Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s first novel, Bonsai, for all its short length (83 pages), is easy to read, dense with events if not with explanations, and intriguing. The chapters are short, the prose clear but remote from the “characters,” who the author claims are not characters but only given names for convenience’s sake. He also tells us which characters are not important even though he gives information about them. Of necessity, the reader slides over these bewildering directives to get two main themes—lying and love. Overriding all is a love story between Emilia and Julio, who meet at age fifteen in a Spanish class.
We are told in the first paragraph that Emilia dies, and in the next chapter, when she died (at the age of thirty). Also in that first paragraph is the information that the couple had separated by that time. Yet the voice is wry about her death: “After turning thirty Emilia died, and so she no longer turned older because she began to be dead.” This goes along with one of the novel’s epigraphs, by Yasunari Kawabata: “Years passed, and the only person who didn’t change was the young woman in the book.” In other words, Emilia may have died, but she is immortalized in a book and is not forgotten.
Literature plays a notable part in this novel. Of all the affairs both Julio and Emilia subsequently have, theirs has the most details—such as the fact that they read famous writers to each other before lovemaking. And later Julio writes a novel, Bonsai, which is suggestive of their years-ago affair.
Their love was real: “Julio and Emilia managed to merge into a single kind of mass.” The secondary characters remain the same as always but not true with lovers: “What’s the purpose of being with someone if they don’t change your life? . . . Life only has purpose if you found someone who changed it, who destroyed your life.” Emilia presents this “dubious” theory as acknowledgement that pain exists with love. And Julio feels the same:
When Julio fell in love with Emilia all the pleasure and suffering previous to the pleasure and suffering that Emilia brought him turned into simple imitations of true pleasure and suffering.
Even after years of not seeing her, the novel’s last paragraph shows how deeply he feels her death when he finally hears about it. Hence the novel’s other epigram, from Gonzalo Millan: “Pain is a measured and detailed.”
Literature/writing is also part of the theme of lying. When Emilia and Julio are together, they lie to each other about having read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. And later when Julio has an affair with his white-haired neighbor Maria, he claims that he is transcribing the novel of a famous writer, Gazmuri—but actually Julio was not hired because he wanted too much money. To cover the lie up even more, Julio writes a novel, which he claims is Gazmuri’s, and calls it Bonsai. He gives this novel to Maria when she leaves. Later we learn that Gazmuri’s actual book is titled Spares.
The bonsai is an intriguing image in the book. It starts as a short story, “Tantalia,” which Julio and Emilia read to each other and are affected by:
“Tantalia” is the story of a couple that decides to buy a small plant and keep it as a symbol of the love that unites them. They realize too late that if the plant dies, the love that unites them will die with it. And [so] . . . they decide to lose the little plant in a multitude of identical little plants. Later comes the despair, the misfortune of knowing they will never be able to find it.
Hence the many affairs afterwards, but the novel that Julio writes shows he has not forgotten. He even draws the tree on a precipice, and examines the meaning of the bonsai:
A bonsai is an artistic replica of a tree, in miniature. It consists of two elements: the living tree and the container. The two elements must be in harmony and the selection of the appropriate pot for a tree is almost an art form in itself. . . . The container is normally a flowerpot or an interesting chunk of rock. A bonsai is never called a bonsai tree. The word already includes the living element. Once outside its flowerpot, the tree ceases to be a bonsai.
So does this define their love as it has evolved, a stunted tree, a bonsai without its proper container? Such questions are among many in this intriguing novel, and its wry tone makes any answers less certain.