The Private Lives of Trees

I recently reviewed Chilean author Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees for The L Magazine. Zambra is an author who I hope we see more of in the coming years, and due to the critical success of his previously published novella, Bonsai, I think there’s a pretty good chance that his work will be actively translated in the future.

There’s a really nice piece called “Seed Projects: The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra” on The Nation that I would encourage you to check out–it puts both Zambra’s novellas in context and makes some insightful observations about their greater historical implications. It’s worth noting that the article’s author, Marcela Valdes, is somewhat skeptical of The Private Lives of Trees, at least as compared to Bonsai. Having really enjoyed Trees–but not read Bonsai–Valdes’ well-articulated criticisms made me want to read Zambra’s first novel even more than I already did.

For further reading, you might also check out Zambra’s short-short “Fantasy” which was published in Zoetrope: All Story‘s spring 2009 issue.

You can read my review of The Private Lives of Trees on The L Magazine’s website, or the full text is below.

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Hailed by many as a leader in an emerging literary vanguard, and criticized by others for eschewing a more traditional novelistic approach, Alejandro Zambra has, with two novellas spanning less than 200 pages combined, ignited fresh debates about the direction of contemporary Chilean fiction. In his spare, reflexive novels, Zambra deconstructs the tropes of the modern novel while simultaneously declaring the importance of storytelling in our daily lives.

The Private Lives of Trees is a nesting doll of tales: Julián, a professor and author (who has written—like Zambra—a novella about a bonsai), tells his step-daughter a bedtime story about a poplar and a baobob who spend their evenings discussing “photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees.” Waiting for his wife, Verónica, to return home, Julián is also himself the subject of a novel, which “continues until [Verónica] returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.”

As Julián becomes increasingly concerned about his wife’s whereabouts, he begins to create scenarios to explain her absence—she’s stuck changing a tire, taking a pregnant friend to the hospital, spending the evening with a lover. When these stories cease to offer solace, he imagines the future through his step-daughter’s eyes, as a young woman whose mother disappeared many years before.

Each of the characters in the novel remain strictly that: fictional characters whose situations remain on the page, part of a tale in which the mechanics of authorship are privileged over the illusion of reality. But Zambra is not seeking to create introspective portraits. Rather, he’s drawing back the curtain between storyteller and reader, and showing us all to be authors in our own lives.

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Heartbreak Tango

My most recent review is of Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, which was republished by Dalkey earlier this year. Although I’ve read parts of Kiss of the Spider Woman (and seen the film with William Hurt), I didn’t know much about Puig before I read this novel. Honestly, this is still true, but from bits and pieces of translator Suzanne Jill Levine’s biography of him (Manuel Puig and the Kiss of the Spider Woman), he seems to not only have been a brilliant writer, but also a really fascinating person. Heartbreak Tango is delightful–immersed in pop culture and brilliantly scripted, it is, as Puig intended, much like a radio drama, only so much more nuanced. The book is a collage of letters, diary entries, news articles, police reports, monologues, scrap books, and scenes of dialog. No one viewpoint is ever truly privileged, and even characters who do repulsive things are vulnerable enough that one feels instinctively empathetic with them. At any rate, I look forward to reading more of Puig’s work in the future, especially now that Dalkey is republishing a number of his books.

My review can be read here on Three Percent, or the full text is below.

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Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

These epigraphs offer a bittersweet and ironic counterpoint to the mundane realities of the characters’ lives—days spent laundering rich women’s linens, doing backbreaking construction work, or fending off the advances of would-be suitors. As the book progresses, however, they begin seem less and less farcical, and increasingly reflective of the bubbling tensions at play in these individuals’ world. A “Miss Spring” pageant ignites jealousy and gossip among debutants. Juan Carlos seduces several neighborhood daughters (all friends), while simultaneously conducting a very public affair with a much older widow. A family loses their fortune and social standing when an English investor is snubbed by their daughter. A poor maid murders the father of her illegitimate son after discovering his affair with her employer’s daughter. Life imitates art, with fewer happy endings.

