The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra

6 March, 2011

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, one of Chile’s young literary stars, was February’s read for my book group. I wouldn’t have necessarily picked this book up if it wasn’t chosen for me as I am woefully under-read regarding South American literature. Although a very slim book just under 100 pages, I thought it might be difficult (as in Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller), but the translation by Megan McDowell was so smooth I just breezed through it, even though I was trying hard to savour each word. It was a joy to read and left me feeling all warm and fuzzy even though the subject matter wasn’t necessarily happy.

Julián is telling a bed-time story to his step-daughter Daniela as he awaits the return of his wife Verónica from her art class. We learn about how they met, his ex-girlfriend Karla, Daniela’s father Fernando, Julián’s job as ‘a professor, and a writer on Sundays‘ and how he waits and waits for his wife to return.

It’s a charming, yet slightly meta, fiction as we can see from this passage:

But this night is not an average night, at least not yet. It’s still not completely certain that there will be a next day, since Verónica 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 book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return. For now Verónica is missing from the blue room, where Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with a story about the private lives of trees.

Julián is insecure about a lot of things but we don’t get a sense of panic from the text. In fact, his insecurities and worries almost seem absurd and charming at the same time. He is also a writer trying to write about his bonsai plant. And Zambra himself has written a first novel titled Bonsai in which the protagonist is called Julio (the name originally intended for Julián until there was a mix-up at the registry). Curiouser and curiouser.

For now, his actual job seems strange: professor. But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff. he imagines himself answering that way:
‘What do you do?’
‘I have dandruff.’

Isn’t that sweet? And there is this following passage which I’m sure many a writer must have also thought:

He didn’t want, really, to write a novel; he simply wanted to create a coherent place to pile up memories. He wanted to put his memories into a bag and carry them until the weight destroyed his back.

And one of the most endearing images from the book is to do with his ex-girlfriend Karla.

His memories of Karla were almost exclusively tied to the memories of the books that he hadn’t brought with him that night of the message on the wall. now Karla is nothing more than a book thief. That’s what he calls her sometimes, between clenched teeth, while looking vainly over the bookshelves: book thief.

Although a very short book and simply written, the imagery is vivid. I preferred the first half of the novella about Julián compared to the second about Daniela to whom I didn’t feel so connected. Julián is a character, thirty, ugly, book-loving, that one can’t help becoming curious about. Zambra gives you a slice of Julián’s life. We are left not knowing why or how. But somehow, that works here and I really liked the ending.

But what I was left thinking about was the tres leches cake which brought Julián and Verónica together. Drool.

There were some mixed feelings about this book although most of us liked it. And I have to admit I got progressively more confused as the discussion progressed. Check out what Reading Matters and Novel Insights thought of the book.

2 Responses to “The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra”

  1. Fëanor Says:

    Lat-Am crime novels – now that’s something to get one’s teeth into. Juan de Recacoechea springs to mind…

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