Alejandro Zambra Talks to Matt Nelson (The Center for Fiction)

A new book is as much an opportunity for a new conversation as it is for a new read. After hearing rumors of Alejandro Zambra’s next English-translated novel, Ways of Coming Home, I knew this was my chance to start one such conversation. WCH is longer than Zambra’s normal novella length, a work detailing Chile like Dubliners details Dublin, which is to say that if you think the sole aim is geographical mimicry in either book, then you’re missing wide of the barn. Specific to Zambra’s novel’s success is how deftly and naturally it communicates to itself and the reader through intertwining sections. The reader, never told explicitly the design, makes herself aware of the doubling; as we read, we learn what exactly it is we are reading. Zambra’s writing always constitutes an experience for the reader, an experience that is enjoyable and worth sharing because of its intimacy. Through email, Zambra and I chewed the fat about last minute changes, how every life is a story, and why it’s so difficult to name his characters.

 

I’m sure to some WCM will be a great guide as to how to deal with the life of a writer, since the main character is writing a novel. But more importantly, WCM will be an example of how to deal with the necessary “other” in the life of wordsmiths, the readers. So if you don’t mind, this is where I’d like to begin. Who is your ideal reader?

 

I never visualize/imagine a concrete reader. I like Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world/ that never wrote me.” I like “that never wrote me” because it testifies to that uncertain state that leads us to write. Writing is searching, always. [Paul] Celan says it is a gift to the other, it is the looking for the other, the absolute other, who/which is at the end of oneself. Then what one is looking for is an instance of something beyond reason, in which only the text exists; the task is unfolding it, like a sculpture: You work on the stone to find the form already there.

 

When I write or when I publish (I write a lot of things I would never publish), I don’t think of a reader, any reader whatsoever. However, once finished I tend to share the pieces with a few friends, and their opinions are relevant to me. I enjoy that dialogue around the texts; I’ve written that way always. I’m fond of a Natalia Ginzburg text about that, called “Interlocutors.” In any case it is hard to consider a text as something finished. I used to change many things during the printing-proof-marks, causing  “emergencies” among the editors of Anagrama [the Spanish publisher of Zambra].

 

How do you write?

 

I draft a lot; I have a diary and take notes on irrelevant things. I try to free the space of writing from any commitment, obligation, or duty; I do not push myself to write a poem, a story or a novel. I do not intend to write  “good writing.” I just go on, write whatever comes. Sometimes an image takes some work, but it starts to become something. It has always been that way, clearly. And when I find the book, or when I think I found it (even though I make a lot of mistakes) I plunge into it obsessively.

 

 

You write in WGC, “That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.” How do you feel about the term  “finished”? Which books do you return to with new ideas after they’ve already been published? Do you constantly think of your books? You mentioned emergency proof changes at Anagrama. What is a type of correction you’ve made during these  “emergencies”? 

 

Ten years ago I published Mudanza [Moving], a book of poems, which is in fact one poem divided into six parts. Since then I’ve been writing that book: I have around 200 pages rewriting those fifteen pages. I guess it’s unrecognizable by now.

 

I like to think, for instance, that The Private Lives of Trees is a correction of Bonsai, and that WGH is a rewriting of PLT. When one starts writing another book it doesn’t happen because you  “must” do it, or because you are a writer (at least I’ve been aware to stay free from any commitment that could force me to publish; I publish because I want to or need to do it). Once you start to write a new book, in some way it happens because the previous book doesn’t fit you anymore.

 

I make all kind of corrections. Some hysteria as well, sure. Today, above all, it seems so aggressive to conclude a book, considering all the time one spends before the screen dealing with it. My first feeling, when I have the book printed, is: This is it, I can’t add or take out anything. When I publish I detach myself from what I’ve done. I don’t think again about it, I leave it behind. To publish is not like giving birth at all, (well, I haven’t given birth), but like when children leave home. You want them to succeed, to be treated well, but they are not “yours,” they really are not yours anymore. And you’re more focused on, you care more about, the one you are still raising.

 

Is there something beyond a moral that you want the reader to gain?

 

Talking about morality, I remember [Ezra] Pound’s “fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.” I deeply consider that all the phrases of a text are equally relevant, and each one of them should be precise in some way, in some sense. There you have its morality. I think also of [Walter] Benjamin when he says something about the “legality” of memories. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. Broadly speaking I think that literature conveys the complexity of the object/fact being watched/perceived; it never simplifies. That’s why I’m astonished when the expectation is to have clear-univocal messages from books. Just the idea of a “message” is a drag.

