Shantytown by Cesar Aira (Chris Andrews, translator)


I never know what to expect when I crack open a new César Aira book.  It’s not always love at first sight.  Varamo grew on me over time.  The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira initially excited me, but now ranks as least favorite.  A reader on Trevor’s (of The Mookse & the Gripes) forums made the comment that in Spanish Aira tends to be hit or miss. That’s not entirely a surprise. Consider the 60+ novellas the author has written and the diversity of topics/genres he covers.  While there is that underlying thread of  “Aira-ness”  to everything I’ve read so far – no two are the same.  Shantytown is no exception.

So what is Shantytown?  If Quesadillas (the novella I wrote about last week)  is all chaos and craziness, then Shantytown is an exercise in  precision.  It lacks the powerful, plot driving first person narrative voice of Villalobos’ book.  Instead, Aira moves his characters through a carefully choreographed (though equally absurd) plot. Coincidences and clichés abound in what amounts to a modern fable – complete with a gentle giant,  nefarious villain and pair of lovers separated by circumstances.  Somehow Aira and his translator Chris Andrews make these old archetypes feel authentic and fresh.

The hero and protagonist, Maxi, is described in the opening pages by the omniscient narrator as a “meathead”.  A good-hearted young man who spends his mornings working out in the gym and his evenings pulling carts for the city’s scavengers (politely referred to as “cardboard collectors”) who move ahead of the garbage trucks looking for items of value.  Their route ends at the shantytown of the title – brightly lit by a web of electric bulbs strung over their makeshift homes.

The shantytown is known as the “Carousel” by the local police.  The name is a reference to the town’s borders which form a circle.  The streets lead into the circle’s center – like the spokes of a wheel. People go there to buy drugs; exactly where is difficult to track because the cars drive around and around the carousel.  The shantytown, its inhabitants and Maxi (because of his evening labors) have been watched by one unsavory officer in particular, whose motives are questionable and methods unscrupulous.  He is obviously up to know good.  Somehow Maxi’s sister and her best friend become involved in the adventure, as does a young housekeeper and a homeless boy Maxi tries to befriend.  The stories of all the characters converge at one point in time and  space – much like the  roads leading into the shantytown – and the story concludes, as we knew it would, with almost everyone living happily ever after.  Though it contains few (if any) plot twists, Shantytown is overall a satisfying read.

That has everything to do with the prose.  This novella contains some of the loveliest imagery since 2006’s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.  In both Aira somehow skirts the borders of magical  realism without ever fully setting foot within them.  Like when his characters are left stranded in a diner as the rain floods the city:  “The four of them looked out of the windows: the storm had resumed in all its fury, as if it were starting over again, with a lavish festival of thunder and lightning, and the rain pounding like millions of drums.  They had to rest their feet on the crossbars of the chairs because the tiled floor was under four inches of water.  The waiters were sitting on the bar.  There was nothing to do but wait.”

An even better example is the descriptions of the cardboard collectors’ carts , which Maxi pulls in the evenings:

Every new cart he pulled was different. But in spite of this variety, all of them were suited to the common purpose of transporting loads as quickly and easily as possible. Carts like that could not be bought, or found in the junk that people threw away.  The collectors built them, probably from junk, but the bits and pieces that went into them came from all sorts of things, some of which were nothing like a cart.  Maxi was hardly one to consider things from an aesthetic point of view, least of all these carts; but as it happened he was able to appreciate them more intimately than any observer because he was using them. More than that: he was yoked to them. HE had noticed how they were all different, in height, capacity, length, width, depth, wheel size … in others with wire mesh or canvas or even cardboard. The wheels were from a great variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, tri-cycles, baby carriages, even cars.  Naturally, no two carts looked the same, and each had its own particular beauty, its value as folk art. This was not entirely new phenomenon. The historians of Buenos Aires had traced the evolution of the city’s carts and their decoration: the ingenious inscriptions and decorative painting (the renowned fileteado). BUt now it was different. This was the nineteen nineties and things had changed. These carts didn’t have inscriptions or painting or anything like that. They were purely functional, and since they were built from assembled odds and ends, their beauty was, in a sense, automatic or objective, and therefore very modern, too modern for any historian to bother with.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace At Night”

The more of these little books I read, the more apparent it becomes that  Aira is constructing the geography which his characters inhabit with care.  Miniature worlds bound by finite borders.  Almost claustrophobic and with every detail carefully considered.  Like the carts.  Or the lighting.  In this particular book most of the action takes place in the early morning or evenings.  To convey this twi-lit world Aira seems to rely on a color palette reminiscent of Van Gogh’s painting Café Terrace At Night – shades of blue with pops of yellow.  Yet Aira, himself, would contradict this.

According to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist’s role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can be made. Whether he executes these or not is secondary; Aira’s business is the plan, not necessarily the result. Why is procedure all-important? Because it is relevant beyond the individual creator. Anyone can use it. (Quoted from The Literary Alchemy of César Aira by   / The Quarterly Conversation) 

If this is true – and I’m always skeptical of claims to divine inspiration that doesn’t require any work  – then César Aira has benefited greatly from being translated. And Chris Andrews may have earned the title of collaborator.  While his Spanish critics seem to feel, like the forum reader, that the quality of Aira’s work is unpredictable – the novellas which  have been translated into English are (with only a few exceptions) remarkable.

Publisher: New Directions, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 8112 1911 2






Scars by Juan José Saer, translated from the original Spanish by Steve Dolph all his novels and short stories, it is For Whom the Bell Tolls that showcases Ernest Hemingway’s signature brand of maudlin, alcohol-soaked sentimentality.  Yet it remains a great novel.  The closing paragraphs, as Robert Jordan says goodbye to his María, are among the most heartbreaking ever written. Yes, I believe it would have been better if Hemingway had just written their conversation in Spanish instead of inflicting all those English thees and thous on readers.  Yes, there is something weird about his choice of the nickname Rabbit.  But the bleakness conjured by the words “We will not be going to Madrid…” has remained with me, as I imagine it has with others.

The famous epigraph that gives the book it’s title, taken from John Donne’s XVII Meditation can be attributed to Hemingway’s cynicism or prescience depending on your feelings about the man.  It ends with his hero, who valiantly aligned himself against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, lying beneath a tree and waiting to die.  We know the Fascists, Franco’s Nationalists, ultimately win – and in doing so unlatch the gate for the coming of the second World War.   “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Juan José Saer has set his novel, Scars, in a completely different time and place.  “La Zona” is Saer’s personal Yoknapawtapha.  It includes the city of Santa Fé, Argentina, c. the late c. 1960’s.  The books is divided into four parts.  How Saer names his parts is unusual – he uses it to compress the timeline.  Part one is February, March, April, May, June; part two is March, April, May; part three is April, May and part four is simply May. The common factor of all four narratives is a violent murder which takes place in May (the description of which is the last narrative in the book).  Luis Fiore kills his wife, La Gringa, by shooting her in the face with a shotgun. Twice.

The final part of Scars tells the story of the murder from the murderer’s perspective.  The preceding three parts only touch on that event.  Or rather, the event touches on the lives of the three men who each act as first person narrators for a section of the book.  It opens with Ángel Leto, who is a young journalist given access to Fiore by the judge on the case.  But of the 90 pages that make up Leto’s story only 7 pages and a few scattered sentences talk about Fiore or the murder.  The rest is taken up by/with Leto’s libido as he goes about his day-to-day business.  All his interactions are underlaced with an uncomfortable sexual tension.

