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).
One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .
The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .
Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .
When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .