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Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra
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Bonsai (2006)

by Alejandro Zambra

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Alejandro Zambra: Bonsai
This a novella and the first I have read in a series published by Melville House. A novella does not have the scope of an intricate and lengthy novel full of complex themes and characters; rather, its appeal lies in the skill of the author to sketch life and emotions and relationships with light brushstrokes, leaving it to the imagination of the reader, not to fill-in blanks, because there are no “right” answers, but to flesh out his/her own thinking and perceptions and to muse about the endless variations and vagaries of life. Zambra provides this experience in this tale.

Zambra is Chilean and sets his tale in Chile and Madrid. It circles, loosely, around two young people, Emilia and Julio who meet in university, plus Emilia’s friend Anita and her husband Andres. Anita and Andres split up but remain cordial with two daughters. Emilia and Julio live together and in love (they think) for sometime and then they split; Emilia moves to Madrid where her life follows a downward spiral to drugs and death; Anita visits Madrid, to her dismay when she sees Emilia; Julio stays in Chile, lives with another woman, Maria, for awhile; Maria is in Madrid and even in the subway station when Emilia commits suicide but that is as close as their life-paths cross; Julio ends up working for a publishing firm in a “poorly paid yet simple job” that seems enough for him.

So much for the bare bones of the story. The first three pages introduce the reader to the themes of friendship, relationships, love, sex; relations can turn around sex, emotions, and even literature: Julio and Emilia get into reading to each other as foreplay for sex, and interestingly, it is pertaining to literature that they lie to each other about having read Proust, neither wanting to admit that he/she has not done so. Interesting too, that Julio lies to Maria when he tells her that he is translating a well-known author’s new novel from Spanish to English when in fact he didn’t get the job; Julio works on a novel every morning and then translates in the afternoon so he can show Maria his work; he says the novel is called Bonsai and herein lies the key to the main theme of the story.

A bonsai is, by definition, a living thing, but something shaped through cutting and use of wires to conform, to grow in prescribed ways towards a preconceived pattern; it is controlled through every moment of its life to achieve the perfection of the original vision; its future is known and preordained. Against this, Zambra gives us a picture of life and relationships in all their glorious uncertainty and unpredictability with their uncontrolled, uncontrollable, and unforeseeable futures; life controlled not by planning but by happenstance and, if you are lucky, serendipity. Julio studies the art and grows a bonsai; it is satisfying in itself, but as he has found, there are precious few guiding wires in life.

An interesting story and an interesting writer. Including how Zambra now and then speaks directly to the reader: “I want to end Julio’s story, but Julio’s story doesn’t end, that’s the problem. Julio’s story doesn’t end, or rather it ends like this…” . The only real ending is death, but even then the story of a life remains with others and even continues to live through changes wrought by others through the vagaries of memory and forgetting.
  John | Nov 1, 2013 |
The theme I took out of this book: the measuring of time that it takes to grieve someone you have lost. ( )
  allison.sivak | Sep 9, 2013 |
"Bonsai" follows two university students Julio and Emilia, two lovers who it is revealed will eventually separate and whose end is hinted at the very beginning of the story. Not only is the plot fantastic, but the style is what really brings everything together. The story is told in third person, and is often seem indifferent, as if the story was unimportant, the story unimportant, the characters fate, trivial. The conversations of the characters are interspersed with quotes from their favorite authors and the texts in subdivided into various brief sections, keeping things divided and moving the reader along. Overall, a great book and worth every penny. ( )
  Kordo | Jan 16, 2010 |
This novella, by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, is his first novel after he published two books of poems, Useless Bay and Change. Bonsai won the Chilean Critics' Award for the Best Novel of the Year in 2006, and it is one of the 10 shortlisted books for the Best Translated Book of 2008 by Three Percent.

The main characters are two Chilean university students, Emilia and Julio, who become lovers after a drunken study session. They are inseparable, almost indistinguishable in their likes and dislikes, and their lovemaking sessions are preceded by excerpts from their favorite works of literature. Eventually they begin to drift apart, and Emilia soon disappears from Chile.

Anita, Emilia's old roommate and best friend since childhood, eventually tracks her down years later in Madrid, and makes a startling and disturbing discovery, which is hinted at in the opening paragraph of the book.

Emilia and Julio are lovingly painted, and even though you know what will eventually happen to Julia, it is still shocking and achingly sad, and the ending is heartbreaking. ( )
2 vote kidzdoc | Jan 29, 2009 |
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Epigraph
Years passed, and the only person who didn't change was the young woman in the book.
Yasunari Kawabata
Pain is measured and detailed.
Gonzalo Millan
Dedication
First words
In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in reality he was alone some years before the death of her, of Emilia.
Quotations
That same night Emilia lied to Julio for the first time, and the lie was, also, that she had read Marcel Proust.
Julio confided in Emilia about matters that only Julio's psychologist should have known about, and Emilia, in her turn, turned Julio into a kind of retroactive accomplice for each decision she had taken in the course of her life.
Julio and Emilia's peculiarities weren't only sexual (they did have them), nor emotional (these abounded), but also, so to speak, literary.
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"The tale of a young writer who falls for a woman who disappears while he is pretending to edit a book that doesn't exist, it brilliantly explores the relationship between art, love, and life. And with a beguiling form that seems whimsical on the one hand, wiser-than-its-years on the other, it is a work of such striking originality and unusual beauty as to make it seem both simple and profound."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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