Seed Projects: The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra
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,
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.
It's a charade that neither Julio nor Emilia can sustain for long: 372 pages into the epic, the couple abandons Proust, and each other. Lies speed love, Bonsai seems to say, and corrode it.
Before Bonsai, Zambra published two volumes of poetry, and he's said that Bonsai began as a third collection of verse that developed into a novel. This history may explain the novel's minimalist style and formal cleverness. (Zambra uses synecdoche and symbol to marvelous effect.) What's most unusual about the book, however, is its insistence on breaking the reader's suspension of disbelief. Like a modern Henry Fielding, Zambra makes no effort to disguise his literary devices; rather, he highlights them at every turn. Here, for example, are the novel's oft-quoted opening lines:
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. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature.
Elsewhere Zambra warns that other walk-ons "don't matter, they're secondary characters." He toys with possible character names and indicates when a woman will "disappear forever from this story." His writer-narrator even confesses his difficulties with plotting: "I want to end Julio's story, but Julio's story doesn't end, that's the problem."
If Bonsai were a building, it'd look rather like the Centre Georges Pompidou, all its mechanicals exposed and painted bright primary colors rather than hidden behind the walls. Zambra wants not only to explore conflict and emotion but also to revel in the medium that allows him to express these things. As one Chilean critic noted, "Zambra seeks, from the beginning and through diverse means, always to maintain a certain distance between the reader and the narrative, a distance that stresses, precisely, that we are dealing with a literary text and not an imitation or transposition of reality." Such an approach is common enough among poets, but it's rare among contemporary Latin American novelists, and several prominent Chileans loathed his work.
Chief among Zambra's detractors was Mercurio critic Jose Promis, who declared that though Bonsai and Zambra's second novel, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Life of Trees), have been sold as novels by Editorial Anagrama, they have no place in the category. On the contrary, Promis wrote, "they step forward...stripped of all the scaffolding that transforms a story into a novel, or at least of how us laymen understand it: as an 'absurd comedy' where 'we're going to pretend like there was a world that was more or less like this.'" This definition of the novel is so narrow as to be laughable--where do futuristic works like Neuromancer or grave meditations like Gilead fit within such rigid criteria? Promis's final admonition is equally dogmatic: "Renovators who stay in the [metafictional] form risk being devoured by authentic literature."
Such sermonizing about what constitutes "authentic" novels generally strikes me as specious. From Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to Molloy and The Lover, the world of fiction has always contained many realms, and Bonsai is in no more danger of being "devoured" than Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. Actually, to judge by public honors, Zambra has done remarkably well. In April 2007, Bonsai won a prestigious Chilean prize for the best novel of the year, and that same month Zambra was chosen for the "Bogota 39," a juried selection of the thirty-nine most important Latin American writers younger than 39. By then, Bonsai was already being translated into French, Italian and Greek. And the controversy about whether the book was really a novel and whether it deserved such lavish recognition? It only plumped the book's sales.