Bonsai (The Contemporary Art of the Novella)

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The Millions Interview: Alejandro Zambra

Alejandro Zambra is at the forefront of Latin American—indeed one could say “world”—literature. He is young, Chilean, and writes with a poetic lucidity that engages a reader from the first line. His first two novels were both published by Anagrama and placed him immediately in the international spotlight. Bonsái won the 2006 Chilean Critics’ Award; it was published in English by Melville House in a translation by Carolina de Robertis in 2008, and was shortlisted for the 2009 Best Translated Book Award. In 2010 my translation of La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees), Zambra’s second novel, came out from Open Letter press.  Both are short books—some call them novellas—and both center on middle-class Chilean intellectuals.  While this may sound dry and specialized, Zambra has an electrifying ability to underscore ambiguity in the seemingly definite—or to turn a vague outline into a bull’s eye—that makes his material feel universal.  In 2010, Zambra was among 22 writers included in Granta magazine’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.  Granta says its lists “predict talent more than spot it,” and previous predictions have included writers like Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, David Mitchell and Lorrie Moore, to name only a few. 

Zambra’s third novel, Formas de volver a casa, will debut with Anagrama in May, and from what I can tell, it deviates from his previous books in form but not in feeling (that is, in its broad emotional landscape). Formas is significantly longer than its predecessors, and is told in various, well, forms: mostly narrated in first person by a young boy, it also includes verse and non-fiction elements.  The book is set in the 80s during Pinochet’s dictatorship.  Its child narrator is the son of an “apolitical” middle-class family, with parents who avoid risk out of fear, and who protect their children from the truth of their world.  It’s the story of a little girl who asks a younger boy to spy on her uncle, and the boy agrees because, as Zambra says, “he’s a little bit in love with her.”  It’s that “little bit” that is so particularly Zambra—there are no large, sweeping emotions here, but rather complicated, contradictory, little-understood intuitions.  This is a book about Chile, and the generation of Chileans who grew up during the dictatorship.  Zambra calls the literature of his generation “la literatura de los hijos” (literature of the children), because he feels his generation came of age believing the novel belonged to the “fathers of literature”, and that history was something imposed by their forebears.  As he says in an interview in Ñ magazine, “History belonged to others, and we confronted our inheritance sometimes with rebellion and other times with acquiescence; it took a long time for us to realize we had our own history and we had things to tell.” I asked Zambra a few questions about his upcoming book, and his feelings about being included in Granta’s list.

The Millions: Now that you’ve received a fair amount of attention for your books, do you worry more during the act of writing about how it will be received?  Or does the recognition validate you, give you a sense of freedom?

Alejandro Zambra: At the moment of writing, I feel completely free.  I really don’t think you can write anything genuine when you are under any kind of pressure. What’s more, publishing a book isn’t like giving birth to it; when you publish a book you feel what a father must feel when his son leaves home: you wish him well, you delight in or suffer with his successes and failures, but you can’t do anything more for him.  And your daily work is more interesting: the next book, the child you are starting to rear.

TM: Recognizing that any list like Granta’s will be subjective, is there anyone you feel strongly should have been included, but wasn’t?

AZ: Such lists are always arbitrary, and I suppose there are a lot of authors who were worth including in Granta’s, and in the end were not.  The truth is it’s an uncomfortable subject for me, because I really don’t believe in lists or rankings.  In any case I’d like to highlight the work that younger people have been doing, such as the Chilean Diego Zúñiga or the Mexican Valeria Luiselli (the author of Papeles falsos, one of the best books I’ve read recently).

TM: Not many authors have their books published more or less simultaneously in Spanish and in English, but both La vida privada and Bonsai were.  I’m curious about how the experience is different in Chile and the U.S. How does your status as a native or foreigner affect how people read you, do you think?  Do you feel more pressure to be “representative” in some way when you are outside of Chile?

AZ: I think both novels are very Chilean, so I’m sometimes surprised that they can be read in other languages.  To me, it’s a beautiful thing that readers so distant and different can connect with a book of mine.  It’s like sending out thousands of letters, and little by little receiving replies you never expected.  I guess some readers in the U.S. or in France want to confirm some prior idea they had about Chile or about Latin America.  But books aren’t made to confirm ideas; they’re made to refute them, to question them, to put other images out there where we thought everything had already been said.

TM: Tell us a little about Formas de volver a casa—is it much of a departure from your first two books?

AZ: It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile.  It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents.  It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess.  And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.  I don’t know if it’s very different from my previous books; the truth is I feel like it’s close to The Private Lives of Trees.  In fact it starts from there, from some of the intuitions or images of the past that were in that book.  Maybe the main difference is that it’s in large part narrated in the first person.  It also includes a writer’s diary, a kind of center or heart in which the fiction breaks, and the only thing left is the writer’s voice searching for its origins.  It’s my most personal book, without a doubt, although the others were that as well.

