When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is gone, the book will continue. 

Chilean writer Alejandra Zambra’s 2007 novel La vida privada de los árboles was translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell as The Private Lives of Trees and first published in 2010 and then again in 2023 by Fitzacarraldo Editions.

In a novella of no more than 100 pages and no longer than one night, Zambra tells the story of Julián, a writer-teacher trying to put his eight-year-old stepdaughter Daniela to sleep while her mother has yet to return from her art class. As the night deepens, Juliàn is convinced that his wife Verónica won’t ever come home. Whatever the reason for it might be, he and Daniela, stranded in their three-bedroom apartment, must make the small hours pass till she’s back.

A long night

He begins the night by telling Daniela a story, “The Private Lives of Trees”, featuring a bonsai poplar tree and a baobab in conversation. The plot is not a coincidence – Julián is writing a 300-plus page novel about a man who spends his days tending to his bonsai plants, which sounds very similar to Zambra’s debut novel Bonsai (1997). He writes on Sundays and brutal editing has trimmed the novel to less than 50 pages. He is often distracted and has never really thought about turning his novel into a book.

When Daniela finally falls asleep, his thoughts drift to the early days of his relationship with Verónica and the great lengths he went to win her affection, his ex-girlfriend Karla who threw him out of their house with a straightforward message painted on the wall: “Get out of my house, motherfucker”, and the family he has shunned despite no reasonable conflict. He agrees that he was an “arsehole”, a “bum” but never a motherfucker. With his suitcase and bonsai tree for company, the plan was to start anew with Verónica but as the night of uncertainty grows longer, so does the shadow of doubt he has cast on her – was she just busy “screwing” her art teacher in which case it was better she was dead, or had the tyre simply gone bust?

With no one but Daniela for company, Julián wonders about his relationship with her – that of the stepfather who has little role to play in a person’s memories of childhood or dreams of the future. This strangeness is compounded by his roles as a teacher and writer and his inability to do either with complete conviction. He teaches Italian poetry at a college in Santiago but can’t read a word of the language. But Chile is a nation of contradictions – the personal trainers are overweight, the dentists can’t pull a tooth, and the yoga teachers are on antidepressant prescriptions. He remembers his mother who “converted” left-wing songs into those of the right. It’s the nation’s style.

A longer life

At one point in the night, he thinks about leaving his novel to Daniela. “The future is Daniela’s story” and he imagines Daniela reading the story when she’s thirty, then again at thirty-five. She has a boyfriend, Ernesto, and has never really been interested in literature though she reads a lot. Julián considers the weight of fatherhood and all the events in his life that have led him to this moment. If Verónica were to return, would there again be another night when he could be alone with his stepdaughter and would the novel he had written make any difference to the child’s life? His dual existential crisis as a father and writer bears on him heavily on this night of unplanned solitude.

From what Julián has seen, every relationship is transient. Including that of the mother and the child. Verónica was nowhere to be seen, Karla’s mother reappeared in her life after many years, while Julián hadn’t bothered to keep in touch with his own. Marriages and remarriages are fickle – the only evidence of the union is the child who unwittingly becomes a part of the games that adults play. Julián considers his importance in Daniela’s life – he can either raise her as his own her or leave her to her own devices. He must decide what he should do in the short time before her mother comes back.

The Private Lives of Trees is as much about Julián’s aspiration to be someone, to be happily married to Verónica, and his hope for Daniela to accept him as her father as it is about the fragments of each person that make a family. As in his latest novel Chilean Poet, here too Zambra’s focus is on the father-child relationship and the shapes it can take when it is away from the watchful eyes of the mother.

The metafiction of both Zambra and Julián allows them to freely imagine what Daniela’s future might look like if her life were to be struck by a tragedy in the present. The roles of the author and the narrator are blurred and self-deprecating jokes feel funnier. As several of Zambra’s novels fuse into each other in this book, the reader too humours the author by letting him tell us one grand story which will cease to exist when the first rays of the morning – or reality – hit.

The Private Lives of Trees, Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Fitzcarraldo Editions.