Metafictional Love and Genuine Regret: Alejandro Zambra’s “Bonsai” Reviewed

by Alejandro Zambra; translated by Carolina De Robertis
Melville House; 83 p.

The first paragraph of Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai effectively spells out the plot of the story we’re about to read, decisively naming the two central characters — essentially creating them out of the air before us — and setting out where they’ll be at narrative’s end. The prose is exceedingly formal and exceedingly conscious of itself: “Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia,” one passage begins. And throughout the novella, this inherently literary style reoccurs: for one stretch, the protagonist finds himself in the archetypally metafictional situation of transcribing a novel that does not, in actuality, exist.

All of this might seem affected to a fault, or even overly precious. It isn’t. Zambra isn’t doing this to demonstrate his own mastery of the form, or to tip his hat at the number of narrative wrinkles he’s able to introduce into the story. At its heart, Bonsai’s subjects are love and regret: its primary characters, Julio and Emilia, have a brief relationship and grow apart. Years later, one has died and the other is adrift, and while their relationship doesn’t seem to have the force of a great literary love, its passing has nonetheless left both broken in some essential way.

What Zambra and translator De Robertis do here is precise, a story told in moments and increments. The very devices that attempt to distance the reader from the story mirror Julio’s attempts to distance himself from the sprawling weight of his failed relationship. From the outset, the seemingly arbitrary naming of the characters, signifies to us that a distance should be kept, must be kept. “Let’s say that”: not the words to signify that an emotionally penetrating narrative is to follow. Again and again, Zambra volleys significant structures and narrative games at the reader, all to camouflage the raw, bleeding heart buried within.

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