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 €
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