The second novella by Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, one of the “Bogotá 39” influential Latin American writers, uses metafiction to tell a delicate, emotionally complex story.
Alejandro Zambra is the rare Latin American writer to have his work translated into English while not only living, but young. His short novel Bonsai came out in 2008 as part of Melville House’s “Art of the Contemporary Novella” series. After receiving awards in his native Chile; being named to the Bogotá 39, a list of the most important Latin American writers under 39; and making it to the shortlist of the 2008 Best Translated Book Award alongside Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya, Zambra seemed destined to disappoint with his second work of fiction. He does not.
The Private Lives of Trees uses the same minimalist, metafictional style that so blew critics away in Bonsai, but to different effect. Whereas Zambra’s first novel used these techniques to highlight the detachment and deceptions of its pretentious characters, in Private Lives he playfully tells a story with much more emotional resonance.
Julian—professor, writer, husband to Veronica, and stepfather to 8-year-old Daniela—is trying to put his step-daughter to bed with a story about trees that can speak to each other after dark. Veronica should have already arrived home from her drawing class, but as the narrator informs us, this novel is defined by her absence:
It would be better to close the book, close the books, and to face, all at once, not life, which is very big, but the fragile armor of the present. For now, the story goes on and Veronica hasn’t arrived; it’s best to keep that in view, repeat it a thousand and one times: when she comes home, the novel ends—the book continues until she comes home or until Julian is sure that she is not coming home again.
There is no real agenda, and this looseness requires Veronica’s absence in order to give the novel its shape. It serves no purpose other than to reveal this “fragile armor of the present”; it’s the closeness of the little girl and her stepfather that holds these 94 pages together as the novel delicately weaves through time. Glimpses of Veronica’s pregnancy in college, and Daniela at age thirty, bookend Julian’s more extensive ruminations. Zambra’s meanderings through Julian’s failed relationship, the different iterations of the novel he can’t finish, and his childhood, are enjoyable in and of themselves, though without quite adding up to a coherent whole.
Despite the novel’s brevity and lack of real structure, Julian is an exceptionally well-drawn character, his subdued eccentricity rendered sympathetically but honestly. Observations of, and insights into, his mindset and quirks are strewn throughout Private Lives with an insouciance only a very involved narrator could pull off. After Daniela has fallen asleep and Julian is still in denial regarding Veronica’s disappearance, he turns on an old soccer match and “doesn’t want to miss it, not for anything.” Such deflection of the desperation of his situation, put simply and without flourish, makes the reader aware of Julian’s mental state in a way more baroque prose would muddle.
As Julian moves through stages of grief, tragedy is combined with lightness and subtlety. When considering his career path, he says he thinks about telling people his true calling is “to have dandruff.” In a more manic moment, he decides to revisit his novel, and Zambra is especially adept at conveying both the writerly frustrations Julian faces:
Now he reads, he is reading… convincing himself that the text before his eyes was written by someone else. A misplaced comma or a harsh sound, however, and he returns to reality: he is then, again, an author, the author of something, a kind of self-policeman who punishes his own mistakes, his excesses, his inhibitions.
In the end, we know Julian finishes his book because Daniela, at thirty, reads it. This is the only end tied up in a novel that tells readers outright that the story “dissipates”—and it’s better for it. Private Lives is not as tight as Bonsai, but Zambra has proven here that he can do complex emotion as well as he can do cynicism.