Posts Tagged ‘alejandro zambra’


February 5, 2023

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.

Chilean Poet

July 28, 2022

Given that Alejandro Zambra’s previous novel, Multiple Choice, was exactly that – a novel written in the form of multiple-choice questions – it would be fair to say that readers (most recently instructed Not to Read) can never be sure what to expect next. So perhaps we should not be too surprised that Zambra, who began his writing life a poet and was initially praised for short, poetic novels, has, with Chilean Poet, written his longest and most prosaic novel yet; long enough to, in fact, to make identifying its central character an example of multiple choice.

It begins as the story of Gonzalo, an aspiring poet, who we first meet as an aspiring lover, longing to progress from covert groping under a blanket with his girlfriend, Carla, to actual sex. An opportunity occurs when a road accident empties Carla’s home:

“Counting the thirty seconds the penetration lasted and the three and a half minutes they spent cleaning up the drops of blood and assimilating the insipid experience, the entire process took a mere four minutes.”

This is our first indication that Zambra’s poets are not heroic figures in a novel where male characters in particular will often find themselves more laughed at than lauded. Carla at first refuses to see Gonzalo again and then breaks up with him; it is at this point he discovers his love of verse:

“Gonzalo had no other option than to go all in on poetry: he locked himself in his room and in a mere five days produced forty-two sonnets.”

Though there is a brief reconciliation (a second attempt in a hotel room “Lasted about as long as it would take  a hundred-meter sprinter to run the first fifty meters”) the relationship ends but, as this amusing tale of adolescent love takes only the opening twenty pages, and it is not giving away too much to reveal they meet again number of years later in a gay bar – Gonzalo’s opening gambit is, “I’m not gay!” They rekindle their relationship, and, as Carla now has a child (Vincente), Gonzalo soon becomes part of a ready-made family. Zambra writes about relationships beautifully. He is particularly good on the way arguments escalate, for example when Gonzalo is caught letting Vincente ride in the front seat which Carla has expressly forbidden – he accepts he is in the wrong until she uses the word ‘betrayal’ to which he immediately adopts a passive aggressive tone:

“I’m so sorry for taking care of Vincente every single day.”

This, in turn, leads Carla to comment that at “times like this it’s clear you’re not his real father.” In fact, identifying his relationship with Vincente is something that torments Gonzalo. At one point, when asked, he says they are ‘friends’. Later, he reflects on the fact that stepfather in Spanish is much less positive term than in other languages. Eventually they reach the point where:

“Usually Carla thought that if she died, Gonzalo would go on living with Vincente. Gonzalo also thought that.”

Of course, this is not how things turn out.

Having invested half the novel in Gonzalo and Carla’s relationship, Part III begins with another fast forward through time. Vincente is a young adult and he, too, wishes to be a poet, and he, too, is in love – with an older American woman, Pru, whom he first met vomiting at the roadside. In many ways, Pru, rather than Vincente, is the main character of this section. We learn her back story: her escape from an abusive relationship; her love affair with her room-mate, Jessye; their plan to go to Chile and write an article for a magazine; Jessye backing out at the last moment – and, having bought the tickets, sending Pru to entirely the wrong part of Chile:

“If I had bought them, I wouldn’t be a dumb gringa lost at the ass-end of the world.”

Unfortunately, Pru is a less interesting character than either Gonzalo or Carla (who is now very much in the background), and her decision to research Chilean poets for her article leads us into literary satire, and, I suspect more than one dig at Bolano (whether at his expense or at the expense of his American readership is less clear). This is as entertaining as the earlier part of the novel but less engaging. Luckily, Zambra is not finished with Gonzalo, and, in the final part, the novel will return to his relationship with Vincente.

Chilean Poet is a warm-hearted, hopeful novel which showcases Zambra’s skill at writing relationships with both heart and humour. It is particularly good on the stepfather / stepson relationship between Gonzalo and Vincente, much more common in life than literature, which it portrays with great humanity. All Zambra’s characters are flawed, but no-one (not even Vincente’s real father, Leon) is entirely written off by the author. In the end, Zambra shows us poetry transcending literature to express love.

Ways of Going Home

February 22, 2014


Ways of Going Home is the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra’s third novel; all have been translated into English, highlighting the fact that from the publication of his first novel, Bonsai, he has been seen as an important writer in his homeland and internationally. It is, however, my own first acquaintance with his work and I cannot say if it is typical, though at 139 pages, it is the longest.

It begins on the night of the 1985 earthquake, narrated by a ten year old boy, a contemporary of the author’s. On that night he meets Claudia, a little older, the niece of his neighbour, Raul. She asks him to spy on Raul and report to her:

“I had to watch over Raul; not take care of him but rather keep an eye on his activities and make notes about anything that seemed suspicious.”

He does this assiduously, at one point following him out of town, but his spying zeal slackens when he sees Claudia with an older boy, and shortly after that Raul moves. Behind this lies the political situation in Chile at the time, the Pinochet dictatorship which lasted from 1973 until 1990. (We will discover that there is a political reason for Claudia’s request). This is, of course, presented from a child’s point of view:

“Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed. We lived under a dictatorship; people talked crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but, even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home.”

In the novel’s second section we are transported from the world of the novel to the world of its creation:

“I’m advancing little by little in the novel. I pass the time thinking about Claudia as if she existed, as if she had existed.”

Here we learn of Zambra’s life in the present, his relationship with his girlfriend Eme, and also his parents. Zambra does this not for the B. S. Johnson shock factor nor to be playfully postmodern, but to present the novel as an imaginative investigation of his childhood. In case you think I am merely supposing the similarities, Zambra makes it obvious by transposing events from the novel’s second section into the fictional world of its third. For example, a conversation where his mother tells him, “I identified with the characters, the book moved me,” and he replies, “And how is it possible for you to identify with characters from another social class…” is repeated almost verbatim.

In the novel’s third section, the narrator’s relationship with Claudia resumes years later when she returns to Chile for America after her father’s death. She describes the relationship as “a trip back to my childhood that maybe I needed.” The novel’s fourth and final section return us to Zambra and allows him to conclude with another earthquake, presumably that of 2010.

The novel explores both narrators’ relationships with their parents, the one set a fictional representation of the other. This in itself is interesting as parents often disappear from fiction once a character reaches adulthood. Zambra also seems to intend through this to discover something about his generation’s relationship with his country’s past. All this is done very elusively, ending with an enigmatic image of Zambra watching cars pass as he thinks of his father’s old cars:

“It’s overwhelming to think that in the back seats children are sleeping, and that every one of those children will remember, someday, the old car they rode, years before, with their parents.”

This short, meditative novel is an absorbing read, but I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t as meaningful as it seems to think it is.