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Not far from the tree

Chilean literary star delivers more of the same

Posted: January 6, 2011

By Stephan Delbos - Staff Writer | Comments (0) | Post comment

Not far from the tree

Walter Novak

Zambra's second novel employs metafictional techniques.

Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra shook the Spanish-language literary world with the 2006 publication of his debut novel, Bonsai, a minimalist narrative of avant-garde tendencies that put Zambra, who had previously published two collections of poetry, on the map as a promising young writer. The subsequent translation of the book into several languages established the writer as the biggest Chilean literary star since Roberto Bolano.

The Private Lives of Trees, Zambra's second novel, continues in the metafictional style previously employed by the writer. It is a book very much aware of itself, and despite, or rather because of, the fact that it treads much of the same ground as his previous work, the book is an interesting literary experiment that fails to rise to its own occasion.

The narrative centers on Julian, a struggling writer who lives with his girlfriend, Veronica, and her daughter from a previous relationship, Daniela. The book begins with the line, "Julian lulls the little girl to sleep with 'The Private Lives of Trees,' an ongoing story he's made up to tell her at bedtime," immediately establishing a running theme: Zambra is determined not to let us forget we are reading a novel.

From this point forward, the story unfolds with the narrator constantly reminding us that this is in fact a book unfolding in its own making, a book about the telling of this very story.

The Private Lives of Trees
By Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
Open Letter Books 2010
98 pages

Julian first puts the girl to sleep and sets about waiting for Veronica to return home, "since Veronica 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 Private Lives of Trees takes its title from a poem by Chilean poet Andres Anwandter that serves as an epigraph to the book: "like the private lives of trees / or of castaways." But the reasoning behind the title is more complicated. The book's protagonist, Julian, is a writer whose pet project is a novel about a bonsai tree, "a painstaking registry of the tree's growth," Zambra writes, referring to his own previous novel.

Such metafictional foreplay is fun, but it is questionable whether a book that never gives its readers a chance to suspend their disbelief can achieve much more than theoretical fireworks. One is tempted to believe that by doing away with the usual scaffolding of a novel, like plot, a writer can get to the heart of what makes a story pulse. This may well be true, but as The Private Lives of Trees draws to a close, one can't help but feel let down and left out.

Many critics have pointed out that while Zambra's ascent to fame has drawn comparisons to Bolano, Zambra's style actually shares very little with the deceased Chilean writer. Just as Samuel Beckett's minimalism was in part a rebellious reaction to James Joyce's all-inclusive maximalism, Zambra's short novels - this one is 98 pages, although it actually begins, inexplicably, on page 13 - seem to stake out a far polarity from the ranging magpie style of Bolano.

By the end of The Private Lives of Trees, one gets the feeling Zambra is anxious to stretch the boundaries of his metafictional minimalism, in part because the story continues after Julian's dark night passes. The novel's final section contains a line from American poet John Ashbery: "Life is a book that has been put down" as an epigraph. It is a statement that seems to signal that the novel is stepping beyond its own self-imposed boundaries. And yet even this gesture is another sleight-of-hand trick in a book full of them, signaling only another circle of the narrative, not a way out of it.

Alejandro Zambra is certainly the most interesting Chilean writer to emerge since Bolano died in 2003. Yet one can't help but feel Zambra's best work in his current mode is behind him. One hopes his biggest strengths - a lively attention to detail and an ability to plausibly, enjoyably break the binds of tradition - don't become his biggest weaknesses.

Stephan Delbos can be reached at

Tags: books, alejandro zambra, the private lives of trees, literature, spanish, bonsai, metafiction, chile, chilean, new books, book review, culture, prague, czech, czech republic.

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