Publication of Alejandro Zambra’s first novel, Bonsai, was hailed by many as the end of an era in Chilean literature as well as the beginning of a new one. The debate that followed quickly shrank to become Alejandro Zambra v. Roberto Bolaño, the prolific Chilean writer who continues to publish work and win awards despite the fact that he’s been dead since 2003. Bolaño’s epic and infamously paginated novel, 2666, inflamed the curiosity and tested the ambition of the most dedicated readers—not to mention the impression 898 pages make on pretty much anyone who’s even just looked at a book. His expansive, interwoven tales explore the grimmest aspects of humanity with what can only be called “virtuosity.” (Arguably, he left little darkness for the next generation of Chilean writers.) Zambra’s Bonsai, in contrast, has been dismissed by some as a nice little book, and exalted by others for its distilled caprice. Zambra’s take on his own work is modest. He says, simply, he wrote the book in search of “new words” in light of the fall of Augusto Pinochet, the brutal dictator who ruled Chile from 1973-1990. Santiago’s recent and troubling history is but a shadow in the lives of Zambra’s characters, whose dark sides emerge from botched love affairs more so than mass murder and political intrigue. Zambra makes no claims of writing against, or even reading very much Bolaño. And while he admires his forebear’s work, he has little interest in debating the cavernous difference in their styles.
Zambra’s second novel, The Private Lives of Trees, was written not in response to the hype of Bonsai v. Bolaño, but as a response to his own first book alone. Given the literary terrain surrounding Zambra, it’s likely no coincidence that his second short novel (or novella, depending on whom you ask—both works are less than a hundred pages) portrays one man’s anxious evening at the slippery edge where the past meets the future. Dusk gives way to dawn and Julian’s wife hasn’t returned from her drawing class. The rest of his life, the rest of the book, the particular way Zambra meshes the two all hinge on this one fact.
The action in both of Zambra’s novels rises and falls on promise and the opposite of promise: the disappearance of illusions and assumptions—that of Zambra’s characters’ and his readers’ both. In Bonsai, Zambra squashes optimism in the first half of the first sentence: “In the end she dies and he remains alone…” From there, he builds the story of two young lovers, Julio and Emilia. “The rest is literature,” Zambra writes in a line begging the prescient use of the adjective “famously.” As Julio and Emilia fall in love—a love born out of a mutual passion for literature—Zambra’s opening line slips neatly under the surface of his narrative. “Knowledge of a thing can not impede it,” he tells us. Emilia’s death loses no poignancy for our expecting it and the novel loses no punch when Zambra turns our attention to his literary devices, the scaffolding that holds the book together.
In Trees, Zambra maxes out his own minimalism. He amps up his habit of breaching the fourth wall and continues to draw attention to the craft of writing with a skillful use of intertextuality. A sly joke at Paul Auster’s expense lends depth and dark humor to Julian’s suffering. “Bewildered by waiting,” he realizes Emily Dickenson is his “favorite crazy person.” Julian recites, repeats, and translates: “Our share of night to bear/Our share of morning,” a line easily taken as the point of departure for the book. Trees explores the same themes as Bonsai, the same truths, but in a condensed fashion. Its drama is immediate, a tight knot of an evening, a clenched fist. A poem. Trees makes no claims of expansiveness, resulting in a novel that often reads like Bonsai in bas-relief.
Unlike Julio and Emilia, melodramatic students who read Proust as an aphrodisiac, Julian and Verónica suffer no illusions about love. They’re less astonished by its arrival, more attuned to its quiet comforts. Julian is in his thirties, a professor and a frustrated writer with an ex he refers to only as “the book thief.” Verónica dropped out of art school when she became pregnant. She’s on her second marriage and has an eight-year-old daughter named Daniella. Both Bonsai and Trees link love affairs and writing, track the attendant failings and fakings, the fleeting joys of each. And both books’ characters rely on the teetering line where one thing turns into another: Hope to despair, day to night, love to one of its many opposites, and ultimately life to death. (Seems Bolaño didn’t lay claim to all the dark stuff after all.) In Bonsai, these lines are fluid. Zambra never allows his characters to stumble into a singular aspect of their being. They never fall flat. Even the tertiary characters are affecting and fully, if minimally, fleshed out. In Trees, however, these lines are there but never crossed. Julian and Verónica lack the complexity and nuance of Julio and Emilia. They do less; they speak less. They’re harder to envision. Bonsai’s fluid boundaries are hardened in Trees. They become containers rather than landmarks, and the characters suffer under a trio of literary bell jars. They’re inside, and the reader outside. Zambra’s scheme, however, is not without merit.
Trees begins with one of those perfect first sentences that distills the entire novel into a handful of words: “Julian lulls the little girl to sleep with ‘The Private Lives of Trees,’ an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime.” From the get-go, Julian is locked in the late night trance of a story—and not just any story, an ongoing story, doubly titled, an eternal story forever being told. As Julian lulls Daniella to sleep with stories of sentient, talking trees, Zambra lulls his readers into a fugue-like state. His casual prose mingles with an artful use of repetition that borders on incantation: “Verónica is someone who hasn’t arrived…Verónica is someone who is absent from the blue room…Verónica hasn’t come back…Verónica is missing from the blue room…Verónica hasn’t arrived…Verónica is a woman who hasn’t arrived…Verónica has not returned.” The effect isn’t whimsical or even magical, as it might be in the hands of another writer. When Zambra’s poetic tendencies peek out of the text, they serve to hammer down its logic rather than mystify its reason. Language and images, cameo appearances by minor characters with major clout (Daniella’s biological father, Julian’s former lover), each of these repeat and retreat in the text, skipping over the larger plot—Julian’s tortured evening—like stones over water. Absence and family, time and memory, love and its inherent responsibilities, even colors—Zambra mentions over and over that Julian and Verónica’s small apartment has a blue room, a red room, a green room; the books of Julian’s youth are beige, red, and brown—these simple details skim the surface until they are swallowed whole, disappearing into the surrounding story, one that swirls around a simple fact: Whenever Trees threatens to meander, to loose its center, Zambra is fast to remind us that his novel has just one problem. It’s getting late and Verónica is MIA. The rest might just be literature.
