Alejandro Zambra is quickly becoming a very well respected writer in his native Chile and throughout Latin America as a whole. Now he’s ready for the English speaking audience and I’m certain that the English speaking audience is going to be ready for him. “The Private Lives of Trees” is Zambra’s second novel translated into English (His first being “Bonzai”). It is a very short novel, just shy of 100 pages but it’s brevity is its main strength. It is an emotionally complex tale, one that will tug at the heartstrings as well as confound.
The premise of the story is simple: Julián is a writer/literature professor who is reading a bedtime story to his stepdaughter Daniela as he awaits the return of his wife Veronica from her drawing class. The story he is telling Daniela is called “The Private Lives of Trees”, a sort of surrealistic tale, complete with talking trees and a woman with severely long arms. He is making it up as he goes along. He is waiting for Daniela to fall asleep, having promised himself to keep the story going until she does. But all the while be begins to get nervous that Veronica hasn’t yet returned. He imagines all kinds of scenarios: from having a flat tire, to getting into an accident, to taking a pregnant friend to the hospital due to her going into labor. From this early scene alone, we sense the closeness of his relationship to Daniela.
But Julián’s mind begins to wander and he ruminates on his childhood, his past relationships, his hardships, his failure to be able to complete the novel he is writing. He also reminisces about his early relationship with Veronica; her pregnancy, her ex-husband, how they first got together, Daniela as an infant. Then another reason occurs to him explaining Veronica’s disappearance: she is having an affair with her drawing teacher.
Of course, he doesn’t know this, nor does the reader. We don’t really know exactly what happened to her but her disappearance is the framework in which the rest of the story hangs. He imagines Daniela at various ages: 20, 25 and 30, and begins to invent a story about how her life will eventually turn out. He wants to finish his novel so she will be able to read it some day. As these years progress, we learn more about the closeness of their relationship and how much of an effect he had (or will) have on her - up to the point where she eventually does read his novel when she is 30 years old.
What actually happened to Veronica? We don’t know, really, that is if anything even happened at all. Was she having an affair? Did she simply “disappear”? (thereby giving the story something of a political element), or was she already long gone and he only waited for her return in his mind? Interesting questions to ponder as you read this beautifully written, emotionally driven story about the closeness and love between a child and her stepfather.
This one had a very personal resonance for me - but I would highly recommend this short novel, if for no other reason other than Zambra’s beautiful prose.