Shantytown by César Aira (La Villa, 2001) translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews New Directions (2013) 128 pp
César Aira is a mad scientist. His short books are seemingly pieced together from segments of other novels, creating a Frankenstein of a story. Somehow he sends a bolt of lightning through it, and it haltingly comes to life. I’ve been a bit disappointed in some of the recent Aira books that New Directions has published (such as The Hare, which came out earlier this year, and which I reviewed here). I’m pleased to say that Shantytown, with its crazy threads that somehow come together — even if they don’t (it’s strange (that word’s going to come up frequently below)) — pleased me a great deal.
This particularly delightful messed-up mix begins with a few chapters devoted to Maxi, a young (“he was entering his twenties”), relatively affluent body-builder who lives in a decent condo and suffers from night blindness. Maxi’s night blindness aggravates his acute sleepiness. Once it gets dark, it’s all he can do to get home before he falls asleep. These afflictions have not made it easy for him to find a life, but he sort of stumbles on a routine that gives him a sense of place: he helps the poor people who come in from the nearby shantytown carry the items they collect from the trash. He does this every day, for no pay.
It’s not too often that these social classes mix, so Maxi sparks the curiosity of Inspector Ignacio Cabezas, the policeman who is investigating the drug traffic to and from the shantytown. Inspector Cabezas is also investigating — or at least using to his own ends — the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, the daughter of someone else who just happens to be named Ignacio Cabezas.
The first few chapters of the book go this way, and it seems that, though Maxi is unique, the story will be relatively straightforward and connected. That quickly changes. To get at Maxi, Inspector Cabezas approaches Maxi’s little sister, Vanessa. This scares Vanessa so badly that she tries to talk to the neighbor’s maid, who happens to come from the shantytown and whose boyfriend has disappeared. To reach the maid, Vanessa calls her estranged best friend, Jessica. Each and every one of these characters has their own story that begins when they greatly misinterpret someone else’s actions, and then their story takes off in some new direction. Aira calls it the “turmoil of speculation.” The more we follow their story, the further we get from any kind of solution or resolution: “Nobody can grasp the whole, mainly because in reality there is no whole to be grasped.” There’s something noirish there, and that’s just where this book is going to go.
But, much like the tangle of lights strung up in the shantytown, there are patterns and deliberation that come together in a fury. We come to learn that the best drug on the market is called proxidine; its effect “was to increase the proximity of things, applied above all to the elements of a problem: by bringing them into sudden contiguity, it brought them closer to the solution.” Yes, it’s like we are on a drug trip: the things that once made sense become strange and the strange things begin to make sense.
And, yes, this is a game for Aira. It’s well known by now that he writes his books one page per day, apparently with no revisions, and that each day’s project is to write himself out of the puzzle he created the day before while creating a puzzle for the next day. But Aira is the best puzzle-maker and puzzle-solver out there, and Shantytown is a puzzle I’d put up there with his best.