TM: Do you get frustrated with how people associate Chile with the Pinochet dictatorship?  Do you feel a need to establish yourself in relation to it, because if you don’t others inevitably will?

AZ: It doesn’t frustrate me; on the contrary, it seems like a conventional and understandable expectation. That relationship is very important to me, also.  I grew up in a dictatorship, I said my first words in a dictatorship, I read my first books in a dictatorship.  It’s part of my experience, part of my life.  And of course, Formas de volver a casa talks a lot about that.  But I don’t believe in genre novels or in a simple relationship between literature and history.  Literature doesn’t exist to depict something that’s already given, already processed.  We write because we want to live in a different way, because we seek new ways of understanding the past, present and future.

TM: One of the things I was drawn to in The Private Lives of Trees was the way you portray the relationships between the characters, and the characters themselves.  No one makes grand proclamations, which makes Julián’s promise that “if we get out of this we’ll go, at last, to see the snow” all the more heartbreaking.   The characters aren’t exceptional, but their mediocrity isn’t emphasized, it’s empathized with.   There is no bombast, but there is so much genuine feeling. I guess what I’m saying is that when I read your books, I feel like there is room for me in them, there’s no sense of looking in from outside.  Are you conscious of this, do you have to try not to judge your characters, or to not make them more than they are?

AZ: Thank you very much for what you say.  If that’s the case, if in some way I managed to portray those lives without failing the characters, I’m satisfied.  Because that’s what I want: for there to be space in my books to share gazes, to meet up; to know ourselves as fragile and strong at the same time, as we all are.  I hope for that, when I’m writing: to bear witness to a compassionate recognition of our failures and triumphs.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Recommended Reading for Transient Lives

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A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit – for better and for worse. We’ve read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime).

By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we’ve asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “Planes” should be self-explanatory; “Trains” comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and “Automobiles,” perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage!

Planes
Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust  “World” and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing.

Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home.  I’ve never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October.

Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I’ve brought a volume from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ve written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It’s an appropriate read for when you’re flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you’ve just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted. 

Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. If I say that I wasn’t even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it’s not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese’s exploration of sex in America.

Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they’re in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean – even, in my case, the Pacific.

Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it’s usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC. 

Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking.

Amir Hother Yishay: I read my first Murakami on a transatlantic flight, Kafka on the Shore; a magical experience. Also, White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

Becky Donahue: On one flight to Germany, I could not put down The Devil in the White City… wonderful. Another great plane book was the biography of John Adams by David McCullough.

Trains
Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel’s story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride.

Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape – the largely uninhabited regions – of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” – in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul.

Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I’ll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I’ll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don’t have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion – say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador – is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit.

Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ.  I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again.  There’s also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks.

Emily W: On trains, I’m usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers’ January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their “Literary Life” essays.  I’m a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise.

Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time – or, really, the first time – I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro.  I will flip immediately to “Wild Swans,” a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: “Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco’s jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries.”  I’d like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window.

Max: There’s something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town.

Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride

Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources.

Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful…just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts…Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth.

Automobiles
Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way – prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular.  I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.’s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.]

Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”

Emily W: With audiobooks, it’s all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts. 

Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof.  A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier’s slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow.  These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy.

Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I’m pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops.

Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux’s account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these.

Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns.

Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40.

Becky Donahue: Firstly I love audio books. I re-read (or listened to) Lovely Bones. Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) is a good audio book. And anything from Neil Gaiman…brilliant.

Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

At the end of July, I went to North Carolina for my family reunion.  Every other year, we rent houses on the beach in Ocean Isle, and for one week we swim in the ocean, drink, play boardgames,  and eat boiled peanuts.  It’s divine. As with all of my vacations, I take time to log the books I spot.

I’m happy to report that, for 2009, literacy is alive and well on the east coast!  I saw people reading!  The woman next to me on the eastbound flight chuckled at an Onion article on her Kindle, and then turned (clicked?) to Finn by John Clinch, and kept murmuring with admiration.  (I made a mental note to check this title out.)  A businessman across the aisle read a hardcover about smart management. I think another woman nearby was reading The Bible, though part of me wanted it to be a tattered first-edition of some Henry James novel.  Mass market mysteries abounded, as did self-help books like The Power of Now.  A mysterious man in the Charlotte airport perused a collection of T.S. Eliot poems.

My grandmother–whom we call Grammie Kids because she is a mother of six–was reading an issue of Reader’s Digest and an old mass market edition of Skipping Christmas by John Grisham.  She said Granddaddy wouldn’t let her pack anything else, and that he had only allowed her to bring light and thin books.  (Her revenge?  She “forgot” to pack his underwear.)

