Ghosts by César Aira (Los fantasmas, 1990) translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews New Directions (2009) 144 pp
César Aira seems to be in the air lately. Over the past few years three of his books have been translated into English by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (translated in 2006), How I Became a Nun (translated in 2007), and, most recently, Ghosts. I had never heard of Aira until Ghosts came out in February and a host of literary sites and publications reviewed him. However, it wasn’t until John Self posted his review of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter that I remembered his name well enough to look for him.
Aira, an Argentinian, has been publishing two to four novella length books for years, so Chris Andrews and New Directions could be busy for some time. Knowing how prolific Aira was caused me to approach his work with skepticism. How can someone put out so many books and maintain high quality?
I can’t comment on any other works (yet) but at least in Ghosts I can see that his imagination and intelligence are for real. And I’m not sure, but I think his speed at writing is a strength, lending this novel a swift looseness and experimental quality I haven’t seen much before. In a way, it shows that Aira respects his reader. He’s having an intellectual conversation, and he trusts his readers to come along and see where it takes us. Indeed, his writing process is one of almost experimental freewriting. He has said he sits down at a café and writes a page. When he is done, he leaves. Apparently, the next day, rather than editing what he has written, he forges ahead, finding some way to move the story out of any corners he’s backed himself into. That said, this novel looks as polished as anything else out there, and the themes carry from the first page to the last in a march forward that makes it seem planned from the get-go.
This short book (139 pages) takes place in one day, December 31, on the construction site of a luxury condominium. In the morning the new tenants visit to see how construction is going; the condo was supposed to be finished that day. We are then fortunate enough to read a nice run down of the rest of the day, as the family who has lived on top of the condominium during its construction (the husband is in charge of security) prepares for the New Year’s Eve party. In its own way, the book resembles Mrs. Dalloway, moving steadily through the day, moving in and out of the head of one of the characters.
At the beginning of the book, we don’t know what character is going to be central because Aira introduces several candidates. As we move around in these minds, every once in a while Aira throws in a description of the ghosts who live on the site, seen only by some of the individuals. These descriptions are placed in the text as if the presence of the ghosts are ordinary:
So Raúl Viñas was keeping fourteen bottles of red wine cool, with a system he had invented, or rather discovered, himself. It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold. There were two things he hadn’t noticed, however. The first was that, during the cooling process, the wine came out of bottles and flowed like lymph all through the bodies of the ghosts. The second was that this distillation transmuted ordinary cheap wine, fermented in cement vats, into an exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon, which not even captains of industry could afford to drink every day.
Soon the book’s narration settles on Patri, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the squatters. She is the character who confronts the ghosts the most, and she is the mind in which Aira explores most of the book’s themes. The ghost, in a way, can represent a sort of liminal space, occupying the boundary between life and death. However, here the liminal space is the boundary between what is real and unreal, or, as Aira puts it once, what is built and unbuilt.
But there is always a difference between dreams and reality, which becomes clearer as the superficial contrast diminishes. The difference in this case was reflected in the architecture, which is, in itself, a reciprocal mirroring of what has already been built and what will be built eventually. The all-important bridge between the two reflections was provided by a third term: the unbuilt.
In a great segment, during the siesta, Patri’s mind chases the space between architecture and literature, some related concepts between the Pygmies and Australian Aborigines. It’s a great intellectual game. But the game is not all this book has. Patri’s interest in the ghosts worries her mother.
The only thing that bothered her was the bad influence the ghosts might have on her children, particularly on her frivolous elder daughter. Since Patri was given to building castles in the air, certain chimerical spectacles could lead her to the the utterly misguided belief that reality is everywhere.
And Patri’s mother should be worried. Aira keeps us interested in the intellectual puzzles and Patri’s well-being all the way to the end, when the fireworks mark the new year.