the end of chapter one of alejandro zambra’s bonsai

"The relationship between Emilia and Julio was riddled with truths, with intimate revelations that rapidly established a complicity that they wanted to understand as definitive. This, then, is a light story that turns heavy. This is the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences that seem true, of smoking eternal cigarettes, and of closing themselves into the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others, than that immense and contemptible group known as the others."

In keeping with a deep-seated family custom, Julio’s sexual initiation was

negotiated, at ten thousand pesos, with Isidora, with Cousin Isidora, who after

that point was no longer called Isidora, nor was she Julio’s cousin. All the men

in the family had been with Isidora, who was still young, with miraculous hips

and a certain leaning toward romanticism, who agreed to attend to them, although

she was no longer what is referred to as a whore, a whore-whore; now,

and she always strove to make this clear, she worked as a lawyer’s secretary.

 

At the age of fifteen Julio met Cousin Isidora, and he continued to meet

with her during the years that followed, in the context of special gifts, when

he insisted on it enough, or when his father’s brutality abated and, as a result,

came the period of fatherly remorse, immediately followed by the period of

fatherly guilt, whose most fortunate consequence was economic generosity.

It goes without saying that Julio nearly fell in love with Isidora, that he cared

for her, and that she, briefly moved by the young reader who dressed in black,

treated him better than the others she was with, that she spoiled him, that she

educated him, after a fashion.

 

Only after turning twenty did Julio begin to approach women his age as

potential lovers, with limited success but enough to decide to leave Isidora.

To leave her, of course, in the same way one quits smoking or gambling at the

racetrack. It wasn’t easy, but months before that second night with Emilia,

Julio already considered himself safe from the vice.

 

That second night, then, Emilia was in competition with a unique rival,

although Julio never went so far as to compare them, in part because there

was no possible comparison and also because Emilia turned out to become,

officially, the only love of his life and Isidora, an old and agreeable source of

pleasure and suffering, barely. When Julio fell in love with Emilia all the pleasure

and suffering previous to the pleasure and suffering that Emilia brought

him turned into simple imitations of true pleasure and suffering.

 

The first lie Julio told Emilia was that he had read Marcel Proust. He

didn’t usually lie about reading, but that second night—when they both knew

they were starting something, and that that something, however long it lasted,

was going to be important—that night Julio made his voice resonant and

feigned intimacy, and said that, yes, he had read Proust, at the age of seventeen,

in summer, in Quintero. At that time no one spent their summers

in Quintero anymore, not even Julio’s parents, who had met on the beach

at El Durazno in Quintero, a pretty beach town now invaded by slum dwellers,

where Julio, at seventeen, got his hands on his grandparents’ house and

locked himself up to read In Search of Lost Time. It was a lie, of course; he had

gone to Quintero that summer, and he had read a lot, but he had read Jack

Kerouac, Heinrich Böll, Vladimir Nabokov, Truman Capote and Enrique Lihn,

and not Marcel Proust.

 

That same night Emilia lied to Julio for the first time, and the lie was also

that she had read Marcel Proust. At first she only went so far as to agree: I

also read Proust. But after that there was a long period of silence, which was

not so much an uncomfortable silence as an expectant one, such that Emilia

had to complete the story: It was last year, recently, it took me five months, I

was so busy, you know how it is, with the course load at the university. But I

undertook to read the seven volumes, and the truth is that those were the most

important months of my life as a reader.

 

She used that phrase: my life as a reader; she said that those had been,

without a doubt, the most important months of her life as a reader.

 

In the story of Emilia and Julio, in any case, there are more omissions than

lies, and fewer omissions than truths, truths of the kind that are called absolute

and that tend to be uncomfortable. Over time, of which there was not much

but enough, they confided their least public desires and aspirations to each

other, their disproportionate feelings, their brief and exaggerated lives. Julio

confided to Emilia matters that only Julio’s psychologist should have known

about, and Emilia turned Julio into a kind of retroactive accomplice for each

decision she had taken in the course of her life. That time, for example, when

she decided that she hated her mother, at fourteen: Julio listened attentively

and opined that yes, Emilia, at fourteen, had made a good decision, that there

had been no other possible option, that he would have done the same, and

without doubt, if back then, at fourteen, they had been together, he certainly

would have supported her.

 

The relationship between Emilia and Julio was riddled with truths, with

intimate revelations that rapidly established a complicity that they wanted to

understand as definitive. This, then, is a light story that turns heavy. This is

the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences

that seem true, of smoking eternal cigarettes, and of closing themselves into

the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others,

than that immense and contemptible group known as the others.

 

They quickly learned to read the same things, to think similarly, and to

conceal their differences. Very soon they formed a conceited intimacy. During

that time, Julio and Emilia managed to merge into a single kind of mass. They

were, in short, happy. There is no doubt about that.

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