César Aira: Ghosts

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 (tr. 2006), How I Became a Nun (tr. 2007), and Ghosts (Los Fantasmas, 1990; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2009).  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.

ghosts

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 cafe 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 wellbeing all the way to the end, when the fireworks mark the new year.

12 thoughts on “César Aira: Ghosts

  1. Stewart says:

    My copy of this arrived last week when I was away on holiday. I’m looking forward to getting around to reading it very soon as Aira had been on my radar for a couple of months, although it’s only now (a few preliminaries excepted) that I’m seeing the reviews surface, not just for this recent translation, but the older ones too.

    It’s good to see here that once again it’s been enjoyed. Loving the idea of the ghosts bring there, as per the bottle and the fridge. So, bumping it up the list for when I can officially start enjoying ‘me’ time with books and blogging again.

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m glad to see you back around and with plans to blog again, Stewart. Thought we’d lost you to Pathwords!

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy Aira and look forward to your thoughts!

  3. Dear Stewart, Thank you very much for the good review of Aira’s GHOSTS. Are you on our mailing list? Please send me your address and I’d be happy to send you our Fall’09/Winter’10 catalog in case there’s something coming-up you’d like to review. Also, if you’re interested I can send you EPISODES and HOW I BECAME A NUN…. Thanks again. Best, Laurie Callahan, Publicity Director, New Directions

  4. Trevor says:

    Hey, wait a minute Laurie, my blog has much more content than Stewart’s comment. I agree Stewart left a great comment, but I know I would LOVE copies of the other Aira books and of your catalog! New Directions is a great press. I’ve got the other Sebald titles you’ve published and am looking forward to reading them as well as many others. (I’ll be in touch!)

  5. Trevor: New Directions is also the North American publisher of the translations of much of Javier Marias’ work — and I think he is one of the best authors who is least known on this side of the Atlantic. I’d say start with All Souls from their catalogue — it is a semi-factual novel based on two years he spent as a fellow at All Souls at Oxford, so your academic background would find it interesting –then move on to Dark Back of Time (he calls it a “false novel”, based on the reaction to All Souls and how the Oxford types regarded that novel as non-fiction, plugging in real names).

    If you like that, move onto his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. New Directions has published the first two volumes with the final one due out this fall, as I understand. I’ve read the first two and plan on rereading them (the work is quite complex) in preparation for book three this fall. It is one of the best trilogies (well two-thirds) that I have ever read. (Laurie: If there is any chance of getting an ARC of volume three, this Canadian would name you my new “best friend for life” — that’s how much I am looking forward to it. I do plan on doing a review of the whole trilogy eventually — not sure whether it will be one book at a time or all three at once. — KevinfromCanada)

  6. Trevor says:

    I remember seeing that, Kevin. I wouldn’t know Marias if it weren’t for you, but I’ve looked him up since and was surprised to find him, Bolano, Aira, Sebald, and I’m sure several others who will become better known soon, in their catalog. I’m surprised I’ve just heard of them considering that they’ve been around for 80 years, frequently bringing theretofore unknowns into fame.

  7. Stewart says:

    Rather funny, that. You’d probably be better off contacting Lauren again via the New Directions site. The email is nd@ndbooks.com for the publicity department.

    As for PathWords, it’s a risk that I may be lost to it. Ha! Truth is it’s exam time and I’ve hardly read a word in two months other than course textbooks. Roll on 11:30 on the 18th May, when I become free. Free!

    I’ve just has a quick flick through the Aira. That’s quite an opening paragraph – all seven pages of it.Oh, it reads so good though.

  8. Trevor says:

    Thankfully it’s all been straightened out, Stewart. Good luck on exams! Glad to have you back today and anxiously awaiting your next post!

  9. leroyhunter says:

    Just finished this today Trevor, and it made quite an impression on me. Really interesting to read your description of Aira’s approach to writing. I enjoyed this a lot, and his other (translated) work is now must-read for me.

    I was particularly struck by his making the major characters Chilean, and allowing their gentle but nevertheless ever-present criticism of their host country pervade the book.

    Interesting, moving, thrilling…all in 140 pages.
    Great translation as well.

  10. Trevor says:

    Great! I love this book, leroy. This one and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter are my favorites, and I’m hoping to read The Literary Conference here in the next few weeks.

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