Fiction – paperback; Open Letter Books; 98 pages; 2010. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
Late last year Alejandro Zambra was included on Granta magazine’s list of Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists. And yet Zambra, who was born in Chile in 1975, hasn’t actually written a novel. He has, however, had two novellas — both less than 100 pages — published to critical acclaim.
The Private Lives of Trees, first published in 2007 and translated into English last year, is his second novella. (The first, also about trees, is called Bonsai.)
It’s a bit difficult to explain what The Private Lives of Trees is about, because this is one of those clever postmodern stories that is essentially a story about other stories. It has a rather timeless setting — it could be any city in the world at almost any time in the past 30 years — and a dream-like quality to the writing.
The protagonist, Julián, is a literature professor. He lives with his wife, Verónica, and Verónica’s eight-year-old daughter, Daniela.
One evening, when Verónica is at art class, Julián tells his step-daughter an improvised story, about “a poplar tree and a baobab tree”. As the night wears on, it becomes increasingly obvious that Julián believes his wife is not going to come home.
And while The Private Lives of Trees is told in the third person, we get an insight into Julián’s thought processes, as he grapples with this possibility. As he sifts through his memories, he looks back on his relationship with his wife, his previous girlfriend Karla, and even his own childhood. He then begins imagining what it will be like for Daniela to grow up without a mother — and projects her life at the age of 20, 25 and 30.
Tied up in all this is Julián’s obsession with writing and success. What will a motherless Daniela, as an adult, think of his novel?
I can’t say that this book will change your life or make you rush out to read everything that Zambra has written. It’s a perfectly pleasant read, one that casts a bit of a spell, while delivering a few laughs, too (there’s a tongue-in-cheek comment about Paul Auster, whom Zambra’s work is obviously inspired by, which made me giggle).
But, for me at least, the book feels too slight to have any lasting impact.