December 2008

Erin McKnight


Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated by translated by Carolina de Robertis

Just as referring to a “bonsai”as a “bonsai tree” is misrepresentative, Emilia and Julio’s relationship shouldn’t be considered bound to conventional storytelling techniques, but instead to the stylistic form in which it appears in this critically acclaimed novella. For Alejandro Zambra’s lovers -- and the mercurial space between them -- are both the subjects and symbols of Bonsai: their rendering an advancement of this innovative work’s themes of redefinition and of continuance.

Bonsai is a fast read, its stark and unpretentious prose responsible for articulating the necessary “container” in which Emilia and Julio’s love must be housed in order to thrive. Although its appearance may belie shallowness, this vessel is sustaining. Like a bonsai, this miniature literary “replica” exists “on a precipice” of life and art -- love the intersection. Yet Bonsai shouldn’t be considered a mere imitation of continuation, of life force infused into objects that are rendered valueless when removed from their pots. Much as Julio realizes that “caring for a bonsai is like writing,” Zambra’s text and the relationship between his characters (“who are not exactly characters, though maybe it’s convenient to think of them as characters”) becomes indistinguishable.

Partitioned into five sections -- Mass, Tantalia, Loans, Spares, and Two Drawings -- Bonsai explores “the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with some amount of inclination.” Beginning at the end of their story and declaring that the “rest is literature,” Emilia’s disappearance is immediately accounted for, while Julio’s endurance is evidenced. The young man and woman meet in a study group for a Spanish Syntax II exam and regard each other, at least initially, as intrusions into a broader form of life preparation: as a second partner for Emilia, and a first serious relationship for Julio. And when their initial symbolic lie is shared, when they know that they are starting something, and “however long it [lasts, that something is] going to be important,” the reader moves beyond the text and assumes the role of cultivator for a relationship portrayed as fickle and tender. In caring for this dwarfed tree, however, nurturance will lead to pruning and the eventual consideration of the story as separate from the text will risk rendering it obsolete.

The love between Emilia and Julio is “doomed to seriousness,” evinced in the actions of another couple from a short story who purchased a small plant as a symbol of their own love. If this plant ever died, they believed, so would “the love that unites them.” Therefore, when their solution to “lose the little plant in a multitude of identical little plants” fails, the writing for Emilia and Julio is on the wall -- or on the pages of the books they read together nightly before finding sleep. The anguish that overwhelms the couples when they realize that they will never locate what they seek -- the plant, or their reflection in literature -- leads to the relationship's demise, but also plants a seed of survival in Julio that develops into the certainty that “Emilia [would turn] out to become, officially, the only love of his life.” Their story constitutes its own text, an artistic replication in a larger context that only a bonsai can represent with dignity.

Other characters do exist in the novella, but their presence is peripheral: a representation of a bonsai’s limbs that require pinching and clipping. Although these branches participate in the sustainment of the tree, their elliptical growth pattern functions only to serve Emilia and Julio. María, one such offshoot that Julio becomes entangled with is responsible for uncovering Emilia’s fate, but literally walks away before the reader’s very eyes, beginning to “disappear forever from this story” until “she’s gone.”

Bonsai ultimately ends as it begins, with Emilia gone and Julio left to continue alone. What is remarkable about Zambra’s novella is the space between ending and beginning -- the progressive prose that relates a true story with emotional and artistic implications extending far beyond its 83 pages. Like the “shielded carriage that steered itself, feeling its way through a beautiful and unreal city,” Bonsai sweeps the reader up and inside, providing, for a short distance and in spite of the adventure’s lack of “hope,” a ride they won’t forget. If, therefore, the elements comprising a bonsai -- its living form and container -- must be in harmony, Alejandro Zambra has replicated Julio’s achievement: he has grown a bonsai.

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Carolina de Robertis
Melville House
ISBN: 193363362X
90 Pages