 

I hear what you’re saying. The whole idea of some “message” is kind of a slap in the reader’s face. To force onto them something they may or may not agree with or need (as if you can determine what a reader needs) is to skew the balance between reader and author, and it puts the narrative in the advantage of having the final say re: conclusions. Not a message, WGC feels more like an opportunity for experience. There are often sentences in your other books that give the reader a look into the world of an author. But WGC enters something new or different. I felt like there was a moment of aha! when I figured out the mirror between narrators and it made me think about how I read—and what, textually, made me think about how I was reading. What do you hope a reader of WGH thinks of while reading, and then, after completing the book?

 

Yes, I agree, the reader completes the whole thing. I’ve also felt that sense of “being gently maneuvered,” which is a sort of initiation to a certain thought or an action that involves us as human beings, vitally speaking. And, at last, I believe the book is open to any kind of appropriation by anyone. As a reader one steals the book from the author, allowing the book to say many things at the same time. One explores its meanings, its layers. That’s what I enjoy as a reader and as a writer, and that’s why we re-read books. I reckon, answering your question, that a reader of WGH would likely wonder similar things to the ones I wondered when I was writing the book; then he/she fills the empty spaces with his/her own experience. I like the idea of that happening. I like the idea of literature as something that pushes us constantly to check our convictions.  In any case, thinking of those books that have moved me above all, I think I have never got them, understood them, utterly, really. In good books you always find a sort of opacity; they have margins of illegibility. So it is odd to see those attempts to simplify literature. I remember a note about PLT in which the critic stated that the novel was good even though it was not “truly” Latin American literature. Funny idea, that of understanding Latin American literature as a literary genre. The expectation that one doesn’t write novels, but  “Latin American” novels. And, in any case, what is that? What does it mean?

 

In all of your books there are secondary characters.. Often you won’t give a name, or the name isn’t stable at first, or it seems arbitrary. Any way you put it, a hierarchy is established. It’s like you’re telling us, don’t pay too much attention to these people; they’re just secondary characters, even though they come back and affect the story. This is indicative of the way information is given as well, combining the specific with the ambiguous. Why not tell us all the information up front at the beginning?

 

I like the idea that all my characters are secondary ones. There’s nothing heroic or  “spectacular” about them. It happened, and it still happens, that to name them is extremely difficult. It was absurd, I felt ridiculous choosing names for them. Considering that in a book the relevance of a name is utterly different from the meaning of a name in  “real life.” I never conceal that sort of trouble; I try to use names, to give characters a sense in writing. It was hard to focus on social conventions; it’s still hard to do, and I’ve decided to take advantage of that discomfort. This is quite clear in Bonsai. It is, in many senses, a novel written against the rhetoric of novels, and in favor of those odd books I’ve always enjoyed by Macedonio Fernandez, Felisberto Hernández, Juan Emar, and in some other way by José Santos González Vera, Adolfo Couve, and María Luisa Bombal. And evidently Borges’ advice about writing like drawing up a summary of a text already written. I considered his idea a luminous one to attempt in my writing.  I like the metaphor of the iceberg, of course. Reading many novels I thought it would be better if I avoid telling everything, prune some paragraphs, some hundreds of pages. I think that comes from all the poetry I started to read before all this, Ezra Pound, or Japanese poetry, or, in Chile, the work done by Gonzalo Millán, masterpieces of concentration and synthesis. I was deeply impressed by that, by far more than the “big” rhetoric or grandiloquence you see in Pablo Neruda.

 

There is a moment in WCH when the narrator’s sister asks if she is going to be in the new novel. The narrator says no, he is protecting her by keeping her out. Later in the novel, the narrator visits a young author and brings up a piece of dialogue in the young author’s book that must absolutely be straight from life, due to it’s uniqueness. These two instances are very different examples of reality’s intrusion into what we write. How do you feel about writing from life? Do you censor yourself in terms of certain people? How do people close to you react to your work?

 

I have no interest in telling my life. If asked what I write about, I would never answer “about my life.” I write about things I know, about spaces/scenarios I know well as I’ve inhabited them. I write about spaces/scenarios I know and that know me; there are coincidences, sure, but they have no relevance at all, because my life is not extraordinary. The story told in WGH is the story of many Chileans of my age, and I guess those tensions between parents and their children are present in the life of almost anybody.

