18 December 08 | Chad W. Post

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis. (Chile, Melville House)

For the third straight day we’re featuring a Chilean author from the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, although the author’s country of birth might be the only similarity between Bolano’s novels and Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Just in terms of length, 2666 is by far the longest novel of the bunch, whereas Bonsai clocks in at 83 very white-space heavy pages.

Which isn’t to say that this novel is “slight,” or that it lacks the depth of longer novels. The thing that first struck me about this novel is how sweeping Zambra’s short, perfectly crafted chapters can be. Actually, I take that back. The thing that first caught my attention was this fantastic opening paragraph:

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

So there. That takes care of the plot and suspense about how the novella ends . . . Although obviously it doesn’t. The “middle” of books is what’s often the most fascinating, and that’s absolutely true of Bonsai.

In a way, the book is constructed like a bonsai, with little tufts of story that connect in a deeper, trunk-like way. For instance, the way we (and Julio) learn of Emilia’s death through a third person who is connected to Emilia and only tangentially to Julio leads to a very moving scene that is also quite intricate.

And Zambra’s playful tone is very compelling, and the quasi-metafictional moment in the middle of the novel. Julio, who has already broken up with Emilia and is with a new girlfriend, interviews for a job transcribing a famous author’s novel. He tells his girlfriend that he got it, only to find out the next morning that the project went to someone else. Rather than admit this, he starts going to a park every day and frantically writes a novel called “Bonsai,” which he passes off as the work of the famous novelist.

To Maria: It’s the greatest test for a writer. In Bonsai almost nothing happens, the plot could be told in two paragraphs, a story that perhaps is not that good.

And what are they called?

The characters? Gazmuri didn’t name them. He says it’s better, and I agree: they are He and She, Huacho and Pochocha, John and Jane Doe, they don’t have names and maybe they don’t have faces either. The protagonist is a king or beggar, it’s all the same. A king or beggar that lets go of the only woman he ever truly loved.

And he learned to speak Japanese?

They met in a Japanese class. The truth is that I don’t know yet, I think that’s in the second notebook.

Bonsai is a perfect example of what Melville House is doing with their Contemporary Art of the Novella Series. Zambra started his writing career as a poet, and after publishing two collections, started a book that “little by little, capriciously, the text took on the form of a novella or long story or bonsai-book.” Not many publishers are willing to publishing books of this length, preferring longer novels, or a novella plus stories (which they’ll then claim doesn’t sell), which is sort of sad, since this book is the exact length it needs to be and stands well on its own.

But thanks to Melville House and what they did with their “classic” novella series—publishing “known” authors and creating an attractive “set” of books—they’re now able to sucessfully introduce American readers to authors like Zambra (or Kevin Vennemann, or Benoit Duteurtre).

Comments are disabled for this article.
Rambling Jack
Rambling Jack by Micheál Ó Conghaile
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“50 pages?”
“Including illustrations.”
“And this—what. . .

Read More >

The Things We Don't Do
The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .

Read More >

Private Life
Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:

When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .

Read More >

Dinner by César Aira
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .

Read More >

We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .

Read More >

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >