The Private Lives of Trees
By Alejandro Zambra, Trans. Megan McDowell
Hailed by many as a leader in an emerging literary vanguard, and criticized by others for eschewing a more traditional novelistic approach, Alejandro Zambra has, with two novellas spanning less than 200 pages combined, ignited fresh debates about the direction of contemporary Chilean fiction. In his spare, reflexive novels, Zambra deconstructs the tropes of the modern novel while simultaneously declaring the importance of storytelling in our daily lives.
The Private Lives of Trees is a nesting doll of tales: Julián, a professor and author (who has written—like Zambra—a novella about a bonsai), tells his step-daughter a bedtime story about a poplar and a baobob who spend their evenings discussing “photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees.” Waiting for his wife, Verónica, to return home, Julián is also himself the subject of a novel, which “continues until [Verónica] returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.”
As Julián becomes increasingly concerned about his wife’s whereabouts, he begins to create scenarios to explain her absence—she’s stuck changing a tire, taking a pregnant friend to the hospital, spending the evening with a lover. When these stories cease to offer solace, he imagines the future through his step-daughter’s eyes, as a young woman whose mother disappeared many years before.
Each of the characters in the novel remain strictly that: fictional characters whose situations remain on the page, part of a tale in which the mechanics of authorship are privileged over the illusion of reality. But Zambra is not seeking to create introspective portraits. Rather, he’s drawing back the curtain between storyteller and reader, and showing us all to be authors in our own lives.