 

Of course I care about people I love, but not by self-censorship. As I said before, this is not referential. Anyway, sure, there are reactions and confusions, but the people I love tend to be people who love me and they accept and understand that this has nothing to do with being literal.

 

I really like this answer. You mentioned self-censorship and the idea of spaces/scenarios. I wonder if the spaces/scenarios dichotomy institutes an objectification of the spaces/scenarios. Spaces are geographically objects, so we can ignore those. But scenarios are often shared or affected by others in real time. Hypothetically, pretend you aren’t writing a character or a scene in reference to someone you know or an event that affected you or someone you know, but you start to notice that the scene or the character would be recognizable by the real person. Is it more important to change certain arbitrary facts to guarantee that those close to you do not get hurt, or is it better to go with your first instinct, even if your character is named Herbert and your real- life friend who has the same eye color is named Hamilton? I’m sorry if I’m not making this clear.

 

I understand your question perfectly, and I think that in every case, with every text, the answer would be different. It is one of the many things for which there are no rules in literature: There are directions, but no rules. If you use first-person singular and talk about your mother, sure, the text will deal with that tension, always, with that possibility, but there are searches which need precisely that tension. As it is not  “easy” to be a writer, it is not  “easy” to be the husband, mother, or child of somebody who writes because a writer, in some way, will be always “writing you,” even when he/she is not talking about you. That’s a major issue in WBH, if writing protects you or exposes you instead, as in the episode concerning the main character’s sister. I thought it was interesting to question the narrator’s authority; the narrator is always authoritarian, even when he/she doesn’t want it, because he/she feels the right to tell a story. From Author, “authority,” “authoritarian.”

 

Who has been your most fully formed character?

 

Mmmmm. Sincerely, I have no idea.

 

Sorry, that was a cheap shot because I didn’t define “fully formed.” So instead: What is a fully formed character? What characters in the books you’ve read (not written) stay in your mind?

 

Well, it’s still a hard question. The character must looks like everybody, anybody, and nobody. (You know, yes, of course you know: “Here Comes Everybody.” Joyce tried— tons of pages poetry included—, did he succeed?)

 

How important is the perspective of the narrator? Is there a connection between perspective and truth? Bonsai and PLT are both in third-person, while WCH is in first. Why the change?

 

I like to think of the difference between the novels considering the distance between the narrator and the main character, which is decreasing; as in Bonsai, the narrator looks at the characters with more distance. That allows him to laugh at them a bit, to judge them, and also to help them, forgive them, love them. In PLT I think the narrator is closer; what’s going on there hurts (the narrator) almost as much as it hurts Julian, to the point in which the third person seems false: Someone is talking about himself using the third person. Well, in WCH, you have a first-person narrator; the distance dissolves, although there you have two narrators or one double narrator.

 

From my point of view that’s the most important decision: the voice. And I think the only method is by trial and error. There were also versions of Bonsai and PLT using first-person, the same way in which I wrote this third novel. I’m interested in it as an exercise, although I knew that this novel would be in first-person, to write it completely in third-person just to see how it goes. That’s the advantage of writing short novels; you can type many tries.

 

This is great. I agree. But even a short novel takes time. The “error” half of  “trial and error” assumes that you know what an error is. How do you know you’re writing something wrong? I guess I’m trying to get the order of the writing. Do you compare the writing of different voices, or do you work in one direction, feel falseness and then try something new?

 

Mostly the second way: I transcribe the stuff written, to feel it again (a bit esoteric, but it is what it is), and I try hard to feel, to detect, any trace of falseness. Almost always you know better what you don’t want than what you want.

 

The narrator at one point sees a women reading a book, her face between the pages, and he notes that reading is a way of hiding, in this case physically, but also mentally from reality. Are books just trees to hide behind? Or are they something else? And what does that make writing? Particularly about the past?

 

I think books allow us to know ourselves better. I have no doubts about that. To know ourselves intensively so we lie less to ourselves, and then we can admit that the best and the worst of ourselves are intermingled. It is like staring at a glass that is sometimes a mirror, sometimes a window. Then you lose the notion; you’re not sure if you’re watching yourself or someone else. Sometimes we feel we open ourselves, or that we hide, but writing is not exactly to open or conceal oneself. It overcomes that dichotomy. To write is to admit we need to search into the mystery we are. In spite of the ego, we are not more complex than anybody else. If we really knew how to read we would know that: Anybody’s life is a complete, terrible, and joyful novel.

