Alejandro Zambra hails from Chile, that country which vaguely resembles the pepper it shares a name with. Three of his books have been brought over from Spanish into English — Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees, and, as of this month, Ways of Going Home — and each is so short as to be read in a single bite. But, like the fiery nightshade, the flavor of each book lingers for so long that I could not separate the place where I read each book from the book itself. So how should they be consumed?
Bonsai: at a college-adjacent coffee shop
There’s no better place to read this novella than a coffee shop — for me, it was Crema Cafe in Cambridge; if you're in New York, try Caffe Reggio — where students are starting to fall into grown-up relationships. This tiny book (it fits in my jacket pocket) tells the story of Emilia and Julio, who so desperately want to be in love with each other that they lie about having read Proust. “In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death,” the story begins, and 82 pages later, Alejandro Zambra’s made good on his promise, giving us a world around these lovers “who are not exactly characters, though maybe it’s convenient to think of them as characters.”
The Private Lives of Trees: on a train, in a forest
Trees are not just bystanders, says Julián, the stand-in father of The Private Lives of Trees. Forced to care for his wife Veronica’s daughter while anxiously awaiting her return, Julián writes about his life and love. His words swirl with his memories and dreams as he waits; “The future is Daniela's story, and Julián imagines, writes that story, that future day” over the long night. But that story, too, becomes subsumed by the trees Julián envisions — not unlike the trees that swallow up our vision as we trundle, courtesy of Amtrak, through the Hudson River Valley.
Ways of Going Home: on a blanket in a park at the beginning of spring
What is “home,” exactly? The older I get, the more troublesome the question becomes — my parents’ house, my apartment, the small piece of land I want to own someday? And is “home” a place and nothing more, or is it a state of being, when I’m in the same room as the people with whom I share my life? Every possible definition of “home” comes to light in Zambra’s newest, best novel, which opens with an earthquake and closes with memories of car rides with parents. In between, both the narrator and the author writing the narrator’s story struggle with broken relationships, making houses out of the places they live and the stories they tell. In springtime, in Washington, DC's Rock Creek Park, it will be glorious to look up from Zambra’s book to the ragtag groups of people hiking trails and spreading blankets for languorous picnics before packing up and, at last, finding their own way home.