The parts/chapters which follow are told from the perspective of an attorney and former friend of Fiore who has given himself over entirely to the game of Baccarat – spending all his money, mortgaging his house and taking the wages of his young housekeeper in order to continue gambling; and by the judge who presides over Fiore’s case – a man in a deep depression who sees the world through the narrow tunnel of his daily routine and perceives his fellow human beings as gorillas.  Lust, addiction, despair and rage – these are the drives each man’s life seems to be reduced to.  One at a time we, the readers, are trapped in an individual narrator’s head… along with his particular demon. Each of these men are connected, tenuously perhaps, by the murder.  And each is isolated, living self-absorbed lives in which everyone around them is a supporting character.

Scars is an early novel – by a writer who is considered by many to be one of Argentina’s  most important and influential authors.  As such it has it’s strengths and weaknesses.  The writing feels intentionally claustrophobic.  Steve Dolph has done a wonderful translation – somehow balancing the author’s obsession with the repetition and minutiae of his characters’ lives (a detailed explanation of the game of craps, for example), with incredibly subtle moments of true poignancy.   The Hemingwayesque styled conversations, particularly, are powerful because the prose is so stripped down.  Saer doesn’t even bother with quotation marks.

They’ve told me you live off gambling, said el Negro.

Just the opposite, I said.

Then I asked him to tell me about Fiore.  He said that he had gone hunting in Colastine Norte with his wife and their girl.  In the truck from the mill.  That on the way back they stopped at a bar.  There was an argument, and when they were leaving he shot her, twice.  I asked if the argument had been violent.  He said he didn’t really know.  He said that he had used the shotgun.

That could actually help, I said.

They’re going to give him twenty years, at least, said el Negro.

He’ll be comfortable in prison, I said.  Much more than on the outside.  It’s always more comfortable in prison, in a way.

El Negro stared at me.  The skin on his face was thick and taut.  Two cords curved from the base of his nose, dropped to the corners of his mouth, and died at his jawline.

I never thought I would find you like this, said el Negro.

Come on, Negrito, I said.  We go back.  Tell me what you can, because I’m not asking out of curiosity.

Scars ends with a postscript; the Latin words “NAM OPORTET HAERESES ESSE”.  This translates to “There must be heresies” which is actually only a partial quotation of 1 Corinthians 11:19.   The full line reads:  “For there must be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you”.  The word heresies is sometimes translated as heretics, or as divergent sects.  The translator Heather Cleary wrote a wonderful article on Saer for the website the Quarterly Conversation  entitled The Geometry of Dissent – in which she translates HAERESES to mean heresies or divergent sects.  Saer’s plays with points of view and perceptions, allowing the story of the murder to unfold slowly as the book progresses until, at the very end,  we are allowed inside Fiore’s head (though clear answers still aren’t given).  This makes sense, though to be honest I don’t see much divergence in the facts of the case among the narrators.  Another interpretation that seems equally legitimate is “heretics”.  That these four men, each sunk in a particular vice, likeable but by no means good, are in a way the heretics.  That their miseries, obsessions, addictions are all necessary to better see (and appreciate) a life better lived.  Because, going back to Hemingway, the only way to make someone understand that no man is an island is to show him that he, in fact, is.  That we are all trapped alone in our heads*, wrapped up in our own lives and egos.  Grace is the opportunity to step outside of ourselves and be “involved in mankind”.   Juan José Saer seems to have understood that… though his characters may not.

*have you ever read a Hemingway character who wasn’t trapped in his head??

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, Rochester (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 22 1

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The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira (Katherine Silver, translator)

César Aira is 63 years old.  He has been, and continues to be, insanely prolific.  Yet out of the 60+ books published in Spanish only eight have made their way into English.  New Directions has brought out approximately one a year since 2006.  The year 2012 was a banner one for Aira in the States – Varamo, a short story in The New Yorker and – this October – The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.

Dr. Aira works miracles – he’s a kind of faith healer – who for years has been pursued by his arch-nemesis Dr. Actyn.  Actyn will stop at nothing to expose Aira as a fraud.  He goes so far as to create absurd scenarios, elaborate “candid camera” sets, in the hopes of tricking Dr. Aira into unwittingly performing on camera.

Of course they were hoping to see the exotic and picturesque part of the operation, the grotesque magical ritual, the touch of the ridiculous that they would know how to draw attention to, the blunder they would publicize in the tabloids, the failure.

The Miracle Cures… opens with Dr. Aira being intercepted by an ambulance on an evening stroll.  Two doctors jump out claiming to have been looking for him and begging for his help to save a man’s life.  The entire scene reads like a vaudeville comedy routine.  Of course no one, least of all the Doctor, is taken in.

Dr. Aira betrays a fear of misstepping, of committing a faux pas (past ones haunt him), of never living down the embarrassment caused by some blunder he might make.  He talks about how faith healing used to be easier, perhaps because people were more faithful or perhaps because cameras weren’t as ubiquitous.   These days he just wants to write, to publish in installments his The Miracle Cures complete with diagrams and illustrations.  He imagines it being released in a series of slim, hardcover books.  So when two wealthy businessmen seeking his miracle cure for their brother approach him, he acquiesces quickly – almost too quickly  – his usual guards lowered.  Not out of greed.  But in the hopes of seeing his books (which he intends to give away, free to all) published in a format he could never otherwise afford.

Aira’s (the author, not the doctor) characters have a tendency to travel through environments.  The young heroine in Ghosts walks through the structural steel skeleton of the apartment building on which she and her family live.  Rugendas in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter traverses the Argentine countryside on horseback.  Varamo walks us across Panama and The Seamstress and the Wind (which I own, but haven’t read yet) is one long, madcap roadtrip.  These men and women stumble into moments of import, or those moments stumble upon them.  In this vein there are two true events in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.  Inside of the ambulance and in the room where he performs his miracle cure upon the dying businessman.  The prose between these two scenes rambles, stream of conscious style and seems to have no focus.  Aira (the author) is tricky, though.  He uses those ramblings to define the event/the scene/the action like an artist uses negative space to define an object on a canvas.  It’s just one of the things that I love about his writing.

César Aira writes sophisticated and tightly plotted books of modest size, filled with philosophical digressions.

Even for people who lead a routine life without incident, for those who are sedentary and methodical, who have renounced adventure and planned their future, a colossal surprise is waiting in the wings, one that will take place when the moment arises and force them to start over again on a different basis.  That surprise consists of the discovery that they are, in reality, one thing or another; in other words, that they embody one human type – for example, a Miser, or a Genius, or a Believer, or anything else – a type that until then they have only known through portrayals in books, portrayals they’ve never truly taken seriously, and in any case have never seriously considered applying to reality.  This revelation is inevitable at a certain point in life, and the upheaval it creates (gaping mouth, wide eyes, stupor), the sensation of a personal End of the World, of “the thing I most feared is happening to me,” is tailor-made to the frivolity of everything that preceded it.

Dr. Aira eventually performs his miracle cure for the reader, overcoming his fear of entrapment, public humiliation and subsequent shame.  Aira creates a frenetic masterpiece on these pages – the Doctor’s manic movements matched by the racing of his thought processes.  Dr. Aira realizes that to save the man’s life he much reshape both his patient’s history and present reality.  The description of how he does this is marvelous.  And the result, an ending which leaves the reader with a choice I thought reminiscent of “The lady, or the tiger?” is brilliantly executed.

I’m not sure what’s left to say?  Other than something I remembered while reading this book.  It was a response by the author Robin McKinley to fans who were unhappy with the ending to one of her novels – Sunshine (great book, by the way).  It ended on a cliffhanger, and everyone familiar with her work knows McKinley doesn’t write sequels.  To paraphrase, she said she got them  and they had no right to complain because she’d done it fair & square.  It occurred to me on finishing The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira that I had been fairly got.  And I’ve absolutely no complaints about it at all.