 

When writing I feel I’m looking for answers to the oldest questions, the impossible ones. You don’t find answers but sometimes their faint air, or imminence. I like Borges’ expression: “the imminence of a revelation which does not happen.”

 

I don’t get that about the past. I think we always write about the past. We always arrive late to the actual present.

 

Issue 12, march 2013, here


The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra (Marcela Valdes, The Nation)

When it was published in Spanish in 2006, Alejandro Zambra’s novel Bonsai filled just ninety-four generously spaced pages, and its recent English translation by Carolina De Robertis stretches only to eighty-three. Still, each of these volumes should be considered a marvel of book design and production since in interviews the author has let slip that his original text ran only to forty sheets. Rather than shrink in its conversion to bound covers, as most manuscripts do, Zambra’s text has swelled–and its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size. As the venerable Santiago newspaper El Mercurio commented in April 2008, “The publication of Bonsai…marked a kind of bloodletting in Chilean literature. It was said (or argued) that it represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation’s letters.”

Reading the book a continent away, I would never have predicted such a fuss, though Bonsai is a delightful work. A love story that’s both wry and melancholy, the novel opens in 1980s Santiago, at a study session turned party, where textbooks give way to vodka and two university students fall casually into bed. “Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class,” Zambra writes, “and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort.”

Such knowing, cynical observations save the love story of these twentysomethings from sentimentality, and Zambra keeps the zingers coming as he traces the development of Julio and Emilia’s “conceited intimacy,” which allows them to feel not only loved but also “better, purer than others.” The relationship withers by page 35, at which point the novel–this little book has been insistently presented as a full-fledged novel in Spain and Latin America–turns poignant. The brief romance, brimming with heartfelt confessions and adolescent posturing, emerges as the one great love of Julio’s dispirited life.

Julio and Emilia’s story “is really a story of illusions,”the novel observes, and what makes it dazzling is Zambra’s nuance. Bonsai doesn’t just mock its characters’ fantasies and deceptions; it also shows how such chimera are necessary to their happiness, and their undoing. Julio and Emilia are literature majors–that is to say, lovers of well-wrought lies–and one of the novel’s most amusing scenes occurs when they decide to read In Search of Lost Time as foreplay. At the budding of their relationship, Julio had spurred the romance by claiming to have read all seven volumes of Proust’s masterpiece when he was only 17. Emilia had sweetly reciprocated the lie. So when the lovebirds actually open Swann’s Way,

They both had to pretend that their mutual read was, strictly speaking, a reread they had yearned for, so that when they arrived at one of the numerous passages that seemed particularly memorable they changed their tone of voice or gazed at each other to elicit emotion, simulating the greatest intimacy.

It’s a charade that neither Julio nor Emilia can sustain for long: 372 pages into the epic, the couple abandons Proust, and each other. Lies speed love, Bonsai seems to say, and corrode it.

Before Bonsai, Zambra published two volumes of poetry, and he’s said that Bonsai began as a third collection of verse that developed into a novel. This history may explain the novel’s minimalist style and formal cleverness. (Zambra uses synecdoche and symbol to marvelous effect.) What’s most unusual about the book, however, is its insistence on breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Like a modern Henry Fielding, Zambra makes no effort to disguise his literary devices; rather, he highlights them at every turn. Here, for example, are the novel’s oft-quoted opening lines:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature.

Elsewhere Zambra warns that other walk-ons “don’t matter, they’re secondary characters.” He toys with possible character names and indicates when a woman will “disappear forever from this story.” His writer-narrator even confesses his difficulties with plotting: “I want to end Julio’s story, but Julio’s story doesn’t end, that’s the problem.”

If Bonsai were a building, it’d look rather like the Centre Georges Pompidou, all its mechanicals exposed and painted bright primary colors rather than hidden behind the walls. Zambra wants not only to explore conflict and emotion but also to revel in the medium that allows him to express these things. As one Chilean critic noted, “Zambra seeks, from the beginning and through diverse means, always to maintain a certain distance between the reader and the narrative, a distance that stresses, precisely, that we are dealing with a literary text and not an imitation or transposition of reality.” Such an approach is common enough among poets, but it’s rare among contemporary Latin American novelists, and several prominent Chileans loathed his work.

