The Private Lives of Trees

Dear Reader:


I decided to move into reading some of my Open Letter Press books and started with the slimmest: #111 The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra and translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (I should remember more often to include the translator!).

Zambra is an important young Chilean writer known for writing the book Bonsai which has also been translated into English.  Private Lives of Trees is very short, short even for a novella – more like a, perhaps lengthy, short story.  It is 98 pages long but the type is large and I read it in about an hour.

I read Bookslut’s review of it.  She liked it and talked about how it is in a style enjoyed by readers and writers – a literary style that makes it clear that the author has read other writers that readers are likely to have read (Paul Auster and Jorge Luis Borges).  As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy traditional, linear narratives more than experimental, “post-modern” styles.  I used to really like Borges, partly because I saw him speak when I was in college and got inspired to read a lot of his work.  I liked the fact that Borges, as a librarian, used book, language, library, and translation metaphors a lot.  In the last 15 years or so, I’ve lost my taste for this type of writing.  It just doesn’t seem compelling or interesting to me – it seems more about tricks and abstract ideas that great plot or characters (and if it seems this way, that is intentional, it is that way).  These are writers’ writers or at least particular types of writers’ writers – perhaps the type with English or Humanity degrees.

And in fact, that is what I haven’t liked about these Open Letter books – their deconstructionist style.  Also, most are by men and I don’t tend to find novels by men very interesting – too much sex, violence, war – too little human relationship.  It just bores me.  So, I was ready to not like Private Lives.

The narrator is telling a story to his step-daughter about trees that talk and interact.  It is an ongoing story with many chapters.  His wife has been out and has not returned when she was expected.  He decides to keep telling the story until his wife comes back (or doesn’t).  I actually enjoyed it – the translation is good (although I have not read it in Spanish) – the books moves long well and elegantly.  It really is a story – a multi-leveled one, with Auster and Borges references, but a real one nonetheless.  If you’ve ever been left waiting by a loved one and worried yourself sick about when they were going to get home and come back to you, this book will resonate.  The narrator is trying to distract himself, but also spinning out fantasies about what is going on and what will go on.  I found that part emotionally moving.

So, this was a good start and definitely a book I enjoyed (doesn’t hurt that I could cross a book off my list with just an hour’s read…).

Happy Reading!  Ruby


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