Last January, I bought myself a subscription to the Open Letter Books catalogue. Fantastic decision, this has been a wonderful treat. To date, I have received seven books. I haven’t read all of those seven yet, but the four I’ve managed to read have all been either really good or at least a fascinating reading experience. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Open Letter, they are a small press publishing books in translation, and the books are all quirky and interesting.
Last month I received The Private Lives of Trees by Chilean writer/poet Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell. The title alone promised good things and I sat down with it only minutes after taking it out of the bubble envelope. This is a tiny little book, easy to read in one sitting and perhaps best experienced as a single, contained read.
The story is simple: one evening, Julián is waiting in his apartment for his wife Verónica to come home from her art class. To pass the time and help her sleep, he is telling a story to his step-daughter Daniela called The Private Lives of Trees. He is worried about his wife’s lateness, but trying to keep his focus elsewhere. When Daniela is awake, Julián tells her the story, when she falls asleep, Julián passes his time remembering, worrying, imagining, reflecting…
The book has a brilliant and confident narrator, who resides just outside and above the story. An omniscient with a very subtle personality. This narrator never upstages Julián but provides the story with a light-handed metafictional flavor:
But this night is not an average night, at least not yet. It’s still not completely certain that there will be a next day, since Verónica hasn’t come back from her drawing class. When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue. The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return. For now Verónica is missing from the blue room, where Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with a story about the private lives of trees.
Now I said the story was simple, and that is true, but like all good novellas, The Private Lives of Trees is actually concerned with greater issues and moments than these quiet hours passed between Julián and Daniela. It is a wonderfully modern book, investigating the cracks and confusion of contemporary relationships, contemporary life. Julián considers a variety of reasonable reactions to his situation: jealousy, panic, apathy, anger. Those varying emotions turn this moment of Veronica’s absence into a reflection of his past – his childhood, his mistakes, his successes – as well as a consideration of his possible futures.