Ruth Curry reviews
Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees
Translated by Megan McDowell; Open Letter, Rochester, NY, 2010.
In my experience, nothing good happens between the hours of three and five in the morning. The best case-scenario involves an umpteenth examination of the bookshelves, a trepiditious glance out the curtained windows—is that the sun?—a survey of the pharmaceutical collection, and then perhaps a period of tossing and turning: Does my boss hate me? How about my best friend? What did she really mean by that joke? Where is X; why aren’t they home yet? And at their worst, these are the hours reserved for ill-advised phone calls, unnecessary drinks, emails best left unsent. When Colette writes in The Pure and the Impure of the abyss at five, suffered by devotees of the senses at five sharp every evening, it’s tempting to think she was referring to the five o’clock morning hour, the hour in which the peaceful luxuriate in well-earned REM cycles and the uneasy see the encroaching rays of the sun and wonder what they did to deserve this sleepless night. These are also prime storytelling hours, kicked off, much earlier, with innocent bedtime stories, that then move into the danger zone—the unconscious narrative of dreams or the sleepless reconstructing of memories, imagining conversations, or speculating about the future.
The Private Lives of Trees, Alejandro Zambra’s second novel, begins also with a bedtime story: the story of two trees, a baobob and a poplar, and what they talk about at night while humans are asleep. Julián, the protagonist, tells the story (which is also called “The Private Lives of Trees”) to his stepdaughter Daniela while waiting for Daniela’s mother, Verónica, to come home from a drawing class. Julián is a professor six days out of the week, and on the seventh, he writes—“he puts off his literary ambitions until Sunday, the way other men devote their Sundays to gardening or carpentry or alcoholism.” Recently he finished a very short book (forty-seven pages) about tending bonsai. The Private Lives of Trees (the book, not the bedtime story) is also very short (ninety-four pages), preceded by another book, Bonsai, Zambra’s first. There’s more than a coincidental resemblance, it seems, between Julián and Zambra, his creator. This is only one of many indications that The Private Lives of Trees is not really about trees at all, but rather about stories and authorship and how we use them to structure our experiences.
Back in Julián’s world, the night’s installment of “The Private Lives of Trees” ends, though Verónica still hasn’t returned 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,” the narrator, who is not quite Julián, tells us. Writing that refers to itself as writing begs numerous questions—is this really a novel, is that what we’re being asked to believe? A book, sure—it has pages, and a cover—but a novel, with made-up characters and a imagined story . . . ? But Zambra’s sure hand leads us through these metafictional switchbacks more or less intact. While Julián waits for Verónica, the stories continue; not about trees any longer, but in the form of the aforementioned early morning hours of nervous self-soothing behaviors that get us through sleepless and painful nights. Julián remembers his childhood (notably rife with books and other references to fiction), his mother’s singing, his previous girlfriend Karla—“His memories of Karla were almost exclusively tied to the memories of the books that he hadn’t brought with him . . . 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.”—and when he exhausts his stories from the past, he imagines what Verónica is doing, with what men, and how many times, before he turns to the future, to what Daniela as an adult will think of his book, what her boyfriend will be like. All of this, Zambra leads us to understand, is to keep the novel going: “The novel continues, if only to comply with an unfair decree: Verónica has not returned.”
With the movement of Julián’s fixation from Verónica to the grown-up Daniela, we begin to see where Zambra is taking us. Julián, tortured in the here-and-now, chain smoking and drinking tea while waiting for Verónica, “wants to catch sight of a future that can exist without the present . . . the future is Daniela’s story.” Daniela, all grown up in his imagination, is a psychologist who has read his second book, not the bonsai book but its successor, “a love story, nothing unusual: two people construct, freely, deliberately, and guilelessly, a parallel world that naturally, quickly, collapses.” This, again, for what it’s worth, is a neat summary of Julián’s relationship with Verónica, which we have just relived via Julián’s 3 am recollections.
The adult Daniela, however, is not perhaps Julián’s ideal reader. “Why is it necessary to salvage stories, as if they did not exist for themselves?” she wonders. Stories do exist for themselves; they are there, moving peacefully and unobtrusively beneath the currents of our daily experience. While Zambra seems to be saying that there is something useful, even redemptive, in making the effort to haul them up from below the surface. Indeed, at times, storytelling is all we can do, its narrative order the only comfort we can give ourselves. Even this, though, is not what Julián or Zambra seems to settle for.
“It would be better to close the book, close the books, and to face, all at once, not life, which is very big, but the fragile armor of the present,” Julián thinks, well into the night of Verónica’s not-return. And indeed, this is finally what he does, walking Daniela to school, avoiding the puddles the rain has left, kissing her goodbye, letting her go, but only, as Daniela says, for now.
(Ruth Curry is a writer living in Brooklyn, and a frequent contributor to TLR Books.)
Translator Megan McDowell on Alejandro Zambra