‘The Private Lives of Trees’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

treesRecently, in my post on Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In Her Absence, I talked about wanting to try more of a writer’s work when you enjoy a book by a new discovery, and today’s review is another example of this tendency.  A while back, I looked at My Documents, a collection of short stories by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, and right after reading that one, I was able to get hold of another of his works – which I devoured immediately.  This, then, is part two of what is fast becoming Zambra week on the blog – enjoy 😉

The Private Lives of Trees (translated by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) is a novella which takes place over the course of a night in Santiago.  Julián, a married man with a step-daughter, is telling little Daniela a bedtime story, an ongoing tale which binds the speaker and the listener.  The protagonists of the story are two trees, a poplar and a baobab, at a local park, and as Julián talks about the trees’ musings on the bizarre behaviour humans display, he and Daniela have one ear turned to the door, waiting to hear footsteps outside.

Verónica, Julián’s wife, is out at an art class, and when she’s not back before Daniela’s bedtime, he begins to imagine all kinds of reasons for her delay.  However, as the trees could tell you, people are strange creatures, and it takes him a long time to accept that there might be a different explanation for her absence.  Perhaps she’s not coming back at all…

The Private Lives of Trees is a short book, little more than an extended anecdote, but it’s a delight to read.  It’s the story of a small family, a domestic tale with little real action, and like the rambling story of the talkative trees, Zambra’s novella appears relatively aimless:

“This is precisely the problem: in this story there are no enemies.  Verónica has no enemies, Julián has no enemies, Fernando has no enemies, and Daniela, except for an insolent little classmate who spends all his time making faces at her, has no enemies either.”
p.15 (Open Letter Books, 2010)

However, appearances can be deceiving.  There are no enemies that we can see, but perhaps Julián should be on his guard.  After all, where can Verónica have got to so late at night?

Gradually, the bedtime tale is replaced by the couple’s back story, showing us their first meeting, Julián’s seduction of the uncertain Verónica and the development of the little family.  Our ‘hero’ (if you need one) is a professor of literature (at four different universities!) and a writer whose first book features a man ‘conscientiously tending a bonsai’.  For anyone familiar with Zambra’s work, that idea might seem oddly familiar…

This isn’t the only time Zambra teases the reader.  Throughout the book he tells us that it’s all a story, but one which hasn’t quite finished:

“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.” (p.17)

To start with, the delay is merely an annoyance, an obstruction to the action.  However, the more these words are repeated, the greater the tension becomes, and we realise that this endless wait is what the book is about.  Eventually, the reader, like Julián, is desperate for Verónica to turn the key in the door…

I mentioned Muñoz Molina’s In Her Absence above, and in many ways, this is a very similar story (only the place has changed – the male narrator is at home, while the wife is absent…).  You could describe it as a novella, but it’s really just a long story, and it has a very similar feel to those in My Documents, with events seemingly unconsciously drifting along, creating a story somewhere along the way.  Once again, there’s a great translation by McDowell, one that’s very smooth and has the effect of drawing you into a story that could (and perhaps should) be rather mundane.

If we examine events closely, then nothing really happens; there’s no need for us, or Julián, to feel worried as there’s no real reason for Verónica to leave.  The Private Lives of Trees has little to do with reason or logic, though, and we gradually become more and more certain that she’s gone for good.  It’s the paranoia we all feel when life doesn’t go to plan, a long, dark night of doubt and fear…

All in all, then, this is an enjoyable read, and my second Zambra can be chalked up as another success.  With only two more of his books available in English (Bonsai and Ways of Going Home), it wouldn’t take too much time and effort to read all of his translated works – it’s a tempting proposition…  Rest assured that I’ll let you know what I think of those, when and if I get to them – with the emphasis on ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ 😉

9 thoughts on “‘The Private Lives of Trees’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

  1. I read this last month and loved it although, like Stu, I didn’t review it or at least have not yet. Zambra will almost certainly be factoring into my Spanish Lit Month selections (possibly twice). Love his subtlety, his sense of humor and his grace as a prose writer.


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