César Aira: The Hare

The Hare
by César Aira (La Liebre, 1991)
translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor
New Directions (2013) 
273 pp

There are some authors I love, and I cannot understand why everyone else doesn’t love them just as much. I’m thinking of Edith Wharton here. On the other hand, there are some authors I love and yet I totally get why others can’t stand their books. I love Moby-Dick. You didn’t like it? We’re still cool. César Aira falls into the second category. I am a big fan, but I won’t hold it against you if you don’t like his schtick. I’m sad to say that after The Hare (La Liebre, 1991; tr. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 1998), which I liked on several levels, I understand his detractors even more.

But before we get into it, I want to thank New Directions for publishing The Hare. It was actually translated and published by Serpent’s Tail back in the 1990s — the first English translation of Aira, in fact — but it soon fell out of print. When New Directions began publishing Aira a few years ago, I looked into getting a copy of The Hare. I eventually got my hands on one when I saw a copy that was much cheaper than what I was seeing on Amazon ($363 at the time I reviewed How I Became a Nun). It’s affordable again, and if you love Aira, I still think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that most of us are reading this after we’ve already fallen in love with Aira’s work, though. Though it contains Aira’s playful falling forward and his self-conscious writing, it’s an outlier, and perhaps we can blame one thing: it’s length. At 266 pages, it is around twice as long as what we’ve been getting. Is this why the games grew tiresome and felt less and less like a product of the book but rather the weak hook on which the whole book was thrown on? And, in the end, did Aira simply decide enough was enough and tack on a contrived ending?

It’s never easy to introduce an Aira novel. I often feel I could recite three-quarters of the book and still be misleading interested readers. His approach to writing is such that if he begins at Point A, by the end of the novel it’s not just that he ends up somewhere totally unexpected, like point ?, it’s that Point A has also vanished. But let’s try:

The basic premise here is actually enough to take us through the whole novel (and maybe that’s another reason the book feels like such an outlier). An Englishman named Clarke, brother-in-law to that famous Darwin, has arrived in Argentina in the late 1800s, hoping to find the legendary Legibrerian Hare, a flying bunny. Together with an assistant, who has his own motives, and a fifteen-year-old watlercolor artist, he sets off into the Pampas, risking life amongst the natives, simply to spot the elusive hare.

I was pleased to find that in the book’s structure, Aira was still commenting on his own writing style. Recognizing that his characters’ path through the wilderness and his path through the book were one and the same, each going here and there, racing and stopping, he writes:

although at the same time we ignore their deviations to the right and left, which due to a secondary the trajectory end up of course not being deviations at all, but a particular kind of straight line.

In the end, I didn’t buy it, but I always welcome Aira’s self-commentary.

There’s another, more central and more fulfilling way this book’s substance comments upon our experience reading it: a search for meaning amidst shifting signals, signals that may or may not be completely arbitrary.

As Clarke searches for the hare, he understands it will be difficult to communicate with the natives who, obviously, speak a different language. They use the same word for “white” and “twin”; a word referring to the past could be “a minute ago,” “a thousand years ago,” or a vague “before.” Worse, the word for “took off” can also mean “was stolen” or “was made to vanish.” So when Clarke hears that the white hare took off a minute ago, neither he nor we have any way of getting at the true meaning. Worst of all, “hare” could be the name given to some valuable object.

The natives, for their part, are having a blast with all this. That is, until their chief takes off, is stolen, or, maybe, vanishes. Clarke experiences confusion from his own language when he tells talks to his assistant:

“It appears that Cafulcurá — and don’t ask me how — has gone up in smoke.”

“What? He’s exploded?”

“No, please, it was just an expression. I believe the Indians think he has been kidnapped.”

But who knows?

And thus begins the long, often fun but often not, episodic trek through the novel. Clarke and his two sidekicks go from one place to the next, get involved in local politics and wars, take a detour to the underworld, all while trying to understand just what it is they’re trying to find.

As I said above, there is much to love here. For example, after a lengthy chapter of talking ends, the next chapter begins, “Three or four days later, they were in exactly the same situation.” The talking begins again. Aira is, thankfully, still being Aira. The problem, at least for me, is that he isn’t as controlled as I’m used to. I found myself less confident in Aira’s ability to fulfill even where there is no explanation. I’ve always been impressed that his writing method didn’t fall apart on him and leave him with a ball of tangled yarn; I’m afraid that’s how I felt about The Hare.

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