GHOSTS by César Aira (translated by Chris Andrews)

The cover of GHOSTS is elegant & simple.

“Cinematic” is an overused adjective (I count myself among the guilty) that always makes me feel like someone is angling for a film deal.  There is a scripted quality to César Aira’s lovely novel, Ghosts – in his descriptions more so than in his handling of dialogue – but I never saw this book as a film.  It has more in common with a play whose characters move through a 3-dimensional space, their placement carefully considered and choreographed for dramatic impact.  The unfinished luxury apartment building where the story’s action occurs acts as a stage set.  As I read I found myself puzzling out how best to transition from one scene into the next; where the actors should stand and how to best make use of the chorus of ghosts that give the novel its title (yes, there are actual ghosts – it’s not just a metaphor).  All this mental activity while reading line after line of some of the most graceful prose I’ve ever encountered…  What is it about these Argentinian authors???

Ghosts is the story of a construction site in Buenos Aires and its inhabitants: workers, architects, the owners waiting to move in, the interior designers and tradesmen hired to decorate, the drunken caretaker & his family who live on the roof of the building… and of course the ghosts. Ghosts who appear as bald, naked men covered in fine white powder (they reminded me of a nudist Blue Man Group) and who have the presence of a Greek chorus but the mannerisms of a Cirque du Soleil clown troupe.These ghosts are clearly visible to the construction workers, the caretaker and his family – all transplants who have come to the city for work.  The natives, it seems, cannot see them.

At the center of the plot is the drunken caretaker Rául Viñas (otherwise a good, kind man) and his family, who prepare and gather together to celebrate the New Year on the roof of the building. The members of Viñas family are at the heart of this story, particularly the step-daughter Patri.  We follow them over the course of a single day: leading up to and culminating in the family party.  It ends, of course, in tragedy. Because, really? What’s a ghost story without a tragedy?

I loved the writing in this strange novel – so short it should be called a novella.  I imagine it will grow better with each re-reading.  My one criticism – and it’s a small one – is that Aira goes into a kind of tangent in the book’s final pages.  Patri tells an Oscar Wilde story (which I couldn’t identify) and her mother, Elisa, comments that all ghosts are homosexual.  At first I thought this was a reference to Wilde.  But when Elisa tries to explain to Patri what she means, somehow relating to finding a “real” man and why ghosts (and seemingly Brazilian men) aren’t virile, I couldn’t help feeling that this conversation was a key.*   Particularly since the description on the back cover states that Patri’s questions about the ghosts “become more and more heartfelt until the story reaches a critical, chilling moment when the mother realized that her daughter’s life hangs in the balance”.  Unfortunately I’ve no idea what Patri’s mother was attempting to explain to her, and I’m not sure if I would have recognized the “chilling moment” (in which Elisa seemed only mildly concerned) without the prompt.  The plot abruptly deflates and part of me wonders whether this was a difficult section for the translator and something of Aira’s intent may have been lost?  More likely the problem is my deficiency as a reader.  Either way, my frustration deciphering  this conversation (albeit mild) detracted from my enjoyment of Ghosts.  Which is a shame since the image Aira ultimately leaves us with on the last page could have made a powerful, haunting and sufficient ending in and of itself.  The moment between mother and daughter might have been omitted entirely.

But, then again, he’s kept me thinking & talking about his story days after I’ve closed the book… and isn’t that a writer’s goal?

I enjoyed and highly recommend Ghosts. If readers view the plot solely as a vehicle for Aira’s amazing writing they won’t be disappointed.  And if you need more convincing, you can download an excerpt at the New Directions website here.

Publisher:  New Directions, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1742 2 

*Addressing, perhaps, Patri’s awakening sexuality?

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