Ghosts by César Aira; translated by Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2009; originally published in 1990. 144 pp)
Born in 1949 in Coronel Pringles, a town on the southern edge of the Argentine Pampas, César Aira is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer. He settled in Buenos Aires in 1967 and has earned a living through teaching and translating from French and English. He has published more than eighty novels.
Chris Andrews has won the TLS Valle Inclán Prize and the PEN Translation Prize for his New Directions translations of Roberto Bolaño. A poet who lives and teaches in Australia, he has translated eight Bolaño books and three novels by César Aira for New Directions.
There’s something about Latin American literature. I haven’t engaged in much critical study of the region and I couldn’t pinpoint its genesis, but there’s a profound basis in magical realism. People praise One Hundred Years of Solitude for its depth and philosophical questions, almost more so than its plot. While I haven’t read Roberto Bolaño, many suggest he is cut from the same cloth. To me, the balance between character/story and the deeper questions of life provides the necessary depth for a lasting read. César Aira’s Ghosts represents a noteworthy example.
Ghosts unfolds in three layers. Aira begins with an introduction of setting, focuses on a family in the story’s mezzanine, before concluding on a central character.
Set in Buenos Aires, Ghosts illustrates a luxury apartment complex, under construction, on New Year’s Eve. The reader dives into the narrative through the lens of these owners:
“The owners of the apartments had their own idea of happiness; they imagined it wrapped in a delay, a certain developmental slowness, which was already making them happy. In short, they didn’t believe that things were going to proceed as planned, that is, quickly. They preferred to think of the gentle slope of events; that was how it had been since they paid the deposit and signed the settlement a year earlier. Why should they adopt a different attitude now, just because the year was coming to an end” (8)?
In this incomplete structure resides a Chilean migrant family, of which the patriarch works in construction on the building. This family, to a certain extent, functions as a test drive for the facility.
“They had been living on the site for a year. The owners found all this curiously soothing. Someone had to be living there before they came to live definitively” (14).
With the New Year a day away and work halted at a half day, the family has invited friends over for a party, a potluck perhaps. Aira philosophizes on the matter:
“The potlatch, of course, belongs to the prehistory, or the genealogy, of festivities and partying, because with the passage of time, an alternative must arise at some point: instead of more and more people being present, a subtler form of sociability limits attendance to special people, the people that matter. The logical conclusion of this process is the single-person party, and the best model for that is dreaming” (66).
But more specifically, a young, alienated daughter of this family has her own demons with which to deal. Most glaringly, her overbearing mother yearns for a marriage match.
And One More Thing
Mindfully, I admit I’ve left out one glaring, magical realist detail. This apartment complex is haunted. There are ghosts afoot:
“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. Although they kept their distance, with an air of unaccountable haughtiness” (47).
These ghosts, as almost complementary beings on a parallel plane of existence, plan to throw a party of their own. Patri, curiously enough, has been invited—with a catch:
“Of course you’ll have to be dead, said one of them” (105).
Is Patri best suited to shuffle off her mortal coil?
Narrative and Philosophy
For me, the striking quality of Aira’s Ghosts prevails in its balance between narrative and character building on one side of the spectrum, and his philosophical ruminations on the other. While the plot moves forward, Aira considers much bigger questions, like the purpose of art:
“And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature” (57).
This quality, found often in Latin American literature, strikes a chord. It’s the key reason behind my gravitation toward these kind of novels. I wholeheartedly recommend Ghosts and I look forward to reading more in Aira’s catalogue.
Verdict: 5 out of 5