There is a series of popular literature in Chile that you can still buy in used book fairs, which color-coded books according to World literature (beige), Spanish Literature (red), and Chilean Literature (brown). There was no Latin American literature. This conception of things made an impression on Alejandro Zambra, who says he is part of the last generation to grow up reading these books, for whom Chilean literature was brown, and Borges part of that nebulous “World literature.” This library makes an appearance in Zambra’s novel La vida privada de los arboles, when the main character reminisces about the small wealth the acquisition of these books meant for his middle class family in the 80’s, when books were hard to come by.
While I was in Chile last year looking for a translation project, I went to bookstores, met with editors and authors, and quizzed them all about important contemporary writers in Chile—Alejandro Zambra was the only author who showed up on everyone’s list. Zambra has published two novels with Anagrama, Bonzaí and La vida privada de los arboles, which he calls “sibling-books”, united by the central image of a man jealously, almost obsessively tending a bonsai tree. The image is a metaphor for the creation of literature, and is a good figure to accompany Zambra’s own carefully crafted, often surprising style. Zambra writes following Borges’ advice to “write as if summarizing a book that has already been written;” the result is a voice that is both detached and personal, cool and intense.
Bonzai has just been published in its entirety as part of the Latin American issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, translated by Carolina de Robertis, and the same translation is set to be published by Melville House Press. The book is short, but its compass is broad, both in terms of the time spanned in the book and the emotional layers it accomplishes. The book follows Julio, who falls in love with Amelia. They share a consuming relationship and literary aspirations; they are disillusioned by both relationship and literature, and separate. Julio’s dreams of writing eventually turn into the goal of growing, shaping and tending a bonsai tree, because ‘“Caring for a bonsai is like writing,’ thinks Julio. ‘Writing is like caring for a bonsai.”’
Zambra’s second book, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees) has not been published in English. This book is slightly longer and more intimate in its feel—we are brought deeper into the everyday tragedy of the main character, Julián. Julián is waiting for his wife, Verónica, to come home from her drawing class. This is the premise of the book, Julián’s ever more desperate waiting, the thoughts and memories that accompany his vigil: “the story goes on and Verónica hasn’t arrived, best to keep that in view, repeat it one and a thousand times: when she comes home the novel ends, the book continues until she comes home or until Julián is sure that she will never come home again.”
Of both books, Zambra says “I obeyed the simple desire to put forth images that seemed valid to me. Now I think that in writing those books I wanted to name the mediocre, non-novelistic lives of those of us who grew up reading red, beige, brown-colored books. Now I think that I wanted, perhaps, to speak of characters that don’t want or cannot be characters, maybe because they are Chilean. Maybe I wanted to speak of our poor vegetable past, of deception, of fragile new families; ultimately, of the life which is, as John Ashbery says, ‘a book that has been put down,’ and of death, the deaths of others and our own death.”
In my opinion, Zambra is the best of a generation of Chilean writers that has little or no unifying characteristic, a generation that is starting to experiment more than any other generation has in Chile. Zambra writes of Chilean novelists that “they, we, write from outside in, as if the novel were, really, the long echo of a suppressed poem. ” He makes no claims or attempts to be representative of his country or era, and in that lies the brightness of his writing: the simple endeavor to say something true along with the awareness of the relativity of that truth. Zambra’s “valid images” are delicate portraits are the everyday, and his books some of the most exciting of that recent category, Latin American literature.
Books by Alejandro Zambra:
96 pages, 9.50 €
Translation from the Spanish by Carolina de Robertis forthcoming from Melville House
La vida privada de los arboles
128 pages, 12 €
Not Yet Translated into English
A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .
The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .
In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .