Alejandro Zambra’s novella “Bonsai” won the Chilean Critics Award for best novel of the year in 2006. And Mercurio wrote, "The publication of Bonsai ... marked a kind of bloodletting in Chilean literature. It was said (or argued) that it represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation's letters." That is quite a metaphor for a first, small novella. It deserves praise.
“Bonsai” (this will not surprise) is very small. 90 pages. And when digressions begin to grow, they are immediately pruned. Characters are marked as irrelevant and quickly dropped. Curves in the plot are truncated. The result is spare and beautiful. You can read it all in an afternoon. But it continues to grow afterward.
There is no spoiler here. Just a wonderful part of the story for you to savor.
At one point, Emilio and Julio, begin to read Macedonio Fernandez’s story “Tantalia" together. Zambra writes:
”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 as the love that unites them is immense and they are not willing to scacrifice it for any reason, 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.
She and he, Macedonio’s characters, had and lost a little plant of love. Emilia and Julio – who are not exactly characters, though maybe it’s convenient to think of them as characters – have been reading before shagging for months, it is very pleasant, they think, and sometimes they think it at the same time: it is very pleasant, it is beautiful to read and talk about the reading just before tangling legs. It’s like doing exercise.
It isn’t always easy to find, in the texts, some impetus, however small, to shag, but in the end they manage to locate a paragraph or verse that, when whimsically stretched or perverted works for them, gets them hot. (They liked that expression, to get hot, that’s why I use it. They liked it almost enough to get hot from it.)
But this time it was different.
I don’t like Macedonio Fernandez anymore, Emilia said, shaping her sentences with inexplicable timidity, a she caressed Julio’s chin and mouth.
And Julio: Me neither. I enjoyed it, I liked him a lot, but not anymore. Not Macedonio.
Bonsai, Zambrano tells us, is the tree with its container. If the container is removed, the plant is no longer Bonsai. So with this beautiful story: its confinement makes it all the more startling, all the more alive, all the more unusual.