‘Bonsai’ & ‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

IMG_5244After enjoying my recent reads of Alejandro Zambra’s short-story collection My Documents and the novella The Private Lives of Trees, I thought I might have a quick browse through my local library database to see if they had any more of the Chilean writer’s work.  Lo and behold, it turns out that not one, but two of Zambra’s books were available – a few quick clicks, and they were winging their way to my local branch, ready to be picked up a week later…

OK, the pretence is over – it’s been Alejandro Zambra week all along.  Let’s see it out in style 🙂

Bonsai (translated by Carolina De Robertis) was Zambra’s breakthrough prose work (he’d already published a couple of poetry collections).  It’s not exactly the longest of books, a one-sitting read for me, but it’s a novella which shows his style and preoccupations, even if it’s perhaps a little more experimental than some of his later work.

From the beginning, the writer makes it clear how the story is to unfold:

“In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death.  Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio.  Julio and Emilia.  In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die.  The rest is literature.”
p.9 (Melville House, 2008)

Bonsai is the story of a love affair, deceptively simple, but laden with stark truths.  Knowing from the start how the featured relationship will end lends the story a sombre tone.

The story itself, though, is less a clear narrative than a series of loosely connected threads.  Zambra creates stories within stories, with many of them linked by the idea of the bonsai.  There’s a book the couple read together, the novel Julio claims to be transcribing for a famous, eccentric author and, of course, the tree Julio later cultivates.  It’s obviously a symbol of something – just don’t ask me what 😉

The book is written in a wry style with some dry, throwaway humour.  It also comes across as a IMG_5245rather detached narrative, giving the reader the feeling that they’re floating above the stories, never overly engaging with the characters.  This is mainly due to the way Zambra positions his protagonists, using them as puppets, existing merely to move his ideas along (very different to the closer style used in My Documents and The Private Lives of Trees).  It’s a little slight for me at times, especially for a breakthrough work, but it’s a book I enjoyed nonetheless 🙂

Ways of Going Home (translated by Megan McDowell), a more recent work, has some similarities with Bonsai, but it’s a slightly longer, more subtle book.  It begins with a story from the narrator’s childhood, one starting with the 1985 earthquake and the impact it had on his life.  That night he meets Claudia, a girl a few years his senior, and the rest of the first part examines his relationship with her – which isn’t actually that fascinating…

However, just when you’re starting to lose faith with the book, it all changes, as the second section introduces us to Zambra, or one of his alter egos.  You see, it turns out that the first part is just the start of a book he’s writing…  From here, the story starts to become more complex as he uses his fragile relationship with an ex-girlfriend to look back into a shared past, one which neither of them really wants to acknowledge.

IMG_5246Of all Zambra’s books, Ways of Going Home is the one which focuses most on the problems Chile faced in the 1980s, with the first real mention of the Pinochet era.  The boy in the first section spends his time spying on Raúl, a neighbour who doesn’t welcome attention from the people around, but it’s only later that the truth about the man is revealed.  Of course, his neighbour’s activities aren’t the only things hidden from the curious eight-year-old…

One of the key ideas here is about how children saw the era, watching their parents, knowing that something was up, but not really understanding what.  In a way, the story is more about the older generation than that of the writer:

“The novel belongs to our parents, I thought then, I think now.  That’s what we grew up believing, that the novel belonged to our parents.  We cursed them and also took refuge in their shadows, relieved.  While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner.  While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes.  While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.”
pp.40/1 (Granta Books, 2013)

Looking back to his youth through adult eyes, the narrator begins to understand more about his parents, realising just what was happening all those years ago.  The problem is that this isn’t necessarily a good thing – when you talk to your parents, the secrets which are revealed may not be ones you wanted to hear about…

So, after a week of Zambra, what can we say about his writing?  Well, for one thing, he’s not one for long works – Ways of Going Home, at 139 nicely-spaced pages, is easily the longest piece of those I’ve read.  He has a pleasing style, not flashy, but casual and absorbing.  Much of his work sees him examining his past, and that of his homeland, but he has a way of being selective with what he shares of both areas.  He enjoys discussing books – there’s a lot here about the writer and his art, words and literature.  Oh, and  we also get women, cigarettes, football and enough cats to make even Murakami envious 😉

I certainly enjoyed my week with Zambra, but for now that’s all he wrote (in English, at least).  Many thanks to the writer, the various publishers and the translators (especially McDowell) for the week’s reading – it’s been a lot of fun 🙂  Although I’ve read a few books by the same author in a short space of time before, this is the first time I’ve looked at a new writer in such a compressed period before.  Perhaps  it’s something I should do again – let me know what you think…

6 thoughts on “‘Bonsai’ & ‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

  1. I’ve added all of his books to my TBR list – his work sounds so interesting! Thanks so much for reviewing them. I’m really looking forward to reading them 🙂


  2. Tony, Thanks for these reviews of Zambra’s stories. I think reading and reviewing the whole lot in one go actually gives you a broader view of each of the books and of the author’s work, so it provides us (your readers) with a richer point of view. One comment/question: in the third paragraph of your review of ‘Ways of Going Home’ you write: “Of all Zambra’s books, Ways of Going Home is the one which focuses most on the problems Colombia faced in the 1980s”. Isn’t this author from Chile?


  3. SpaceCadet – Aaaagh! How did I miss that?! Of course, it’s supposed to be Chile (and has now been corrected) – thanks for spotting that 🙂


  4. I certainly plan to read My Documents. Bonsai sounds however a little slight, and Ways sounds good but I am mildly allergic to novels about writing novels. The link to the Pinochet era though does sound like it makes better use than one might fear of that approach.


    1. Max – Trigger warning: all of his books feature writers writing about writing 😉 I’d definitely recommend all or any of them, though…


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