Bonsai was Alejandro Zambra’s first novel, originally published in 2006 and translated in 2008. Now it appears in a new translation by Megan McDowell who has translated all his subsequent books. It is a short novel made up of five parts. The story itself is summed up neatly in the fourth part:

“A guy finds out that a girlfriend from his youth is dead… That’s how it all begins.”

That is, indeed, how it all begins, with Emilia’s death, though Zambra immediately suggests the fictive nature of the novel he is constructing by suggesting the name itself is a choice – “let’s say her name is or was Emilia,” and, more directly, stating:

“In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not. The rest is literature.”

It is difficult not to think of the novel’s brevity and the tightness of its structure – as well as its very evident artificiality – as a tribute to its title, but plant life also features directly in the story. Julio and Emilia fall into the habit of reading to each other before making love. (One of Zambra’s strengths is depicting the idiosyncrasies of relationships, as seen most recently in Chilean Poet, and here he tends to introduce his characters with a history of their partners). One story they read to each other is Macedonio Fernandez’s ‘Tantalia’, about a couple who buy a plant to symbolise their love. Then, terrified that the plant might die, they decide to surround it with identical plants:

“Then comes the desolation, the tragedy of knowing that now they can never find it again.”

In the third part, Zambra moves onto Emilia’s friendship with Anita. Their habit of sharing everything reaches ridiculous lengths when Emilia asks if she can borrow Anita’s husband for a work party as she has told everyone she is married. After the party, he tries to kiss her, and she punches him – an event which leads to a cooling in her friendship with Anita. Emilia moves to Madrid, and it is only when Anita is visiting the Spanish capital that she looks for her, finding her much changed:

“You look bad. You look depressed. You look like a junkie.”

This is our first glimpse of Emilia’s mortality. She borrows money from Anita and that is the last she sees of her – in fact, the last the reader sees of her as a living character either. When we return to Julio in the fourth part, he is beginning a relationship with another woman, Maria. He meets her shortly after agreeing to transcribe the latest work from the novelist Gazmuri, about a couple who “when they were young they took care of a plant.” Gazmuri replaces Julio with someone cheaper but, rather than telling Maria, he continues the transcription by writing the novel himself, which he calls Bonsai. Zambra can’t resist including some self-criticism:

“There’s enough for a two-page story, and maybe not even a good one.”

In the final section, Julio abandons writing and instead studies the art of bonsai. He sees the similarity – “writing is like tending a bonsai” – but in selling his books to acquire the equipment he needs, there is a sense that literature has proved inadequate. The novel itself, existing halfway between prose and poetry, is also suggestive of Zambra wrestling with form in attempt to express the memories of this youthful love resurfacing after death:

“The selection of the right pot for a tree is almost an art form in itself.”

Like poetry, the novel juxtaposes its disparate elements in a way which allows them to resonate. Zambra’s characters remain grounded – fallible and often failing – without any hint of pretentiousness. Bonsai already demonstrates the abilities of a writer who can be ‘experimental’ without ever losing sight of the people at the heart of his fiction.


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7 Responses to “Bonsai”

  1. bookbii Says:

    This sounds fascinating like a little puzzle box of a book. I think I’d like it.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This probably isn’t for me, but I really enjoyed reading your review of it! The fact that Zambra maintains a focus on the people at the heart of this story is a genuine positive. As you allude to, experimental fiction can sometimes feel a little cold or detached if style and form take precedence over character.

  3. Richard Says:

    I can’t remember whether I read this long ago or just had it checked out from the library at some point, but I’d like to catch up on my Zambra one of these days. I find he’s too cutesy at times with all the authorial evasiveness and misdirections, but when it works it really works with him. Nice review.

  4. International Booker Prize Predictions 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] to see Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born feature and Alejandro Zambra has two (very short) novels: Bonsai – a new translation by Megan McDowell – and The Private Lives of Trees, which McDowell […]

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