Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra – A Review

Bonsai (The Contemporary Art of the Novella)
Alejandro Zambra
Melville Hose, pg 83

In someways I thought Bonsai was quite interesting, and brevity, one of the defining features of the book, should be commended since it is so easy to fill up novels with pointless digressions. It’s not just the lack of pages that makes for brevity, but Zambra’s avoidance of temporal realism, that need to narrate a character’s movement through a doorway, a house, etc. Often that material is quite pointless, and he instead plays with where the story is going. Often it seems as if he is not interested in a story, but the story about the story, as if you were hearing the story second hand. It is that lack of detail, whether physical, or emotional that leaves one distant from the story. You have some facts about the characters, and some facts about the story telling, but structuring a narrative is just what happens when you read.

You can see how he goes about writing in this quote. It has all the hallmarks of his style: repetition, reversals, and a sketch-like description of his characters.

It is possible but would perhaps be abusive to relate this excerpt to the story of Julio and Emilia it Would be abusive, as Proust’s novel is riddled with excerpts like this one. And also because there are pages left, because this story continues.

Or does not continue.

The story of Julio and Emilia continues but does not go on.

It will end some years later, with Emilia’s death; Julio, who doesn’t not die, who will not die, who has not died, continues but decides not to go on. The same for Emilia: for now she decides not to go on, but she continues. In a few years she will no longer continue nor go on.

Knowledge of a thing cannot impede it, but there are illusory hopes, and this story, which is become a story of illusory hopes, goes on like this: […]

But where does that take one? Zambra is very conscious in making literary references throughout the book. It is a novel for people who think books create reality, not something that is just part of reality. Zambra moves between characters who read Flaubert, Proust and finally a character who pretends to be transcribing a book by a Chilean author and creates his own work in doing it. Except for the creation of a shadow book, I had the sensation that it would be more interesting if I were 21 again and the discovery of Proust was a revolution. But Zambra doesn’t even go to that level, what he often sounds like is a glib student laughing because he got out of reading it. Yes, that is what his characters do, but in reading it I have that same sensation of glibness. Now it doesn’t matter if he likes Proust or not, but the reading of the book makes his playfulness seem like window dressing of a young man.

Going back to the quote, the style while interesting, in the hands of Zambra, also leaves something wanting. At first the back and forth about the characters continuing is intriguing, but again it is light and while the story about the story, his playing with narrative, is interesting, the characters again are flat. From this slim a book I don’t expect grand insights, that isn’t what if is about, but the humor that should be in Julio’s character is tedious. It reads quick enough, but the transitory whims of young people just end up sounding like spoiled children. Brevity is beautiful, just make it about something interesting.

I had looked forward to Bonsai, and in some ways it was interesting, but if I need a little detachment in my reading I’ll go for Bernhard or De Assis’ Diary of a Small Winner.


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