Publisher:  New Directions, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1999 0

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All Fires The Fire and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar (Suzanne Jill Levine, translator)

My interest in Julio Cortázar was piqued when I discovered his novel Hopscotch.  At the front of it is a Table of Instructions.  The reader can choose to read one of two ways:  the first by progressing in the normal, linear fashion.  The second is to follow a key of numbers, corresponding to the chapter headings, which sends the reader jumping back and forth through the book.  Fascinating, right?  I’m looking forward to tackling it, but am holding off until I have a substantial chunk of time to spend flipping pages.

Meanwhile, there are his short stories.  And I highly recommend the short stories of Julio Cortázar. They remind me of Quim Monzó, who I have to believe is familiar with Cortázar’s writings but whose own work – while it contains similar games and puzzles – doesn’t have the same goals.  The stories in All Fires The Fire are warm and the characters are treated with real tenderness.  For Cortazar, at least here, it’s not solely about the construction of a narrative.

The Southern Thruway occurs in the center of an epic traffic jam on a highway outside of Paris.  The stranded drivers and passengers form communities and pool resources as the hours become weeks.  Life, death and love continue within a microcosm.  This is a strange story, requiring the reader to withhold disbelief (seriously, why didn’t they just start walking?).  It’s also my favorite, despite (or because of?)  the absurd premise on which it is based.

In Meeting Cortázar pays tribute to his Argentine history – building a beautiful (and convincing) story.  He recounts the 1956 landing of Granma in Cuba and the arduous trek of the revolutionaries through the swamps and to the Sierra Maestra Mountain ranges.  This was Fidel Castro’s return to Cuba with his brother Raul and friend Che Guevara – and the beginnings of the Guerrilla War against Batista.  The story is narrated by Che, himself, but Cortázar doesn’t reveal this until the end.  In fact, to obscure identities, Fidel is called “…Luis (whose name wasn’t Luis, but we had sworn not to remember our names until that day arrived)…”  It’s a brilliant piece of writing.  I actually started the story before reading Guevara’s wife’s memoir, and for reasons I can’t remember put the book down.  It wasn’t until afterwards, after reading the memoir and returning to All Fires The Fire, that I connected fact and fiction.  I’ve read criticism that states this story also functions as an allegory, representing Cortázar’s faith in the Cuban revolution (Understanding Julio Cortázar by Peter Standish) – but I don’t have the background to speak to any of that.  I can only say that it’s a beautiful story about one man’s idealism and a friendship based on shared convictions.

Nurse Cora is the story that seems most reminiscent of Hopscotch.  A straightforward plot about a teenage boy in the hospital, his crush on his pretty young nurse and his dependence on an overbearing mother (who refers to her 15-year old son as “the baby”) is transformed into an extraordinary prose experiment.  Cortázar uses a series of revolving first person narrators, one picking up  mid-sentence from the other without any noticeable attempt at separation.  Yet, somehow, the reader never loses track of who is speaking.

Then I went in to keep the baby company, he was reading his magazines and already knew they were going to operate on him the next day.  As if it were the end of the world, the poor thing looks at me so.  I’m not going to die, Mama, come on, will you.  They took Cacho’s appendix out in the hospital and in six days he was ready to play soccer again.  Go home and don’t worry, I’m fine, I have everything I need.  Yes, Mama, yes, ten minutes asking me if it hurts me here or hurts me there, a good thing she has to take care of my sister at home, she finally left and I could finish the serial I’d started last night.

The afternoon nurse’s name is Nurse Cora…

All Fires The Fire contains eight stories in all.  Every one a masterpiece in my opinion.  Nothing Julio Cortázar writes could ever be described as common or colloquial.  The situations he creates border on the bizarre, yet each contains a recognizable truth, a visible link to a reality the reader can understand.  All of this makes him incredibly exciting to read.  An author whose books I guarantee you will recommend to friends, family, colleagues, unsuspecting strangers you meet on the street.  I know, I know… I probably sound a little over-zealous.  Can I offer you some Cortázar flavored Kool-Aid?

Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (1988)
ISBN:  0 394 75358 5  (This edition is no longer listed in the Pantheon Books catalog.)

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