Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2020

The Private Lives of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell

This short novella is only the second I’ve ever read by a Chilean author.  The first was Nancy by Bruno Lloret, translated by Ellen Jones and published here in Australia by Giramondo as part of their innovative Southern Latitudes series. The Private Lives of Trees is likewise published by a university publishing house, the University of Rochester in the US. It is, as they say at their website, one of only a handful of publishing houses dedicated to increasing access to world literature for English readers— though I do think the situation has improved greatly in recent years since book buyers are no longer limited to what’s in stock at a bricks-and-mortar store with a range limited to what a bookseller thinks might sell.  Today readers interested in translations unite across the world to order online, sometimes direct from the publisher, as I did with this book which was purchased as part of the First 25 promotion at Open Letter Books (50% off the first 25 books that they published).

The Private Lives of Trees is a book that needs to be read in one sitting, which is easy because it’s only 98 pages long.  It’s the story of a young professor of literature named Julián who has the care of his step-daughter Daniela while his wife goes to art class.  Julián is in the habit of telling Daniela an ongoing bedtime story about two trees, and in his spare time on Sundays he’s working on a novel about a man who takes up bonsai.  But the night on which this story takes place, things are different.

Verónica is late home.

We’ve all been there.  Whether the one who is a late is a husband, a lover, a parent, a friend or a child, it’s stressful and it gets worse as the time goes by.  By turns anxious and dismissive about the late return, conjecturing about possible reasons benign and otherwise, catastrophising, and then castigating ourselves for being melodramatic, we vacillate from one emotional state to another, and nothing is resolved until either the loved one comes home… or doesn’t.

While he waits, Julián tells Daniela her story…

Right now, sheltered by the solitude of the park, the trees are commenting on the bad luck of an oak—two people have carved their names, as a symbol of their friendship, into its bark.  ‘No one has the right to give you a tattoo without your consent,’ says the poplar; the baobab is even more emphatic: ‘The oak has been the victim of a deplorable act of vandalism.  Those people deserve to be punished.  I will not rest until they receive the punishment they deserve.  I will traverse earth, sky, and sea in their pursuit.’

The little girl laughs hard, without the least sign of sleepiness.  And she urgently, anxiously, asks the inevitable three questions, never just one, always at least two or three: ‘What’s vandalism, Julián?  Can you bring me a glass of lemonade, with three spoonfuls of sugar?  Did you and my mother ever carve your names into a tree, as a symbol of your friendship?’ (pp. 16-17)

I love this.  It reminds me of the daft sagas I was told as a child, and which in turn I told to my own child when he was small, and to my junior classes when we had five minutes to spare.  Like Julián, I sometimes lost the thread of an ongoing story and would be taken to task for it, and like him I had to improvise hastily to patch over the error.

Daniela sleeps, waking again at midnight as she usually does and nodding off as the next instalment of her story unfolds.  Julián, meanwhile reflects on how he met and wooed Verónica over the classic Mexican tres leches cakes that she sells, and about the relationship they have with Daniela’s father Fernando.  But his concern escalates as the night wears on, and he begins to imagine Daniela in a motherless future, at fifteen, twenty, twenty-five and thirty.  He wonders what she will think of the novel that he hasn’t written yet.

And he wishes he had written his novel so that he could be reading it now.

The Private Lives of Trees is economical.  Without needing to be told, readers understand that for Julián, having a novel to read would be a welcome distraction from his mounting anxiety.  As the pages turn we read about his doubts and his lack of self-confidence, and we come to like him very much, especially his self-deprecating humour:

Last week Julián turned thirty years old.  The party was a bit odd, marred by the gloominess of the guest of honour.  In the same way that some women subtract years from their real age, he sometimes added a few years on and pretended to look at the past with a tinge of bitterness.  Lately he has started to think he should have been a dentist or geologist or meteorologist.  For now, his actual job seems strange: professor.  But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff.  He imagines himself answering that way:
‘What do you do?’
‘I have dandruff’. (pp. 23-4)

(Wikipedia says that he says of his career:  “I wouldn’t choose to be a writer. Actually I don’t think I ever chose it, I was just undeniably worse at other things.”)

This is a lovely book that triggered all kinds of thoughts and memories, not just the ones I’ve chosen to share here…

The translation by Megan McDowell is flawless.

Author: Alejandro Zambra
Title: The Private Lives of Trees
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, 2010, first published as La vida privada de los arboles in 2007
ISBN: 9781934824245, pbk., 98 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Open Letter Books, University of Rochester.

 


Responses

  1. I really should read some more Chilean literature, and this sounds a good place to resume; I’ve had a so-so response to Bolaño and Isabelle Allende. My daughter-in-law is Chilean, and we visited her family in Santiago and elsewhere in Chile a few Christmases ago. Heard some interesting stories about the Pinochet regime from people who’d lived through it.

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    • The only person I know from Chile would not say a word about it, even here in Australia because they still had family there.
      Maybe, like Spain, the wounds still run deep.
      But yeah, I’ve never got on with the literature of South America… I’ve read Bolano and Allende, and not been bothered to read more, and #DuckingForCover I can’t abide the sexism in Márquez, and everything else has been experimental in a way that I find difficult to penetrate (and I quite like weird and strange, as you know). So this one was a very pleasant surprise.

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  2. You are right, we’ve all been there! I can still remember a time early in our marriage when Mr Gums was really and unusually late home without the usual advance notice. You’ve got me in Lisa … this sounds really interesting, with the added tempter that it’s Chilean.

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    • We never forget it, do we?

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, we don’t. (Even though it almost always works out and we feel silly afterwards about all the imaginings!)

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        • I have childhood memories of my mother being hysterical when we were late home from school. I used to think it was just because she was a catastrophist, but towards the end of her life when she told me things she’d never told me before, I realised that it was a likely consequence of the war, when people who were late, were usually dead.

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  3. Well, I’m intrigued… And I have a non-fiction Zambra which I should really read soon! :D

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    • It feels a bit mean not to tell you the ending, but that would ruin the book…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this one several years ago for my book group and it provided a surprising number of discussion points for a book so slim. I recommend his novella “Ways of Going Home” which treads slightly darker territory but is eloquently written.

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    • It is surprising, I agree. I started reading and thought, so, where is this going…and then it gradually unfolds. Very cleverly (and wisely) constructed. I’ll look out for Ways of Going Home too, I like his style.

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