Seed Projects: The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra
Readers who consider Roberto Bolano the pole star of contemporary Chilean fiction will be jolted by Zambra's little book. For though Zambra has been stamped as the Next Great Chilean Writer in many circles, he's in no way Bolano's heir. (But then, who is?) Where the heroes of Bolano's novels are resolutely proletarian, Zambra's characters are mostly downwardly mobile bourgeoisie. (At one point, Bonsai even refers to working-class beachgoers as lumpen, or riffraff.) Where Bolano wrought romantic detective stories showcasing the virtues of courage and integrity, Zambra's protagonists lead mundane lives rife with small deceptions. It's no surprise that Zambra says he reads Bolano very little. He doesn't care much for Bolano's literary hero Julio Cortazar, either.
In these tastes, Zambra is indeed the herald of a new wave of Chilean fiction. As the noted critic Javier Edwards of El Mercurio has observed, "in the antipodes of long-winded writing, like the negation of a Roberto Bolano," the minimalist novel has carved out a place in the national letters. Like Beckett reacting to Joyce, the young writers of Chile, who were born in the 1970s during the military dictatorship and who cut their teeth on the satirical newspaper The Clinic during the newly recovered democracy, have turned from Bolano to the bonsai.
Zambra himself fashions a tale from this trend. Near the end of Bonsai, Julio meets the antithesis of the young Chilean author, an old novelist named Gazmuri (a clear riff on the real Chilean historian Cristian Gazmuri, whose most famous work is the two-volume series The History of Private Life in Chile). Zambra's old writer has published a series of novels "about recent Chilean history," and he needs someone to type up his latest opus, which of course he's written by hand. Sitting in a cafe in the once-posh neighborhood of Providencia, Gazmuri asks Julio, "Do you write novels, those novels with short chapters, forty pages long, that are in fashion?"
"No," Julio responds. "Would you recommend that I write novels?"
Rejected by Gazmuri, Julio attempts to become him by writing and then transcribing the novel he imagines Gazmuri had in mind. But when Gazmuri's book comes out, we see the gulf between Julio's attempt and Gazmuri's own, and Julio turns to a project of "true art": cultivating, from seed, a real bonsai. The Gazmuri novel is thus portrayed as both impossible and unworthy.
The Private Life of Trees also revolves around a struggling writer. Julian is putting the final touches on a novel about a bonsai and is plagued by doubts about its merit. Maybe, he thinks, it would have been better to make a simple record of the conversations he overheard from the bar downstairs? Maybe he should have written a book about the life of an 8-year-old boy during 1984, when Pinochet's dictatorship was still in full force? Private Life even presents some of the memories Julian would have used in writing this second, more Gazmuri-like book. In the end, however, Julian decides, "It isn't that he wishes to write that story. It's not a project. Rather, he wants to have written it years ago and to be able to read it now."
There's something lazy about this solution to Julian's dilemma. Indeed, although The Private Life of Trees has moments of real sparkle, compared with Bonsai the novel feels tossed off. Its digressive structure is wobbly where it should be tight, and its exploration of mature relationships is marred by evasion and sentimentality. Even the novel's metafictional observations feel stale. ("When [Julian's wife] returns the novel ends. But while she doesn't return the novel continues.")
The problem isn't minimalism or metafiction per se; it's Zambra's reluctance to apply to Julian's tender spots the same pressure he brings to bear on those of Julio and Emilia. In interviews, Zambra, who was born in 1975, often mentions that what unites his generation of writers is that they are all children of the Pinochet dictatorship; yet the dictatorship figures little in the settings of his books. That period, when handled at all, is always treated obliquely. If anything, his two novels can be read as accounts of well-off people who lived through the dictatorship and were hardly bothered by it at all. Of course, there were many, many such people in Chile, and it would be a pleasure to see Zambra tackle this material with the dry, nuanced eye he showed in Bonsai.
Instead he turns to feeble analogy. At its crux, The Private Life of Trees turns on a parallel between the vanishing of Julian's wife, Veronica, who goes to art class one evening during the democratic era and never returns, and the murder of political dissidents who were disappeared while the country was under military rule. "I'm the son of a family that has no dead," Julian says to himself during the minutely detailed night he spends waiting for Veronica's return. Other friends, he remembers, had families "where death appeared with pressing insistence"; what he has is Veronica's unexplained absence. Yet between these two kinds of loss lies a world of difference that Zambra never musters the courage to explore.