Alejandro Zambra: The Private Lives of Trees

What are we to make of a fiction in which the main subject fails to appear? “For now,” writes Alejandro Zambra, “Verónica is someone who hasn’t arrived, who still hasn’t returned from her drawing class.” In The Private Lives of Trees the drama is turned inside out, dismantling the expected protagonist-antagonist tension. When Zambra writes, “When [Veronica] returns, the novel will end,” we know that the protagonist, like Godot, will never appear.

If the self-deception inherent in fiction relies on the portrayal of a representative character we can emulate, or with whom we can sympathise, how stable is a story based on the absence of a central subject? Though Verónica is only tangible through anticipation, she is also strangely present – to recall Berger’s critique of oil paintings of the nude – as the spectator in front of the scene. Everything is addressed to Verónica, yet she is, by definition, a stranger.

Thomas Nagel, in The View from Nowhere writes, “how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included”. By dismantling a traditional conception of character in fiction, Zambra asks how we equate characters with people, and how we come to believe in characters that are nothing more than verbal abstractions or constructs.

6 thoughts on “Alejandro Zambra: The Private Lives of Trees

  1. Zambra’s strength really seems to be challenging traditional presentation of fiction. I have his book Multiple Choice sitting on my shelf and he also uses an interesting literary device in that book. You have inspired me to pick it up and read it! Thanks, Anthony.

    • My pleasure, Melissa. It is so hard to write fiction that is aware of its fictive nature and get away with it, but Zambra has a gentle touch and it works, at least from my reading of My Documents and this novel. In a heavy-handed writer like Markson, it comes across as facile and cynical.

  2. I thought this novella just about perfect in terms of the writing and Zambra’s Ways of Going Home a tad too precious and faux-ethereal. Need to read something else by him to break the tie. Love your observation here about Verónica being a sort of “spectator in front of the scene” in her absence.

    • Thanks, Richard. The pieces in My Documents work about half the time. Zambra operates right on that edge between too tricksy and brilliant. When it comes off, as in this case, it is rewarding.

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