Sunday, 8 September 2013

'Ghosts' by César Aira (Review)

It's the final stop on my reading tour of Spanish- (and Portuguese- ) language literature, and the last author on the trail is César Aira.  My first encounter with the Argentine novel(la)ist was the enigmatic, and slightly confusing, Varamo, but I'd been assured that today's selection was a much more enjoyable choice...

Ghosts (translated by Chris Andrews, published by New Directions) takes place in, on and around an apartment building in Buenos Aires on the final day of the year.  A Chilean family is living on the roof of the unfinished building while the father, Raúl Viñas, works there as a caretaker.  On a sweltering morning (northern hemisphere folk, take note: December = summer), the future residents of the building come to look at how things are progressing.  All in all, the building is fairly packed - workmen, tenants, children and ghosts.  Yep, ghosts.

The ghosts are real, gliding about in the background, men covered in dust, naked and invisible to the visitors.  However, the Chilean family living on the building are able to see the strange apparitions, and most of them simply accept the figures as part of the background.
"The children weren't there, but the other characters, those bothersome ghosts, were legion.  They were always around at that time.  To see them, you just had to go and look."
p.47 (New Directions, 2008)
Fifteen-year-old Patri is a little different though, and the quiet young woman observes the ghosts as she walks up and down the stairs.  And then they begin to talk...

Ghosts is confusing, but strangely comforting, a story which initially makes little sense but is nevertheless enjoyable.  The story meanders along, wonderful rambling vignettes interrupted by tangential asides and the odd glimpse of naked men hanging in the air.  At one point, Patri has a dream during her siesta, one which serves as a lengthy digression on the nature of architecture and the importance of non-building in primitive cultures.  While it's nice to see a few pages devoted to the culture of Australian Aborigines in the middle of the book, you do start to wonder if Aira might have got ever-so-slightly sidetracked...

There is a method in his apparent madness though, and despite its brevity, Ghosts does deal with a few clear ideas.  One is the difference between the Chilean main characters and the Argentines they are living among; in the sense that they are invisible migrants, the family are just as much ghosts as the real things.  Aira describes the contrast between the Chileans and Argentines as one between rich and poor, delicate and brash, real and superficial.  Patri's mother Elisa explains that in Argentina, money is the only form of virility (I think the writer is trying to say something about his mother country here...).

In contrast, the extended family are shown as people who can enjoy life and use time as they see fit rather than being strangled by it.  Theirs is a relaxed existence, seizing the moment with little thought of the future, and it's one which appears to work well.  Raúl's drinking may well end up badly, but it gets him through the day, and the wine (which he cools by putting the bottles inside the ghosts...) is drunk at exactly the right time.  Even the melon eaten at the party has reached its exact peak at the time it is to be consumed.

However, Patri is the odd one out, tenser and more preoccupied, and Ghosts is really about how she starts to think about what the world may have in store for her.  The ghosts are reminders of masculinity and her inevitable fate - and they're not exactly subtle reminders either:
"Although well proportioned in general, some of them, the majority in fact, had big bellies.  Even their lips were powdered; even the soles of their feet!  Only at odd moments from certain points of view, could you see the foreskin at the tips of their penises parting to reveal a tiny circle of bright red, moist skin.  It was the only touch of color on their bodies." (pp.54/5)
In a sense, the ghosts may represent a metaphor for a sexual awakening, and only Patri's mother senses that her daughter might be in danger.  While the other children race around the building with little fear of a slip, Patri might just be falling for a rather dangerous idea of happiness.  Waiting for the ideal man is a little like waiting for a ghost to appear...

While I enjoyed Varamo, I wasn't quite sure if Aira was my kind of writer, but Ghosts has convinced me that he's definitely on my wavelength.  There's so much to like in such a short book, and while a lot is made of his 'process' of writing a page each day and then just letting himself be forced to move the story along, I suspect that a lot of thought does go into the stories.  Certainly, I felt that this story was extremely cohesive, with all the tangled strangs coming together in a dramatic climax.

And that's it - I've finally made it through my library loans :)  Since finishing my IFFP reading, I've managed to try twelve books by six new writers (in between racing through my ARCs and a few choice works from the shelf).  Hopefully, I'll be able to find some time to revisit a few of them in the future - and if I do, I'm sure Aira will be high on the list :)