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.

Alejandro Zambra: My Documents

“I abandon books easily. Before, especially when I wrote literary criticism, I had the urge to read books from cover to cover. If I was writing about them, I’d read them twice over. I didn’t enjoy that, in part due to the obligation to say something beyond the obvious. I don’t do that anymore; I became more impulsive—there are just too many books I want to read. Also, I stopped writing about literature, which is cool. I was bureaucratizing the space of reading.”

Alejandro Zambra explains that he became a chaotic reader, abandoning books with ease. Atypically I persisted with Fonseca’s book and with Zambra’s My Documents and was rewarded in both instances by a series of stories that got steadily stronger.

The final story in Zambra’s collection, Artist’s Rendition, is all the more chilling for being so calmly told. A narrator presents a short brutal story about abuse, involving a reader directly with the sort of restricted metafiction that often signals tired and facile writing, but Zambra treats his subject earnestly and succeeds in raising questions about the arbitrariness of meaning and truth.

There is a fair variety to the stories in My Documents, which develop in strength and intensity throughout this collection, echoing themes of memory retrieval, abnegation and envy. After the first two sections I felt mildly bored and wondered whether to abandon the book. I began National Institute, the first story of the third section and was immediately and magnificently absorbed. It was so satisfying that I swallowed the remainder of the stories without getting up from my chair.

My Documents (translated into English very ably by Megan McDowell) is the first book I’ve read by Alejandro Zambra. If you enjoy his work, please recommend something else of his to read.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’