Review: ‘Bonsai’ by Alejandro Zambra
BONSAI, by Alejandro Zambra. Translated by Megan McDowell.
“Bonsai” by Alejandro Zambra (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell) begins with an ending: “At the end she dies and he is alone, although in reality he was alone for a few years before his death. ” What follows is truly sublime news as we watch Julio (the aforementioned ‘he’) and Emilia (the aforementioned ‘she’) meet, fall in love, then lose touch, until Julio finds out in the latest and beautiful pages that Emilia is dead.
This sequence of events might suggest the kind of romance that writers such as Sarah Dessen and Nicholas Sparks turned into literary and film empires. There’s something inherently poignant about the idea of a doomed first love that can never be found. Sentimentality often makes compelling albeit empty reading because, when used irresponsibly, it can cheapen a story to the point of imitating it. However, Zambra transforms sentiment and nostalgia into occasions for humor, vulnerability and truth by deploying frank specificity. There are no predefined phrases in Zambra. Here’s Emilia trying to find the exact word to describe her longing for Julio: “That’s the problem with young Chileans. We are too young to make love. She then riffs on the various Spanish and Chilean idioms for sex. And here is Julio’s approach to relationships: “Julio had avoided serious relationships, hiding not from women but from seriousness, because at that time he knew that seriousness was just as dangerous as women, if not, more.
Such passages demonstrate Zambra’s keenness for thought patterns and the narrow wisdom of youth. One senses in Emilia and her lexical games both the desire for intimacy and the desire to keep intimacy at a distance; in Julio, a childish uneasiness about love.
One of my favorite moments in “Bonsai” comes early on, when it’s revealed that as a foreplay, Emilia and Julio read aloud to each other. This practice leads them to the short story “Tantalia”, by Macedonio Fernández, in which a couple buys a plant as a sign of their relationship. The Fernández couple realize that the plant will one day die, taking their love with it, so in a fit of desperation they take the plant to a store and lose it among other plants. They realize too late that they will never find this symbol of their love.
The story has a particular and painful effect on Julio and Emilia, as if it were a cursed object. “They both knew that, as they say, the end was already written – their end”, observes the narrator. “They both harbored the fantasy of at least finishing Proust, dragging things out over seven volumes and letting the last word (the word ‘Time’) also be the last word that happened between them.”
Their relationship ends soon after, but they each continue to live until the day Emilia dies.
Before dying, Emilia moves to Madrid. Julio, however, remains in Chile, where he is contacted by an acclaimed writer who asks him to transcribe his handwritten notebooks. He doesn’t get the job, but what he does instead is one of the most notable elements of “Bonsai”. Julio, who is now sleeping with his neighbor, lies to his lover and tells her that he is translating the writer’s novel after all. The novel is called “Bonsai”. And what he describes to her is the story of his relationship with Emilia. He writes in notebooks, pretending to be the famous writer’s handwriting, then he transcribes his own handwriting, resulting in a book he gives to his lover as she leaves for Madrid, of all places. The creation of this novel, both an act of transcription and fabrication, of lie and truth, touches on something elementary in art itself: that in the end, what we call art doesn’t matter, what matters is that we Express the most urgent material of our lives.
The strange and changing structure of the short story gives “Bonsai” a playful quality. The whole story seems to be governed by a dreamlike logic, filled with coincidences and ghostly echoes. For example, before leaving for Madrid, Emilia has a falling out with her best friend and former roommate, Anita, because Emilia borrowed Anita’s husband for an office party, at the end of which he made a move on her. This causes a rift between the two which is only bridged when Anita reunites with Emilia in Madrid, living in squalid conditions with no money, no family, no friends. Years later, as Anita’s ex-husband waits to see a doctor, an old man walks out of the office. The old man is actually the famous writer. Meanwhile, Julio’s former neighbor and lover arrives in Madrid on the fateful day of Emilia’s death, of which she is a surprised witness.
There’s a way that such coincidences can make a story feel silly or awkward, like it’s less of reality or cheap effects. But I didn’t find that to be the case in “Bonsai”. This is partly down to Zambra’s mastery of tone and timing, but more than anything it’s down to the flippant yet laid-back way Zambra presents these coincidences – there’s a little surprise, but nothing too difficult. , nothing too much. There is a dreamy associative quality to the short story that makes it true, beautiful and moving. I left “Bonsai” feeling a small wistful pain in my ribs, as if a crucial part of me had been taken away.
Brandon Taylor is the author of “Real Life” and “Filthy Animals”.
BONSAI, by Alejandro Zambra | Translated by Megan McDowell | 79 pages | Penguin Books | Paper, $16