Zambra’s itsy-bitsy but gripping novella has the texture of debris falling to earth from an exploded engine. Literature students Julio and Emilia meet in Chile and fall from shared reading into sexual rapture. But Emilia has already died. Through the looking glass also means living in out. The result is a self-conscious time warp — “a long trip without music” — in which story and characters do battle for control for of the story, tangents inserted to make the thin mixture tastier. Emilia has a best friend; Julio wants badly to translate a renowned novelist named Gazmuri, who still writes by hand.
Ultimately, though, this is minimalist portrait of love and memory tricked to its senses by the passage of time. “Bonsai” is the name of the novel Julio will write, or has written, “his improvised novel, his unnecessary novel,” and Emilia both his hello and good bye, his raison d’etre. “Caring for a bonsai is like writing, thinks Julio. Writing is like caring for a bonsai, thinks Julio.” The key words are writing, caring and Julio.
Zambra, a young Chilean, owes a debt to Roberto Bolaño, but with a stark and apolitical compassion all his own: “In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature.” Literature that operates free of the weight of the Pinochet dictatorship, which long dominated Chilean fiction. It is an important departure. The book won Chile’s top literary award in 2006.