Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Private Lives of Trees

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 put it themselves, stupid hunks of cement.

This paragraph opens Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees, just published in July by Open Letter with a beautiful translation by Megan McDowell, and, just as when I read his first novel Bonsai, the literary precursor that came to mind is Kurt Vonnegut.  This is right out of Vonnegut’s descriptions of his fictional author Kilgore Trout’s sci-fi novels: imagine one of Trout’s stories featuring aliens visiting or observing Earth.  The only difference in this passage, as I suggested in that previous post, is slightly more direct sympathy for the characters: Vonnegut would have used that last blunt assessment to describe the humans, something like “dumb hunks of meat.”  In fact, just two pages later Zambra gives us the more cynical, while still compassionate, statement that also could come straight from Vonnegut: “Sometimes Fernando is a blot on Daniela’s life, but who isn’t, at times, a blot on someone else’s life.”  Yes. And: ouch.  Still, I don’t want to overplay the Vonnegut connection: Zambra may have absorbed some of the earlier writer’s formal trappings, but he makes them his own, blending them with a deeper investigation of the internal hopes and fears of his characters in romantic and family life.

The Private Lives of Trees is just a little longer than the previous novel, but still only takes about two hours to read.  For me, it is the stronger book, dropping some of the more hackneyed ways of thinking about heterosexual romance and building on the strengths of the first.  Here, Julián is watching over his step-daughter, Daniela, and waiting for his wife Verónica to come home from her art class.  She is late, and then later, and as the evening passes he thinks about her ex-husband, Fernando, his own ex-girlfriend Karla, his writing, and how Daniela might react to it when she grows up.  This is a novel about waiting for someone to arrive, and the thoughts we have while waiting—a far less creepy cousin to David Lynch’s recent (brilliant) film Inland Empire. 

Moreover, one of the novel’s two epigrams comes from Georges Perec, and so the novel is also a play off of the Oulipian literary tradition of artificial constraints.  Early on, and occasionally throughout, the narrator tells us, after recounting the routine of Julián’s evenings with Verónica,
But this night is not an average night, at least not yet.  It’s still not completely certain that there will be a next day, since Verónica hasn’t come back from her drawing class.  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.

There is some ambiguity to this passage, and irony to the Oulipian constraint it proposes.  First of all, the novel is slightly ambiguous as to who is speaking or thinking here: is “the novel” Julián’s bedtime story for Daniela, his novel, or the narrator’s novel?  More basically, is Julián or the narrator creating this constraint?  Without giving away the end of Zambra’s novel, it can be said quite easily that Julián stops telling the bedtime story very early, and hardly works on his own novel at all.  Does this suggest, slyly, that he has given up on Verónica right from the start, all his thoughts for the remaining pages a kind of elegy for the relationship?  Second, as a reader of Zambra’s novel, I can only look on the Oulipian commitment as an ironic one: because Julián and Verónica are themselves fictional characters under the control of a writer, the constraint of ending the novel when one doesn’t show up or the other gives up is also a fiction.  The supposed constraint is both an authorial decision and a disguise for authorial decision, and so Zambra’s use of it strikes me as tongue-in-cheek.

You don’t need to pick up on the stylistic or explicit allusions in The Private Lives of Trees to enjoy it.  The novel does such a wonderful job of eliciting the experience of a mind avoiding its own conclusions that anyone will simply enjoy following Julián’s thoughts and reading McDowell’s beautiful translation of Zambra’s prose.  This book, more than Bonsai, shows why Zambra has become the rising star of Chilean literature others have reported him to be.

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