By December 20, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

The Argentinean Mini-Novels of Cesar Aira

Jaded, long-time readers are always looking for the unusual book they haven’t read yet, those literary oddities and narrative rule-breakers that aren’t just cookie cutter imitations of hundreds of other books.

One would have to say that Cesar Aira creates those kinds of originals – in this case, short, shocking little tour de forces of about 125 pages.

  Aira has written dozens of these little novellas, and is incredibly popular in his home country of Argentina. Now another one is being published in English.

  Ghosts takes place on the construction site of a new seven-storey, seven unit apartment tower, and the novel’s opening is crowded with all the various new tenants swarming over the almost-finished building without windows or doors or stair railings. You meet all of them by name, and their designers, too. The surprise is that none of them play a role in the story.

The story instead follows skinny long-haired teenager Abel Reyes, the night watchman’s nephew, as he goes to the supermarket to buy lunch for the workers. But the story doesn’t seem to be about him, either, because then it shifts to focusing on his cousin, Patri, also fifteen, the daughter of the night watchman’s wife. She seems to be the central character, until the story stops for her dream, which is really a ten-page essay on the role of the unbuilt in architecture and in life.

Sound a little crazy? That’s what Cesar Aira is like. And that’s not even mentioning the chorus of laughing naked ghosts covered in white dust who are perpetually on the periphery of the action, when not sunbathing in the satellite dish. Could they be workers who died raising the building? We don’t know. One of them seems to recreate his fatal fall from the scaffolding, and the other ghosts find that hysterically funny. When a child accidentally grabs the penis of one ghost, it stretches like a rubber band. Is this Argentine humor? Wacky surreal comedy? One is never sure with Aira.

  The first novel I read of his, How I Became a Nun (the cover shows a child with a giant strawberry ice cream cone), is a similarly weird, similarly tiny little novel, with one of the most intense, mind-blowing openings of any novel I’ve ever read. A triple surprise in the first thirty pages. No exaggeration. Pure narrative whiplash, and all using the simple device of a strawberry ice cream cone. Really, the sequence is pure brilliance.

Unfortunately, from there the story doesn’t know where to go. It wanders through hallucinations, tries this, tries that, and then Aira brings the whole thing to an abrupt halt with a cartoonish murder ending, in which the narrator is killed.

Unique, yes. Satisfying, no. One of the book’s trippy aspects is that the narrator refers to herself as a six-year-old girl, while everyone around her acts like he’s a boy and addresses him as little Master Cesar. This is never resolved.

Same goes for the title. No one ever becomes a nun. It has nothing to do with anything. In the end, this little novel suffers from the same problem. It’s a clever doodle going nowhere. But I’ll never, ever, ever forget those first thirty pages.

As for Ghosts, I’m only halfway and completely in the dark as to where this thing is going, if it’s going anywhere at all. The size of these little mini-books makes them ideal for book clubs, though the plots may be a tad too outrageous for some. Enough blogging – time to sit down in my reading chair and find out where Aira’s story is taking me. I go with him reluctantly. I’m seriously hoping this isn’t just another intellectual doodle like How I Became a Nun, with a plot that goes puttering off wherever it feels like going, without a care in the world for shape or sense. Maybe that’s all it is, just a playful narrative doodle with no point at all. But then, maybe not.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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