Private Lives deals with the necessary fictions we create for ourselves. Sadly, Zambra doesn’t execute this as well as he could, and his attempts to build an interior world seem a shade too expository. Julián never becomes more than a stranger, and for a master literary architect, Zambra’s ending feels forced.

In a review in La Vanguardia, critic J.A. Masoliver Rodenas observed that “Zambra doesn’t make metaliterature . . . but simply reproduces the textuality of life.” Coming from a tradition of loud experimentation, Zambra’s quietude is all the more striking. In Bonsai and Private Lives the fourth wall between reader and narrator is absent, and a space is left open for those who reside within books. For his characters—and I suspect many of his readers—textuality is life, and the craft of his writing is to celebrate and lament it.

Zambra once wrote that the great secret theme of Chilean literature is the abyss between the spoken and written. In Chile, he says, writing is viewed suspiciously, and “there are many words that we say but don’t write and without a doubt many phrases that we write but don’t say.” Zambra’s work lives in this interstitial space of language, and he grapples with the silence between them, attacking the perception of literature as tomb. “If you wrote a book,” one of his character says after hearing an unpleasant anecdote, “you wouldn’t have to tell me the story you just told me.” If Zambra continues to produce writing as canny as he has, the abyss will diminish, fiction could cease to be a place to hide.