Puig’s first love was the movies (he originally planned to become a film director), a fact is apparent in much of his work, not least Heartbreak Tango. This is more than just a fondness for referencing movie stars and Hollywood films throughout his novels, though—it’s a way of seeing. Puig is a master of montage, of cross-cutting intimate snapshots of multiple characters to show them in their greater context. For example, in one episode, he follows everyone through their daily routine, while also revealing their greatest fears and desires in that precise moment. It’s a day much like any other day, filled with work and worry, and yet Puig imbues it with such specificity that even the most trifling desires resonate with the reader.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most of their greatest fears are legitimate ones—weighty and insurmountable problems which threaten to overshadow whatever small happinesses they are able to steal for themselves in the form of an air conditioned movie, a cool siesta, or a freshly pressed and polished uniform. Juan Carlos cannot raise the money he needs to go to an expensive sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. After marrying a well-to-do public auctioneer and moving to Buenos Aires, a neighborhood girl is still can’t afford to send her family money to pay for her father’s medical treatments. An unwed mother struggles to find ways to support herself and still spend time with her infant son.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that these characters take refuge in the romantic dramas of radio plays, the fictional tragedies of their favorite tangos. That well into middle age, they still cherish remembrances of short-lived adolescent passion, even if over time, their memories have edited out fickle lovers and disappointed youthful hopes. Or as two childhood friends realize while sharing a cup of maté years later, “’[O]ne always thinks the past was better. And wasn’t it?’ . . . Both found an answer for that question,” Puig reveals. “The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love.”

Beauty Salon

Although Mexican author Mario Bellatín already claims an avid international audience, his novella Beauty Salon is the first of his works to be published into English. Bellatín is an intriguing character: The New York Times published a profile on him that certainly piqued my interest.

I reviewed Beauty Salon for Three Percent in August 2009. You can read the full text below or on their website, here.

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Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Though dedicated to the care of his “guests,” however, the narrator remains distant, resigned to the suffering that surrounds him. (“I had witnessed so many deaths already that I came to understand that I couldn’t take on myself the responsibility for all sick people,” he explains succinctly.) Only men in the last, most desperate stages of the disease are admitted to the Terminal, and once accepted, they are allowed neither visits from the family and friends who have refused to take them in, nor “false hopes” of recovery, nor “religious images or prayers of any kind.” Guests are allowed to receive “money, clothes and candy. Everything else is forbidden.”

Bellatín’s prose is sparse and to the point, and yet, his narrator is frequently evasive—only hinting at memories either so painful or so joyful that he seems unable to fully articulate them in the midst of his current isolation. The reader is then left to fill in the blanks between the tidbits that he shares, the memories that he casually intersperses between explanations of his daily routine. “Before it was converted into a communal place to die,” the narrator explains in one passage, “the beauty salon would close up shop at eight o’clock.”

There were three of us working in the salon. A couple of nights a week we would get all dressed up after closing time, pack up a small suitcase and head off to the center of the city. We couldn’t travel dressed as women for we had already gotten dangerous situations more than once. Which is why we packed up our dresses and our make-up and carried them with us. Before standing on a busy street corner dressed as transvestites we would hide the suitcase at the base of statues of national heros . . . Our trips to the center of the city lasted until the early hours of the morning, at which time we would get our suitcases and head back to the beauty salon to sleep . . . We all slept together in one bed.

The memory trails off shortly after into other recollections before returning once again, pages later:

My fellow workers, the ones I worked with in hairstyling and cosmetics, died long ago. Now I’m the only one living in the shed. The bed we all used to sleep in now seems too large for me alone. I miss them. They are the only friends I’ve ever had.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the porousness of the narrator’s revelations, Beauty Salon succeeds in suggesting whole worlds just outside of its pages. The effect is distinctly cinematic: a montage of images which catch the reader’s eye and expand the reality of this anonymous man, anonymous disease, and anonymous city far beyond the story itself. Black tetras and angelfish, Amazon piranhas and golden carp. A friend, dressed for the evening in high ‘European’ style, trimmed with feathers and long gloves. A dying man, wrapped in cardboard “to ease his trembling.” A steaming public bath, “exclusively for men,” with a “wooden counter in the lobby with multicolored fish and red dragons carved into it.” A bowl of thin chicken soup, served to the guests each day. A common grave.

Frank, haunting, and darkly evocative, the disparate imagery (perhaps more than the story) of Beauty Salon will linger in the readers’ minds long after the brief narrative has come to a close.