Chief among Zambra’s detractors was Mercurio critic Jose Promis, who declared that though Bonsai and Zambra’s second novel, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Life of Trees), have been sold as novels by Editorial Anagrama, they have no place in the category. On the contrary, Promis wrote, “they step forward…stripped of all the scaffolding that transforms a story into a novel, or at least of how us laymen understand it: as an ‘absurd comedy’ where ‘we’re going to pretend like there was a world that was more or less like this.'” This definition of the novel is so narrow as to be laughable–where do futuristic works like Neuromancer or grave meditations like Gilead fit within such rigid criteria? Promis’s final admonition is equally dogmatic: “Renovators who stay in the [metafictional] form risk being devoured by authentic literature.”

Such sermonizing about what constitutes “authentic” novels generally strikes me as specious. From Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to Molloy and The Lover, the world of fiction has always contained many realms, and Bonsai is in no more danger of being “devoured” than Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Actually, to judge by public honors, Zambra has done remarkably well. In April 2007, Bonsai won a prestigious Chilean prize for the best novel of the year, and that same month Zambra was chosen for the “Bogota 39,” a juried selection of the thirty-nine most important Latin American writers younger than 39. By then, Bonsai was already being translated into French, Italian and Greek. And the controversy about whether the book was really a novel and whether it deserved such lavish recognition? It only plumped the book’s sales.

Readers who consider Roberto Bolano the pole star of contemporary Chilean fiction will be jolted by Zambra’s little book. For though Zambra has been stamped as the Next Great Chilean Writer in many circles, he’s in no way Bolano’s heir. (But then, who is?) Where the heroes of Bolano’s novels are resolutely proletarian, Zambra’s characters are mostly downwardly mobile bourgeoisie. (At one point, Bonsai even refers to working-class beachgoers as lumpen, or riffraff.) Where Bolano wrought romantic detective stories showcasing the virtues of courage and integrity, Zambra’s protagonists lead mundane lives rife with small deceptions. It’s no surprise that Zambra says he reads Bolano very little. He doesn’t care much for Bolano’s literary hero Julio Cortazar, either.

In these tastes, Zambra is indeed the herald of a new wave of Chilean fiction. As the noted critic Javier Edwards of El Mercurio has observed, “in the antipodes of long-winded writing, like the negation of a Roberto Bolano,” the minimalist novel has carved out a place in the national letters. Like Beckett reacting to Joyce, the young writers of Chile, who were born in the 1970s during the military dictatorship and who cut their teeth on the satirical newspaper The Clinic during the newly recovered democracy, have turned from Bolano to the bonsai.

Zambra himself fashions a tale from this trend. Near the end of Bonsai, Julio meets the antithesis of the young Chilean author, an old novelist named Gazmuri (a clear riff on the real Chilean historian Cristian Gazmuri, whose most famous work is the two-volume series The History of Private Life in Chile). Zambra’s old writer has published a series of novels “about recent Chilean history,” and he needs someone to type up his latest opus, which of course he’s written by hand. Sitting in a cafe in the once-posh neighborhood of Providencia, Gazmuri asks Julio, “Do you write novels, those novels with short chapters, forty pages long, that are in fashion?”

“No,” Julio responds. “Would you recommend that I write novels?”

Rejected by Gazmuri, Julio attempts to become him by writing and then transcribing the novel he imagines Gazmuri had in mind. But when Gazmuri’s book comes out, we see the gulf between Julio’s attempt and Gazmuri’s own, and Julio turns to a project of “true art”: cultivating, from seed, a real bonsai. The Gazmuri novel is thus portrayed as both impossible and unworthy.

The Private Life of Trees also revolves around a struggling writer. Julian is putting the final touches on a novel about a bonsai and is plagued by doubts about its merit. Maybe, he thinks, it would have been better to make a simple record of the conversations he overheard from the bar downstairs? Maybe he should have written a book about the life of an 8-year-old boy during 1984, when Pinochet’s dictatorship was still in full force? Private Life even presents some of the memories Julian would have used in writing this second, more Gazmuri-like book. In the end, however, Julian decides, “It isn’t that he wishes to write that story. It’s not a project. Rather, he wants to have written it years ago and to be able to read it now.”

