A tree grows in Chile

Despite the fact that Bonsái wears its (somewhat obvious) conceptual heart on its sleeve, and is built around the conceit of writing itself into its own title (the novel itself is a work in miniature in which characters are established and then neatly – and explicitly – trimmed away), the novel is not without its charm. In fact, Alejandro Zambra has crafted a remarkably touching elliptical éducation sentimentale of Julio, a young man whose first serious relationship is based almost solely on the erotic charge of reading the greatest hits of world literature out loud in the bedroom and the protection of his darkest secret: no, he has not ever actually cracked a volume of Proust.

But his romance with Emilia dissipates into a pitch-perfect ennui and Julio is launched into a series of misadventures – including an elaborate attempt to disguise the loss of his job transcribing a known writer’s most recent novel, which culminates in the creation of a secondary, utterly useless manuscript. This manuscript is, predictably, titled Bonsái, and it takes its inspiration from the matter of Julio’s late night readings with Emilia. Julio, to his credit, approaches his quixotic labor with unwavering enthusiasm. Until, of course, the real novel is published. I’ll have to leave off here: any more of a gloss, and I’ll have recreated the novel-in-miniature in miniature.

In the end, Bonsái overcomes its occasionally self-conscious prose and offers glimpses at an astonishing emotional candor. It is not surprising that the novel, which was originally conceived as a collection of poems, was accorded two major prizes in Chile upon its release. Zambra has gained something of a following in the United States, as well – the English translation of Bonsái was met with enthusiasm in the press, and Open Letter will be publishing The Private Lives of Trees in the spring. The rest, as our author would say, is literature.

Anagrama, 2006
English translation, 2008

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