My eighteen-year-old sister flew through a few books while we were there, namely American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and Frenemies by Megan Crane.  She reads about a book every two days over the summer, and when I ask for a review she always says, “Good.”  As is the case with nearly every family vacation, people passed around Philippa Gregory’s books  like they were crack; I haven’t tried them yet, namely because my mother describing the plot of The Other Boleyn Girl (“And then…!”) is about all I can handle.  My poor sixteen-year-old brother–who will probably be valedictorian–insisted on bringing his school assignments, and spent two weeks not-reading a brief history of FDR’s first 100 days. (I remember in Hawaii he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X; the spine fell apart after the first couple of days and so he started bringing individual chapters to the pool.)  In Ocean Isle, he spoke longingly of the Sookie Stackhouse series–those “True Blood” books–that he wanted to start.

Someone in my extended family was reading Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich (she’s from South River, New Jersey, where my dad’s from, although this isn’t his family we were visiting). Everyone was passing around a memoir about fishing; the title escapes me, but I do remember that the author grew up in Spotswood, New Jersey, just like my mom and her siblings.  At the end of the trip, my mom started The Condition by Jennifer Haigh. She bought it because, except for a single letter, the author’s name is identical to my aunt’s.  The marketing department couldn’t have predicted that, could they?  My mother had also recently finished The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff and kept referring to my Aunt Jennifer as her “sister wife.”

And me?  I read three books on the trip.  The first was Woodsburner by John Pipkin, recommended to me by my friend Steve.  This wise debut novel is inspired by a little-known event in Henry David Thoreau’s life: a fire he accidentally started in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, a year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond.   Not only do we get a fictionalized Thoreau who, “hugs his knees tightly, watches the half-mile-wide fire, and considers the many individual acts that led to this moment,”  but we get a cast of other characters also affected by the conflagration. My favorite is Oddsmund, a Norwegian immigrant with a “dead infant tooth wedged alongside his adult incisors like a misplaced apostrophe.”  He’s so in love with his employer’s wife that his lust leads to a night-time liason with a pumpkin.  Predictably, this was the point in the book where I decided I loved it.  (On Goodreads, someone suggested that if the novel were called Pumpkinfucker, sales might improve.)

My next book was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The hype on this Swedish thriller is well deserved. After a boring opening chapter about finance scandals (really, it was awful), the story picked up, and, man oh man, it didn’t let me go.  The plot is terrifically constructed–I’m certain I learned something about the beauty of story–and I loved the cold weather, the aquavit, the endless cups of coffee.  I’m not sure I can wait for the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to come out in paperback. (Although, and I must say it:  I did wonder if the cliches in the book, like “pretty as postcard,” were exact translations.  I’ve heard Sweden is boring, but, really?  In the prose department, I wasn’t wowed.  But, and maybe for the first time in my life as a reader, I didn’t really care! )

There was also a real pleasure in reading a popular book.  Usually, I’m reading something no one has ever heard of, and I’m occasionally ignorant of huge bestsellers.  When Grammie Kids described to me the runaway hit The Shack by William P. Young (“And God is a black woman.  She looks like Maya Angelou!”), I had never heard of it; cut to a week later, I’m at the airport, and I count two copies in my gate alone.  Sometimes I feel like everyone’s eating this thing called scrambled eggs (What are those, I wonder.  They look good.), while I’m enjoying a delicious chantarelle and pecorino frittata. What a snob I am.

My last book was Bonsai by Alejando Zambra, from the Contemporary Art of the Novella Series published by Melville House.  This is a beautiful-looking gem-of-a-book, which I read–tired, sunburned on my kneecaps, and terrifyingly freckled–during my flight home.  Actually, it was so short, I read it as I enjoyed my $8.00 in-flight meal.  I was smitten by Bonsai, with its story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and confounded (in the best way) by its end.  I need to re-read it, if only for sentences like this one:  “Julio and Emilia’s peculiarities weren’t only sexual (they did have them), nor emotional (these abounded), but also, so to speak, literary.”  Ah, chantarelles!

For Book-Spying-Trip #2, I went to Laguna Beach.  I’m sorry to say that I spotted very few readers there.  (Oh, California, I thought, don’t embarrass me further.) Most of the adults were too busy swimming or chasing little kids around.  The teenage girls spent a lot of time spraying Sun-In into their roots as their male counterparts tried to make them laugh.  There was one gorgeous sixteen-year-old girl whom I was mentally casting in a French film.  She might have been wearing lipstick.  On the beach!  Almost all of the teenagers were tattooed (none with dragons); one girl, she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, had a tramp stamp. Really. Clearly, I wasn’t doing much reading myself.  The man next to us, however, was very studious with copies of Hemingway and Arthur Miller, and he wore a beanie like an old-timey Stevedore.  I made up all kinds of stories about him: his delicious loneliness, his journal of beautiful sentences by dead authors, his tiny sand-crusted apartment with the bad overhead lighting.   That was a good novel, this one I was writing in my head.  On sale, summer 2012.

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