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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Alejandro Zambra

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To purchase Bonsai

Title: Bonsai
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 83 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Bonsai - US
Bonsái - US (Spanish)
Bonsai - UK
Bonsai - Canada
Bonsaï - France
Bonsai - Deutschland
Bonsai - Italia
Bonsái - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Spanish title: Bonsái
  • Translated by Carolina de Robertis

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done, an appealing small read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 6/7/2009 Marcela Valdes
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2009 Pedro Ponce

  From the Reviews:
  • "Rather than shrink in its conversion to bound covers, as most manuscripts do, Zambra's text has swelled -- and its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size. (...) Reading the book a continent away, I would never have predicted such a fuss, though Bonsai is a delightful work." - Marcela Valdes, The Nation

  • "Bonsai is a compact but multilayered hybrid of different narrative styles. (...) Each brief chapter sustains the scrutiny invited by its verbal delicacy, a fragile but palpable order distilled from the disorder of experience. There is little of the minimal in Zambra’s marvel of narrative brevity." - Pedro Ponce, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bonsai is an appealing miniature, a novella that, despite its brevity, feels airy and full. It is a love story, of sorts, and Zambra lays it out clearly right from the get-go, the opening paragraph explaining;

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in reality he was alone some years before the death of her, of Emilia. Let's say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:
       It's quite a gauntlet Zambra throws down here, giving the game away and then promising: the rest is literature. But why not ? Isn't it the truth ? Aren't the outlines and outcomes almost irrelevant summary ? Isn't what counts the telling ? Isn't that what makes a story -- and what makes literature ?
       Zambra is, more or less, up to the challenge. He describes Emilia and Julio's relationship bit by bit, literally in small pieces that, put together, make a whole that reveals everything that need be said, both with background about the two lovers ("Emilia's first boyfriend was dim, but there was authenticity in his dimness") as well from their interaction. And:
     In the story of Emilia and Julio, in any case, there are more omissions than lies, and fewer omissions than truths, truths of the kind that are called absolute.
       Among the lies, however, -- indeed the first each tells the other -- is that both claim to have read Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It turns out to be a weighty lie, because literature binds them, and what binds them can also tear them apart. Reading becomes an act of foreplay for them, everything from Marcel Schwob and Mishima Yukio to Georges Perec, Ted Hughes, even Cioran.
       And then they read one story too many. That's all it takes.
     That should have been the last time Emilia and Julio shagged. But they kept going
       Life doesn't quite imitate art. Their eyes have been opened, the writing is on the wall, but they fight it, even as they recognise that they're just going through the motions. Motions which include continuing to read, turning now to the possibly safer classics.
       They abandon Madame Bovary fifty pages before the end, and:
     They did terribly with Chekhov, a little better curiously, with Kafka, but, as they say, the damage was already done.
       No kidding.
       And then, soon enough, it's finally over. Even then: "The story of Julio and Emilia continues but does not go on." Zambra follows the now separate tracks, Emilia moving in with her friend Anita for a while, Julio going all-out in pretending to have been hired to type out a famous author's manuscript.
       And eventually, of course, Emilia dies; we knew that was coming.
       The novella -- and the relationship, and their very lives -- revolve around that one short story they read together, and a variation of which Julio types out in a novel called Bonsai ..... And if that seems almost too neat, Zambra helps his cause by leaving the story a bit ragged too, and by not having that be all there is to it. Other things happen in their lives, too, which makes the central twist all the more effective.
       It's not an entirely original story, of course; that's one of the problems with fiction that relies so much on literature itself. Bonsai feels even more derivative because Zambra's entire approach to presenting these lives, and their relationship, reads exactly like what Alain de Botton was doing in his early novels -- just with a Chilean spin:
     At the age of seventeen, Emilia enrolled at the Universidad de Chile to study literature, because it had been her lifelong dream. Anita, of course, knew that studying literature was not Emilia's lifelong dream, but rather a whim directly related to her recent reading of Delmira Augustini.
       Still, Zambra does it well, making for an enjoyable, pleasantly surprising, and clever read. Worthwhile.

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Bonsai: Reviews: Other books by Alejandro Zambra under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Alejandro Zambra was born in 1975.

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