There’s something lazy about this solution to Julian’s dilemma. Indeed, although The Private Life of Trees has moments of real sparkle, compared with Bonsai the novel feels tossed off. Its digressive structure is wobbly where it should be tight, and its exploration of mature relationships is marred by evasion and sentimentality. Even the novel’s metafictional observations feel stale. (“When [Julian’s wife] returns the novel ends. But while she doesn’t return the novel continues.”)

The problem isn’t minimalism or metafiction per se; it’s Zambra’s reluctance to apply to Julian’s tender spots the same pressure he brings to bear on those of Julio and Emilia. In interviews, Zambra, who was born in 1975, often mentions that what unites his generation of writers is that they are all children of the Pinochet dictatorship; yet the dictatorship figures little in the settings of his books. That period, when handled at all, is always treated obliquely. If anything, his two novels can be read as accounts of well-off people who lived through the dictatorship and were hardly bothered by it at all. Of course, there were many, many such people in Chile, and it would be a pleasure to see Zambra tackle this material with the dry, nuanced eye he showed in Bonsai.

Instead he turns to feeble analogy. At its crux, The Private Life of Trees turns on a parallel between the vanishing of Julian’s wife, Veronica, who goes to art class one evening during the democratic era and never returns, and the murder of political dissidents who were disappeared while the country was under military rule. “I’m the son of a family that has no dead,” Julian says to himself during the minutely detailed night he spends waiting for Veronica’s return. Other friends, he remembers, had families “where death appeared with pressing insistence”; what he has is Veronica’s unexplained absence. Yet between these two kinds of loss lies a world of difference that Zambra never musters the courage to explore.

Publicado en The Nation, June 17, 2009.  Tomado de acá.


The Private Lives of Trees (M.A.Orthofer, The Complete Review)

 The Private Lives of Trees is, like Zambra’s Bonsai, a miniature of sorts. A bonsai tree actually figures in this novel, too: the protagonist Julián, a thirty-year-old professor of literature is also a writer, and for a time he was very preoccupied with a rather sorry little bonsai — to the extent that:

instead of being content with the stories that destiny put at his disposal, Julián remained fixated on his bonsai.

Zambra does better — and more — with the stories at his disposal — even if he never forgets about the bonsai either.
In the time when The Private Lives of Trees is set, Julián has more to deal with and focus on. He is a step-father now, and as the story opens is putting his barely eight-year-old stepdaughter, Daniela to bed with a bedtime story (an ongoing one, featuring trees). His wife, Daniela’s mother, Verónica, isn’t home yet, and it’s an absence that grows increasingly noticeable, as Julián tries not to think too much about what might be delaying her, but can’t help himself.
The story is centered around her absence and her anticipated return, too, the omniscient narrator/author letting it be known that:

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 she won’t return.

This is no simple case of a woman staying out late: it is her absence and the uncertainty surrounding it that allow for this fiction. Until there is certainty — she has returned, or she definitely won’t return — Julián (and the novel) can continue in this Schrödinger-cat-like limbo.
The novel is unevenly divided into two parts, ‘Greenhouse’ and ‘Winter’, the former many times longer than the latter. ‘Greenhouse’ is set in the long night during which Julián waits (though he is not primarily or at least just waiting). Daniela must be entertained, at the beginning and later on (she wakes during the night), but Zambra also introduces much else here, going over how Julián met and conquered Verónica, for example, as well as both his and her previous relationships. Zambra has an easy, pleasant style and way about him, in how he lets these stories unfold and how he weaves them together.
Eventually, Julián reflects not just on the past but spins out his thoughts of the present situation and projects them on the future, imagining Daniela in later stages of her life, at twenty, twenty-five, thirty ….. Among other things he imagines her eventually reading his novel.
Zambra captures this looking-ahead particularly nicely:

He wants to catch sight of a future that can exist without the present; he accommodates the facts willfully, with love, in a way that protects the future from the present

The Private Lives of Trees is small novel, in the best sense(s). Most of what is described is simple, mundane, everyday, and there are few dramatic events. Yet despite this, and despite being less than a hundred pages long, it is a surprisingly full-bodied and resonant work.
Zambra’s stories are of the everyday, and he captures the ambiguity and uncertainty of our day-to-day lives particularly well, employing a very agreeable, almost understated style and approach. The Private Lives of Trees offer no pat resolutions and answers, but it’s still surprisingly satisfying, with lives and certain crossroads very well conveyed.

 

Publicado en The Complete Review, 21 April 2010. Tomado de aquí.