Fiction Review: “The Private Lives of Trees” by Alejandro Zambra

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With his first novel—novella, really—Chilean poet and critic Alejandro Zambra assumed his place at the forefront of Latin American letters. “Bonsai,” which tracked the coming together and falling apart of a collegiate couple, won a prize for best novel of 2007; the same month, Zambra was named among the “Bogota 39,” a pantheon of Latin American literary talent under forty. “Bonsai” is named for the male half of the couple’s interest in cultivating those tiny, perfect trees. Zambra’s latest work, “The Private Lives of Trees,” which hits Anglophone shelves this month, thanks to Megan McDowell’s elegant translation, also features a cameo from a bonsai. It should come as no surprise. Zambra is a master of the literary miniature: like the trees themselves, his fiction is tiny, fastidious, artfully shaped.

“The Private Lives of Trees” follows Julián, a young writer/professor, as he tells his stepdaughter Daniela a bedtime story and nervously waits for his wife to come home from drawing class. “Trees” is a quiet novel, small both in length—less than one hundred pages—and in scope—the course of a single evening. It is the whole world painted on the head of a pin: the plot is everything that has happened before now, and everything that will happen after. In the present, there is nothing but waiting; the action of the book is the waffling of uncertainty. When Verónica returns, Zambra warns, “the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue. The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.” In the interim, we get the story of his courtship with Verónica, and of the relationship before that. As the night wears on without Verónica, an increasingly anxious Julián imagines Daniela as a motherless young woman, his fantasies of her future—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty—projected with the same certainty as his memories of the past.

Zambra’s sentences string together like pearls, each of them perfect, fragile, and self-contained. Often, they are startlingly beautiful in their careful starkness, or hilariously deadpan. (Julián on his career: “Lately he has started to think he should have been a dentist or a geologist or a meteorologist. For now, his actual job seems strange: professor. But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff. He imagines himself answering that way: ‘What do you do?’ ‘I have dandruff.’”) Marked with self-conscious craftsmanship—like bonsais, these turns of phrase do not exist in nature—“Trees” has a wry sense of remove. It washes over you, and it lingers. (Rachel Sugar)

The Private Lives of Trees
By Alejandro Zambra; translated by Megan McDowell
Open Letter, $12.95 (paperback), 94 pages

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