Category Archives: Alejandro Zambra

The Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

3.5 stars3.5/5

The Private Lives of Trees, was February’s Riverside Readers choice from Armen, who never fails to choose something different and surprising.

Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

Open Letter, 2010 edition (paperback), 98 pages - book group.

Zambra, a Chilean author, tells the story of a single night in the life of Julian, a young professor of literature. He reads to his step-daughter Daniela, while waiting for his wife Veronica to return from her art class. The later it gets into the night, the more nervous Julian becomes about whether she will return.

The reader is like a fly on the wall watching Julian, the book’s main subject, in three states: In the present – telling stories to his step-daughter Daniela, In the past- remembering his ex-girlfriend Karla and recalling how he met his wife, and in an imagined future where Daniela is in different stages of womanhood. Julian is introspective and uncertain – comparing himself jealously to the Daniela’s father.

The Private Lives of Trees, is a book that feels fleeting. At just under 100 pages it is brief and the spare use language adds to the overall minimalist impression. Recalling the story for my book group was a bit like waking up from a dream and struggling to remember details, but being left with a particular feeling. Many of the descriptions feel fluid and dreamlike:

“The point of the pen draws lines, the ink covers the page with black water.”

There are parts of the book that verge on surreal, and Zambra clearly enjoys experimenting with the idea of what it is to write a novel. Perhaps Julian, an aspiring writer is creating his own reality? At times it feels like a clever work of art and at others, simply the story of a self-consious man and his rather tender relationship with his step-daughter.

The Private Lives of Trees is a book you can pick-up, experience and will leave you thoughtful. For me, it was a bit like the experience of wandering into an art-gallery at whim and following my nose around an exhibition. It was playfully written, but I never found myself lost in the way that I did with Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller or Kafka’s The Trial. One of our book group members said that it was a book that asked nothing of the reader, which is exactly how I felt. It was absorbing when I was reading it, but I left the characters and the moment behind when I turned the final page.

Have you read any books that felt fleeting / self-contained in this way?