Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bonsai

Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (trans. Carolina de Robertis) is a pleasure to read (and so quickly too), although given the enthusiastic reviews I had seen previously I was bound to be at least a little let down.  I will say this up front: the novel has, despite its generally ironic take on romance, an honest-to-goodness mothering prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold.  It may be that Zambra pokes fun at Julio’s initiation via prostitute (although it didn’t seem especially so), but there is no question that the prostitute gives herself over to Julio’s “education.”  It is a rather hackneyed moment, doubly dull in a novel that is otherwise so full of humor and insight.

Briefly, Bonsai tells the story of a short romance between two literature students, Emilia and Julio, a romance based largely on their deliberate refusal to see the differences between themselves and a lie about a mutual love of Proust, whom neither of them has read.  It is also about the after-life of that romance, with the novella moving around in time, revealing key plot events early or moving back in time to discuss the lovers’ sexual prehistory.  Reviews have mentioned other sources for thinking of the genealogy of Zambra’s metafiction, but a name I have not seen is Kurt Vonnegut.  The rehearsal of future plot events, the prose in short fragments, the overall sense of absurdity: all of these remind me of him, although Zambra’s sentences run a shade longer and offer, perhaps, slightly more direct sympathy for the characters despite questions about how seriously they can be taken.  Here is one fragment from early on:

            The relationship between Emilia and Julio was riddled with truths, with intimate revelations that rapidly established a complicity that they wanted to understand as definitive.  This, then, is a light story that turns heavy.  This is the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences that seem true, of smoking eternal cigarettes, and of closing themselves into the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others, than that immense and contemptible group known as the others.
            They quickly learned to read the same things, to think similarly, and to conceal their differences.  Very soon they formed a conceited intimacy.  At least during that time, Julio and Emilia managed to merge into a single kind of mass.  They were, in short, happy.  There is no doubt about that.

The novella is full of these little asides rephrasing and undermining a thought that might at first seem unreservedly idealistic: instead of “truth” they want to “scatter[] sentences that seem true.”  The last sentence, “There is no doubt about that,” is a zinger—one of the places I thought of Vonnegut: it reads like “So it goes” or another of his brief refrains that says, at once, that what has been narrated is predictable, absurd, and bound to end badly.  Nonetheless, at the same time the absurdity of literary lies and romance continues (if Julio’s relationship with Emilia began with a lie about reading, a later relationship begins with a lie that he is editing the book of a famous author), Zambra studs the humor with compassion.  I’m looking forward to reading his second novel, The Private Lives of Trees, just published this summer.

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