Alejandro Zambra: Bonsai
I‘ve mentioned before how lovely Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series is and have been meaning for some time to read another. Bonsai (2006) by Alejandro Zambra felt like the timely choice, having recently been the focus of an article in The Nation (via The Literary Saloon) and to even the score for Chilean writers, what with Roberto Bolaño getting all the attention. According to The Nation article, “its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size.”
It’s a short book, weighing in at eighty-three pages, many blank as they split chapters, allowing the content room to breathe. But within there’s a complete story, a larger story, in fact, bursting to get out. In this it could be said that it resembles the titular bonsai, all the attributes of a larger work condensed into a miniature.
As openings go, Zambra makes a bold pitch, giving away the ending and letting the reader know from the off that the journey about to be taken is a metafictional one:
In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:
Emilia and Julio are are university students that meet at a study group in preparation for their Spanish Syntax II exam and, despite initially disliking each other, their relationship quickly develops, Zambra detailing its journey, with occasional reference to previous lovers, in a beguiling mix of thick brush strokes and finely judged details.
As the opening declares, “the rest is literature:” and it’s literature that binds the couple and gives purpose to their relationship, a strange foreplay emerging whereby they working their way through Schwob and Mishima, Perec, Onetti, and Carver, amongst others, until they read Tantalia by Macedonio Fernández, a story about a couple who buy a small plant as a symbol of their love that ends in despair.
“That should have been the last time Emilia and Julio shagged,” the narrator says, but the couple continue on, having sex after reading pages of the classics (“They did terribly with Checkhov, a little better, curiously, with Kafka, but, as they say, the damage was done.”). Eventually, a shared lie between them – that they have read Proust – brings their relationship to a head:
It happened with Proust. They had postponed reading Proust, due to the unmentionable secret that linked them, separately to the reading – or to the lack of reading – of In Search Of Lost Time. They both had to pretend that their mutual read was, strictly speaking, a reread they had yearned for, so that when they arrived at one of the numerous passages that seemed particularly memorable they changed their tone of voice or gazed at each other to elicit emotion., simulating the greatest intimacy. Also, Julio, on one occasion, allowed himself to declare that he only now truly felt that he was reading Proust, and Emilia answered with a subtle and disconsolate squeeze of the hand.
In reading Proust for the first time, neither is prepared for the impact it has so their relationship breaks off, with Emilia heading to Spain – and dying! – and Julio getting on with his life. Julio’s path leads to an attempt to work for a famous writer, transcribing his latest novel and, on failing to do so, continues to transcribe the novel he imagines, based on a brief synopsis, that he would have been transcribing. In keeping with the metafictional style, he calls it Bonsai, and it bears a knowing similarity to the book we’re reading.
There’s so much more to this slight volume that comes to represent the bonsai. The authorial interjections force us to stick to the story of Emilia and Julio, with repeated messages to ignore characters for being “secondary” or observing a woman as she moves away “and begins to disappear forever from this story”, each potential thread of narrative routinely clipped so that all we have is this love story contained within the container its pages – Julio learns that “Once outside its flowerpot, the tree ceases to be a bonsai.”- that does represent the wider picture.
Caring for a bonsai is like writing, thinks Julio. Writing is like caring for a bonsai, thinks Julio.
Bonsai‘s story is, to borrow a line from the book,”a common story whose only peculiarity is that nobody knows how to tell it well” and Zambra’s attempt to capture this common story is wholly successful. With prose aware of its shortcomings, that takes steps to address them – pruning its loose ends and carefully shaping its narrative – it takes that common story and reduces it to its finer points, makes of itself an artform, and contains it within a flowerpot of pages. The rest may be literature, but the whole is art.
June 25, 2009