When it was published in Spanish in 2006, Alejandro Zambra’s novel Bonsai filled just ninety-four generously spaced pages, and its recent English translation by Carolina De Robertis stretches only to eighty-three. Still, each of these volumes should be considered a marvel of book design and production since in interviews the author has let slip that his original text ran only to forty sheets. Rather than shrink in its conversion to bound covers, as most manuscripts do, Zambra’s text has swelled–and its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size. As the venerable Santiago newspaper El Mercurio commented in April 2008, “The publication of Bonsai…marked a kind of bloodletting in Chilean literature. It was said (or argued) that it represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation’s letters.”
Reading the book a continent away, I would never have predicted such a fuss, though Bonsai is a delightful work. A love story that’s both wry and melancholy, the novel opens in 1980s Santiago, at a study session turned party, where textbooks give way to vodka and two university students fall casually into bed. “Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class,” Zambra writes, “and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort.”
Such knowing, cynical observations save the love story of these twentysomethings from sentimentality, and Zambra keeps the zingers coming as he traces the development of Julio and Emilia’s “conceited intimacy,” which allows them to feel not only loved but also “better, purer than others.” The relationship withers by page 35, at which point the novel–this little book has been insistently presented as a full-fledged novel in Spain and Latin America–turns poignant. The brief romance, brimming with heartfelt confessions and adolescent posturing, emerges as the one great love of Julio’s dispirited life.
Julio and Emilia’s story “is really a story of illusions,”the novel observes, and what makes it dazzling is Zambra’s nuance. Bonsai doesn’t just mock its characters’ fantasies and deceptions; it also shows how such chimera are necessary to their happiness, and their undoing. Julio and Emilia are literature majors–that is to say, lovers of well-wrought lies–and one of the novel’s most amusing scenes occurs when they decide to read In Search of Lost Time as foreplay. At the budding of their relationship, Julio had spurred the romance by claiming to have read all seven volumes of Proust’s masterpiece when he was only 17. Emilia had sweetly reciprocated the lie. So when the lovebirds actually open Swann’s Way,