“When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue.” Zambra draws out Verónica’s absence—the heart of the novel—until it becomes a presence and a silence, colliding with Julian from all angles. As the night progresses, this absence persists. Julian is thankful he isn’t living in a novel, because in a novel, when someone doesn’t come home, it’s never good. He comforts himself by imagining Verónica delayed by a flat tire or some other boring, real-life excuse. “But this is not, fortunately, a novel,” Julian thinks, leaving us to wonder whether his situation is a terrible fiction he can’t control or, paradoxically, is his missing wife a reality, bound to the rules of probability and dull circumstance? Such moments send readers beyond the text, as though bearing witness to Zambra and Julian conspiring, debating and haggling over Julian’s fate. Zambra plays well the line between life and literature, teases each for their self-important tendencies. Emphasis on playing. When Zambra kicks down the fourth wall, when his characters reveal themselves to be just that—characters—he’s never heavy-handed or overly clever, never wacky or insincere. He’s not showing off and his literary prowess is endearing rather than alienating. Zambra doesn’t ask readers to suspend their disbelief, willingly or otherwise. You don’t read Zambra to lose yourself in literature; you read Zambra because you got lost in there a long time ago and you’re ready to take a look at the map.
Once Daniella is asleep, Julian grows increasingly anxious. He attempts to manage his anxiety by organizing his life, cataloging his memories into a narrative. Julian has been “consigned by fate to go over the good and bad of a past that is, frankly, blurry.” He recalls evenings growing up: Monopoly games with his family. His thirtieth birthday when Julian dryly decides his true calling is “to have dandruff.” (One of the few moments when we feel we really know Julian.) He recalls Verónica’s first wedding and Daniella’s performance at her second, when Julian entered into a life in which “chaos…seems to be resolved.” (And what else is a good novel but a resolution of chaos, even if that chaos is the novel’s own arrival.) As Julian passes the anxious hours, the futility of his task becomes evident. “The novel continues, if only to comply with the whim of an unfair decree: Verónica has not returned.”
Reading The Private Lives of Trees is akin to reading a panic attack—an ontology of panic itself, though a decidedly bourgeois panic, an entirely un-Bolaño panic. (There’s Xanax in the bathroom cabinet should things get too bad.) Still, the evening overtakes its characters. Verónica is gone, her history in fragments throughout the narrative. Daniella is asleep for most of the night—she reappears in a short section at the end of the novel, but only as the woman Julian imagines she might become. And Julian, whom we expect to carry the novel—he’s the writer after all, the storyteller—is so tethered to his anxiety that he never moves beyond it, fails to meet the obligations of a central character. He notices a SpongeBob clock in Daniella’s room reads 2:30 am and figures it’s the first time anyone has seen it at such a late hour. He watches Daniella’s fish swimming in their tank. He becomes “a man specially trained to keep fish from leaving aquariums.” These quirky details put some meat on Julian’s thinning frame, but they’re not enough to push him to his rightful place in the center of the book. Julian doesn’t quite work as an anxious man doing anxious things; his anxiety looms larger than the man suffering at its core. His desire is too obvious, too singular. It’s the mood that Zambra drapes over Julian, which washes over the text that has the greater desire. Julian is little more than its vessel.
Zambra’s distinctive prose distracts from an unsatisfying Julian and reveals the possibility of something else, a story that is not quite a poem and not quite a novel; a story bursting with “new words.” His sentences are roundabout and concise at the same time, the work of a practiced poet. And because of Zambra’s early separation of the novel from its characters, it seems fair—logical, really—to experience “Trees the Novel” as having its own set of needs and wants. Zambra further encourages this reading with his static depiction of Julian. (To say a thinly executed Julian was a deliberate choice might be saying too much. But nothing in a novel shows up unbidden, and, given the force of the narrative—which is ample—it’s well worth it to look beyond Julian, to cut him some slack.) A novel that’s more alive than its characters could easily indicate a problem. But if you’re willing to follow his lead, Zambra pulls it off.
Both Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees are easy reads, deceptively so. Zambra accomplishes much in these slim novels. He gives us shape-shifting narrators, conscious of their own construction—drops surprising reference to other writers, glancing off their work to inform his own. He strolls in and out of his own stories without jarring his readers. But a fetish for literary device isn’t necessary to enjoy these novels. Zambra writes peculiar books that work on many levels—the kind to be read again and again because they become something different each time. “Julian lulls the little girl to sleep with ‘The Private Lives of Trees’, an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime….” Much like Zambra’s novels. Like favorite poems once memorized, they accrue meaning long after the books are closed.
Read together, Bonsai and Trees create a unique dialogue, a refracted narrative. Any debate over Zambra’s identity as the new face of Chilean literature gets a fresh spin when encountered with the same curious spirit in which his novels are written. Add Bolaño to the mix, and that dialogue expands or contracts depending on a reader’s willingness to perceive literature as an infinite pursuit. True, Zambra gives a light touch to the harsh realities Bolaño explores in his vast, dense novels. But his miniaturized take on the form doesn’t negate what preceded it any more than predict what will follow. Zambra, all of us, will have to wait. As with the dawning of any new era, a literary movement is only visible in hindsight; its boundaries are fluid, its distinguishing characteristics never so simple or singular as they may seem.