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David Doody: Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai

March 3, 2009

In the first chapter of Alejandro Zambra’s novella, Bonsai, the reader is given two pieces of information that are all he needs to know about the story, and the narrator frequently interrupts, reminding us what is important to the story, in order that we don’t stray from what really matters. We are told in the first paragraph that the protagonist, Julio, waits “stubbornly” for the “inevitable day when seriousness would arrive and settle into his life forever.” And we are told even before this the reason (though Julio does not know this yet; to him his inevitable seriousness is just an assumption): “In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:”.

That colon at the end of the first paragraph is important. The rest of the novel is the literature of which the narrator speaks. This book is obsessed with literature, and through its characters’ reading of and telling about other literature, the book is written. Julio, before Emilia dies, almost accidentally, writes a novel called Bonsai when he is caught up in a lie about transcribing a novel for a famous writer. When he does not actually get that job, Julio begins writing his novel during his days and editing it at night, pretending it is the famous novelist’s. The only premise he is given from the novelist is that the protagonist “finds out that a girlfriend from his youth has died.” And then: “Everything goes to hell.”

That, in the end, is Bonsai’s story: The reader is told at the beginning that Emilia dies; that Julio waits for seriousness to arrive, and it does (though a sort of pointlessness has by this time already arrived in Julio’s life) when Emilia dies and he is finally, truly alone. The rest of Bonsai’s cyclical journey—and though it begins and ends at the same point, it is certainly a journey—is literature.

David Doody is Guernica’s Blog Editor and the founding editor of InDigest Magazine. His writing and interviews have appeared in those magazines and The Huffington Post, among other places. His short story “On Telling Her About the Short Story ‘On Wanting to Get Three Walls Up Before She Gets Home,’” was a winning story in mnartists.org’s MiniStories competition. This is his first attempt at a book review, and he thinks, maybe his last.

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