alejandro zambra’s bonsai: “a simple story that becomes complicated”


“In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in reality he was alone some years before the death of her, of Emilia. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature…”


Winner of Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel, Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra, is structurally innovative, yet written in a deceptively simple manner. The story of a young man and his girlfriend, Bonsai explores the connections between life, love, and art. The story’s 83 pages belie the sheer force of Zambra’s cool and limpid prose and oblique narration somehow produce an emotionally nuanced account of the birth and death of a love affair.





Translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis


For Alhelí


"Years passed, and the only person who didn’t change was the young woman in

the book."


—Yasunari Kawabata


"Pain is measured and detailed."

—Gonzalo Milláan


I. Mass


In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:


The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax U at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges. because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.


Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.


Shortly before getting involved with Julio, Emilia had decided that from now on she would foliar, as the Spanish do, she would no longer make love with anyone, she would not screw or bone anybody, and much less would she fuck. This is a Chilean problem, Emilia said, then, to Julio, with an ease that only came to her in the darkness, and in a very low voice, of course: This is a problem for Chilean youth, we’re too young to make love, and in Chile if you don’t make love you can only fuck, but it would be disagreeable to fuck you, I’d prefer it if we shagged, si folidramos, as they do in Spain.


At that time Emilia had never been to Spain. Years later she would live in Madrid, a city where she’d shag quite a bit, though no longer with Julio, but rather, mainly, with Javier Martinez and with Angel Garcia Atienza and with Julian Alburquerque and even, but only once, and under some pressure, with

Karolina Kopeć, her Polish friend. On this night, this second night, on the other hand, Julio was transformed into the second sexual partner of Emilia’s life, into, as mothers and psychologists say with some hypocrisy, Emilia’s second man, while Emilia in turn became Julio’s first serious relationship. Julio avoided serious relationships, hiding not from women so much as from seriousness, since he knew seriousness was as dangerous as women, or more so. Julio knew he was doomed to seriousness, and he attempted, stubbornly, to change his serious fate, to pass the time waiting stoically for that horrible and inevitable day when seriousness would arrive and settle into his life forever.





Emilia’s first boyfriend was dim, but there was authenticity in his dimness. He made many mistakes and almost always knew enough to acknowledge them and make amends, but some mistakes are impossible to make amends for, and the dim one, the first one, made one or two of those unpardonable mistakes. It’s not even worth mentioning them.


Both of them were fifteen years old when they started going out, but when Emilia turned sixteen and seventeen the dim one was still fifteen. That’s how it went: Emilia turned eighteen and nineteen and twenty-four, and he was fifteen; twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and he fifteen, still, until her thirtieth, since Emilia did not keep having birthdays after thirty, and not because she at that point decided to conceal her age, but rather because a few days after turning thirty Emilia died, and so she no longer turned older because she began to be dead. 

Emilia’s second boyfriend was too white. With him she discovered mountaineering in the Andes, bicycle rides, jogging, and yogurt. It was, in particular, a time of a lot of yogurt, and this, for Emilia, turned out to be important, because she was emerging from a period of a lot of pisco, of long and complicated nights of pisco with Coca-Cola and pisco with lemon, and also of pisco straight up, dry, no ice. They groped each other a lot but never arrived at coitus, because he was very white and this made her distrustful, despite the fact that she herself was very white, almost completely white, with short hair that was very black, she did have that.



The third one was, in fact, a sick man. From the start she knew the relationship
was doomed to failure, but even so they lasted a year and a half, and he was her first sexual partner, her first man, when she was eighteen, and he was twenty-two.


Between the third and the fourth there were several one-night stands, spurred, as it were, by boredom.


The fourth was Julio.


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