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






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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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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