Short Story Review – Martín Felipe Castagnet – Bonsai (trans. George Henson)

How long did your gestation period last?

I had a gestation period of five years and ten months.

Welcome to the strange world of Martín Felipe Castagnet’s Bonsai (translated by George Henson).  The piece is presented as an interview between an unidentified interviewer and the ‘bonsai’, a young person who has so far spent eight years and one month out of the womb, and five years and ten months inside it.  They consider themselves to be almost thirteen, and their extended gestation period resulted in them developing much greater mental faculties than perhaps an eight- or twelve-year old might posses, and severe and challenging physical disabilities.

The doctor involved with encouraging the extended gestation is in prison, and the mother is dead, killed when the baby burst from the womb.  The doctor, it seems, was troubled by the length of time the baby was in the womb, but its mother was adamant, and so they continued, on and on, for years.  The baby remembers hearing the doctor’s voice, remembers a time within the womb the way a five year old might remember, say, attending kindergarten or playing with friends.

My greatest sadness is that I never met her. I was her heart, her inner life, but I never knew her. I lived inside her without ever touching her.

It’s unclear what gender this strange child is – it’s unclear also, whether concepts as gender matter to a life such as this.  Instead, this is a life made for thinking through the oddities that might come from an aberrant birth, and how the norms of conceiving, childbirth, and the first few years of life are so ingrained that we never really consider what they mean or how they might shape an individual culturally.

Martín Felipe Castagnet asks these questions, along with the somewhat challenging question of how a severely disabled person might live.  Our Bonsai friend is charming and good-natured about their disability, while examining with clear eyes what it means to be so physically damaged.  They are mostly blind, and have the full use of a finger, and that’s about it.  On top of that, the length of time spent in the womb has meant that they suffer heavily from cold, and are unable to handle well the vicissitudes of ordinary weather.  To be is to approach dying, and their life has been spent entirely within the confines of a hospital.

And to what end?  If that is life, why live it?  The story provides their answer, which doesn’t need to be your own, or mine.  But it is theirs, and it is sufficient.

This is an intriguing story which is clever enough to avoid overstaying its welcome.  The ideas raised are challenging and wide in scope – religion, sex, motherhood, gender issues, the debt a child may or may not owe to its parents, euthanasia, and so on.  And the format is very clever, and remains engaging throughout.  The use of an interviewer means that topics can change rapidly while remaining natural – which would be unlikely if this was simply a first-person narrated story.

And the strange child themselves?  Well, they have become accustomed to the idea that their death is always approaching, because for them the transition from the womb to our world was in its own way a little sad death already.  Which is its own answer, to the overall question posed by the story.

Bonsai is a short story by Argentinean writer Martín Felipe Castagnet, and was translated by George Henson.  You can read the story online at Latin American Literature Today.

Author Martín Felipe Castagnet
Title Bonsai
Translator George Henson
Nationality Argentinean
Publisher Latin American Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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