Review: ‘Bonsai,’ by Alejandro Zambra

BONSAI, by Alejandro Zambra. Translated by Megan McDowell.

Alejandro Zambra’s “Bonsai” (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) begins with an ending: “In the end she dies and he is alone, although really he had been alone for some years before her death.” What follows is a truly sublime novella as we watch Julio (the aforementioned “he”) and Emilia (the aforementioned “her”) encounter each other, fall in love, then fall out of touch, until Julio discovers in the novella’s last, beautiful pages that Emilia is dead.

This sequence of events might suggest the kind of love story that writers such as Sarah Dessen and Nicholas Sparks have turned into literary and cinematic empires. There is something inherently poignant in the idea of a first, doomed love that can never be recaptured. Sentimentality often makes for compelling if empty reading because, when wielded irresponsibly, it can cheapen a story to the point of imitation. However, Zambra turns sentiment and nostalgia into occasions for humor, vulnerability and truth by deploying a frank specificity. There are no canned phrases in Zambra. Here’s Emilia trying to pin down the exact word for her desire for Julio: “This is the problem with young Chileans. We’re too young to make love.” She then riffs on the various Spanish and Chilean idioms for sex. And here is Julio’s approach to relationships: “Julio had avoided serious relationships, hiding not from women but from seriousness, since by that point he knew that seriousness was every bit as dangerous as women, if not more so.”

Such passages demonstrate Zambra’s acuity for the thought patterns and blinkered wisdom of youth. One senses in Emilia and her lexical games both the desire for intimacy and a desire to hold intimacy at bay; in Julio, a boyish uneasiness about love.

One of my favorite moments in “Bonsai” comes early on, when it’s revealed that as an act of foreplay, Emilia and Julio read aloud to each other. This practice leads them to the short story “Tantalia,” by Macedonio Fernández, in which a couple buy a plant as a token of their relationship. Fernández’s couple realize that the plant will die one day, taking their love with it, so, in a fit of desperation, they take the plant to a store and lose it among other plants. They realize only too late that they’ll never find this symbol of their love again.

The story has a peculiar and painful effect on Julio and Emilia, as though it were a cursed object. “They both knew that, as they say, the ending was already written — their ending,” the narrator observes. “They both nursed the fantasy of at least finishing Proust, of dragging things over seven volumes and letting the last word (the word ‘Time’) also be the last word that passed between them.”

Their relationship concludes shortly thereafter, but they each go on living until one day, Emilia is dead.

Before she dies, Emilia moves to Madrid. Julio, however, stays in Chile, where he is contacted by an acclaimed writer who asks him to transcribe his handwritten notebooks. He does not get the job, but what he does instead is one of the more remarkable elements of “Bonsai.” Julio, who is now sleeping with his neighbor, lies to his lover and tells her that he is actually translating the writer’s novel after all. The novel is titled “Bonsai.” And what he describes to her is the story of his relationship with Emilia. He writes in notebooks, impersonating the handwriting of the famous writer, and then he transcribes his own writing, resulting in a book that he gives to his lover as she departs for Madrid, of all places. The creation of that novel, simultaneously an act of transcription and fabrication, lies and truth, gets at something elemental about art itself: that in the end, what we call art is of little consequence, that the thing that matters is that we express the most urgent material of our lives.

The novella’s strange, shifting structure lends “Bonsai” a playful quality. The whole story feels ruled by a dream logic, filled with coincidences and ghostly echoes. For example, before leaving for Madrid, Emilia has a falling-out with her best friend and former roommate, Anita, because Emilia borrowed Anita’s husband for an office party, at the end of which he made a move on her. This causes a rift between the two that is only bridged when Anita finds Emilia in Madrid, living in squalid conditions with no money, no family, no friends. Years later, as Anita’s ex-husband waits to see a doctor, an old man exits the office. The old man is in fact the famous writer. Meanwhile, Julio’s former neighbor and lover arrives in Madrid on the fateful day of Emilia’s death, to which she is a startled witness.

There’s a way that such coincidences might make a story feel silly or clumsy, as though they were lesions on reality or cheap effects. But I did not find that to be the case in “Bonsai.” Part of this is because of Zambra’s mastery of tone and timing, but more than anything, it’s because of the offhand yet casual way Zambra presents these coincidences — there’s a little surprise, but nothing too fussy, nothing made too much of. There’s a dreamy associative quality of the novella that made it feel true and beautiful and moving. I left “Bonsai” feeling a little melancholic ache in my ribs, as though some crucial part of me had been taken away.

Brandon Taylor is the author of “Real Life” and “Filthy Animals.”

BONSAI, by Alejandro Zambra | Translated by Megan McDowell | 79 pp. | Penguin Books | Paper, $16