Melville House has put out about half as many contemporary novella-ists within their The Art of the Novella series as dead ones. All our favorites dead ones are there: Tolstoy, Balzac, Conrad. It’d be a somber squeeze to share shelf space with Woolf and Pushkin, but alive and kicking Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai breathes evenly and unrestricted between such greats.
Here is the first line of the translation (Zambra is from Chile):
“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. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:”
Here is a translation of the translation:
This is a story written in a moment although that moment is unspecified and is otherwise unnecessary outside of the need for a point with which to balance the past and future, but mostly the past. At least one person dies. At least one other person lives. If there is ambiguity with the names of characters, it is not meant to confuse, but to impress the arbitrary nature of names in light of the story as a whole. Literature, the business card name for a story, is magic because it is that which makes people important and eternal even though they, we are really neither.
Bonsai is an honest book. It is fit and trim and well manicured according to the shape of a collapsing galaxy that has already collapsed. For such a small space, it feels boundless. This story is not a collection of words despite its claims otherwise. The main characters Julio and Emilia are “not exactly characters, though maybe it’s convenient to think of them as characters”. The plot is known from the beginning and yet it goes on. A fiction can be axiomatic even though by definition it cannot. When we read that the first lie Julio and Emilia tell each other is a claim of finishing In Search of Lost Time, how can we not empathize, if not for Proust? When a minor character’s love for Emilia marinates at an office party and then risks his own marriage impetuously on a kiss, who can shrug in disbelief? When Julio meets his literary hero, Gazmuri, and stays silent in awe throughout coffee and cigarettes, who would have done different? And it’s not just the truth that’s believable.
Metafiction often affects like you’re being tricked. The author is showing herself or himself or the act of writing in a way that reflects the fact that you are reading a book, a wooden object full of inky symbols. Bonsai doesn’t do that. It continually tells you to look left when really, it continues, you should be looking right. But the act is more truthful than deceptive. See, “Gazmuri doesn’t matter, the one who matters is Julio,” and, “Maria disappears on the way to Fuentetaja bookstore. She moves away from Emilia’s corpse and beings to disappear forever from this story.” Julio and Emilia are the centers of the story, and yet they cannot be fully defined without periphery details such as ex-boyfriends and current reading lists. Which is what anyone’s life is like: a collection of meaningless details when alone, but in and combined with their relative placement to a midpoint create meaning.
There exists a definite blending of text and life in this book. “[Anita’s] been separated for several years from Andres, whom Julio vaguely met during the last days or last pages of his relationship with Emilia.” This line becomes even more complex because Julio has written a novel about a man who hears that a previous love of his has died in a car accident. Push one way and we see that Julio is only writing this novel to put up the pretense that he is working with Gazmuri, transcribing the old man’s “most personal novel,” when in fact he is not. Pull the other and we know, from the very beginning, that Emilia dies, and then a few pages later, in a car crash.
“[Julio] spends his afternoons at a computer transcribing a novel that he no longer knows to be another’s or his own, but which he has resolved to finish, finish imagining, at least.”
There are multiple levels of play happening here when we then consider Zambra in the mix. Is Zambra Julio, is he Gazmuri, or is he just himself writing a love story? The hint of meaning creates meaning. Say something and it is something. But Zambra knows there’s more than just words, that we can create meaning without words if we struggle. Even though Julio and Emilia are shaken from a Macedonio story about love lost, they continue in the face of the words they find so powerful. “Knowledge of a thing cannot impede it, but there are illusory hopes, and this story, which is becoming a story of illusory hopes, goes on like this:”
I like the colons. How Zambra doesn’t use them for a line up per se, but rather to link the downward flow of paragraphs in the most open (albeit standalone) punctuation possible. It is hopeful. The whole idea of Bonsai is hopeful. Who reads novellas? Who reads translations? The second question has less to do with Zambra and more to do with Melville House, but they are both responsible for crafting this little force. If “writing is like caring for a bonsai” and the bonsai is the story of Bonsai, then Bonsai the book published by Melville House is the bonsai’s pot whose selection is, according to Julio’s amateur bonsai book, “an art form in itself”. Melville has done a fantastic job picking the right bonsai and “not a bonsai tree because the word already contains the living element.” The word already contains the living element, is a good place to stop.