As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 15 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today’s featured author is Alejandro Zambra—a personal favorite and the first author from this list to be part of the Open Letter catalog.
So at the risk of repeating myself, I want to try and explain what it is about Zambra’s work that I really like.
I first heard about Zambra at the ALTA conference before Bonsai came out from Melville House. Megan McDowell read a bit of his work (if memory serves, she read from The Private Lives of Trees, which may have even been The Secret Lives of Trees at that time) as part of her ALTA fellowship. I’m usually pretty terrible at paying attention during readings (much prefer discussions, modulated voices, and off-the-cuff responses), but I remember being struck by the freshness and honesty of his prose.
When Bonsai came out, I read it from the perspective of a judge for the Best Translated Book Awards, and fell in love with this first 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:
Yes! Yes, the rest is literature!
In some ways, this is a bit of a wink, a pulling back of the curtain, a metafictional moment that was popular years ago and has been written and rewritten every since. But at the same time, Zambra’s novella adopts this tone, this style, with an attitude more akin to truthfulness than game-playing. He may be young, but this youthfulness comes through less in the look-at-me-I’m-winking-back cuteness of some of his peers, and more in the I’m-young-and-believe-in-things sense. Stealing a bit of an argument Adam Thirlwell develops in The Delighted States, Zambra tries to get to a sense of reality through a style that feels alien. It’s so unadorned, it’s so non-American-realist that it feels much closer to “how things really are.” We die. The rest is literature.
I also like the way Zambra just tells things in a way that almost feels artless . . . or at least not as manipulative as some other novels (cough, Freedom, cough) can feel at times:
The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax II at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges, because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.
Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.
(By the way, I’m pulling these passages from this issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which included this entire novella. Not entirely sure what would happen if you tried to subscribe to VQR and access this issue, but it might be worth a try. Otherwise, you can buy the Melville House edition, which was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.)
After Bonsai came out—to much praise and bookseller adoration—we had the opportunity to publish Zambra’s second novel, the aforementioned The Private Lives of Trees. Stylistically, this is a lateral step. It’s got the same sort of voice, the same unadorned prose:
Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with “The Private Lives of Trees,” an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees and not people or animals or, as they say to each other, stupid hunks of cement.
Daniela is not his daughter, but it is hard for him not to think of her that way. Three years ago Julián joined the family. He came to them; Verónica and the little girl were already there. He married Verónica and in some ways, also, Daniela, who was hesitant at first but little by little began to accept her new life: “Julián is uglier than my dad, but he’s still nice,” she would say to her friends, who nodded with surprising seriousness, even solemnity, as if they somehow understood that Julián’s arrival was not an accident. As the months passed this stepfather even earned a place in the drawings Daniela made at school. There’s one in particular that Julián always keeps nearby: the three of them, at the beach, the little girl and Verónica are making cakes out of sand, and he is dressed in jeans and a shirt, reading and smoking under a perfectly round and yellow sun.
It’s a shorter, tighter book, depicting Julián’s long night waiting for Verónica to come home from art class. (She’s late. Really late.) This is really the only event of the novel’s plot. As the omniscient narrator puts it,
When she returns, 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.
The rest of the novella is a trip through Julián’s imagination.
Getting back to this issue of Granta though . . . The piece they chose to include is “Ways of Going Home,” an excerpt from his forthcoming novel. A novel that’s much longer (or so I’ve heard), and has a very different style from the others. The presence of a first-person narrator changes Zambra’s game entirely, although he’s still trying to tell us about life (or, life as literature) in as direct a way as possible. Here’s the opening:
Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents any more. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but that afternoon I thought they were lost. I believed I knew how to get home and they didn’t.
‘You went a different way,’ my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen.
You were the one who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
Papa watched placidly from the armchair. Sometimes I think he spent all his time just sitting there, thinking. But maybe he didn’t really think about anything. Maybe he just closed his eyes and received the present with calm and resignation. That night he spoke, though: ‘This is a good thing,’ he told me. ‘You overcame adversity.’ Mama looked at him suspiciously, but he kept on stringing together a confused speech about adversity. Back then, I had no idea what adversity could possibly mean.
I lay back on the chair across from him and pretended to be asleep. I heard them argue, always the same pattern. Mama would say five sentences and Papa would answer with a single word. Sometimes he would answer sharply: ‘No.’ Sometimes he would say, practically shouting: ‘Liar,’ or ‘False.’ Sometimes he would even say, like the police: ‘Negative.’
That night Mama carried me to bed and, perhaps knowing I was only pretending to sleep and was listening attentively, curiously, she told me: ‘Your father is right. Now we know you won’t get lost. That you know how to walk alone in the street. But you should concentrate more on the way. You should walk faster.’
I listened to her. From then on, I walked faster. In fact, a couple of years later, the first time I talked to Claudia, she asked me why I walked so fast. She had been following me for days, spying on me. We had met a short time before, on 3 March 1985 – the night of the earthquake – but we didn’t talk then.
And I’m pretty much 100% sure that this book will come out in English sometime soon . . . .
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