Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra

Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai fell into two lucky categories for me; I’m a sucker for the Melville House Art of the (Contemporary) Novella series, and it fit into my meandering Latin American literature theme. This is truly a slim book, even superslim or sleek. A fair number of its 83 pages are at least halfway blank. This is what I love of novellas—tiny, fine creations consumable in a single incredibly satisfying sitting. As a matter of personal taste, the novella is often the exact size, shape, and depth I want of a work of fiction. (Funny for a girl who loves all that Melville, no?)

So what does Zambra do in his short space? His opening is instructive:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Le’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:

Plotwise, the novella takes the reader from the beginning of Julio and Emilia’s relationship through the end of it and past her death to what is, it begins to appear, the present-day life of Julio. The two of them meet, begin an affair, sacralize literature through sex, fall apart. Central to their relationship is a literary lie: each has falsely told the other they have read In Search of Lost Time. Proust breaks them up.

Back to that quoted paragraph, though. It’s the give and take that is most instructive, as Zambra will use devices like this one to disorient the reader throughout the book. She dies, he remains alone—no, he was already alone. She “is”—no, she “was.” As for “him,” we must hedge—is, was, and continues to be. “In the story of Emilia and Julio…there are more omissions than lies, and fewer omissions than truths, truths of the kind that are called absolute and that tend to be uncomfortable,” the narrator tells us. You just about have to write it out in predicate logic to dig through the words and find the meaning.

The effect is lovely and goes perfectly with the atmosphere of the book, which is one of haze, malaise, and a general aversion to commitment. And we come to find out that, within the story, there is a reason the narrator is writing this way—there is a good answer to the question, why is this narrator writing at all? The air of mystery and mistrust throughout is reinforced.

The novella contained a few elements I have begun to consider “typical” as I read more Latin American literature. The literary references were numerous, and almost exclusively intriguing. I want to go back through the first half of the book and write down every author mentioned for further exploration. The noncommittal narration itself gives the story a familiarly shifty grounding. Oh, and the melancholy—did you notice the melancholy? I hope so. The book is also much more contemporary than what I’ve been reading (published in Chile in 2006) and there are plenty of ways that makes it different. I’ll have to wait until I’ve got more experience to say more, but I loved reading this and will be looking into more Zambra rather soon, I should think.


Last night I read Bonsai, a wonderful novella by Alejandro Zambra and apparently the next installment in the Latin American project. I didn’t know it at the time, but there is a strong connection to Madame Bovary. The young lovers at the beginning of the novel like to read to each other, and that is one of the novels they choose.

They argued, as dilettantes the world over have at some time argued, over the first chapters of Madame Bovary. They classified their friends and acquaintances as to whether they were like Charles or Emma, and they also argued over whether they themselves were comparable to the tragic Bovary family. In bed there was no problem, as they both made great efforts to seem like Emma, to be like Emma, follar like Emma, as doubtlessly, they believed, Emma shagged exceptionally well, and would have shagged even better in current conditions; in Santiago de Chile, at the end of the twentieth century, Emma would have shagged even better than in the book.

There is much more, and a very Bovary-esque ending that was a bit of a surprise. I’ll be writing about the book “for reals,” probably next week, but I must say that I loved it.