March 2009

Jesse Tangen-Mills


Ghosts by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews

Process, whether it be Balzac’s thirteen hour, caffeine fueled writing bonanzas or Ismail Kadare’s disciplined two hours a day, is a field of endless intrigue. In Ghosts, the latest Cesar Aira book to be translated to English, its importance is undeniable. Aira has explained in interviews that every day he goes to a café, sits down, and writes one page. When the page is complete, he leaves, his job done. These pages that make up Aira’s strange oeuvre of sixty books of more or less a hundred pages, are thoughts organized daily into works, a sort of track record of improvising. The author once described improvisation as the closest thing to real life we have: every day we’re asked to perform, regardless of the results.

Literary improvisation tends to come in one of two forms: automatic writing (focus on process) and stream of consciousness (focus on product). In the former, the author masks the free associations, motifs and repetitions as though it were all planned. Meanwhile, in the latter the writer exposes and extenuates the tiny turns of the mind, using the process of improvising to mirror thought itself. Aira belongs to the former.

His fugues although tame are evident. While La Patri, daughter of Raul Viñas, sleeps she dreams of the yet unconstructed parts of the building that her father guards. She reflects on cinema -- “anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film doesn’t get made” -- then to literature -- ¨an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts… under the name of literature¨ -- and finally to anthropology -- ¨On the same principle, the natives of Madagascar make pretty wooden models of multi-storey houses, crammed with little people.¨ Despite the four page mental flight, the cadence of the narrative hardly changes and we almost don´t notice until names like Levi Strauss pop up.

Yet within these twisting spurts, as in other Aira books, there’s the ordinary banality of everyday life, dishearteningly believable. One scene at the end of the novel contrasts the Viñas´ New Years Eve dinner, its ridiculous arguments about the Argentine night sky versus the Chilean night sky (¨We're in the same hemisphere!¨ Mr. Viñas proclaims), the courses of food, the child´s table used earlier in the novel by the workers to each lunch, the position of the dinner room table, moved so that it perfectly meets the light, with La Patri´s contemplation of suicide after being invited to a ghost celebration on the roof.

For a novel titled Ghosts you might expect a bit more boo, or infrared introspection, or things that go bump in the night, but these are Cesar Aira’s ghosts, so it goes like this: on a street in Buenos Aires a Chilean architect turned night watchman, Ramon Viñas and his family stay in the landlord’s apartment while the workers finish constructing the building; for a day, January 31st, we listen and observe the building´s comings and goings, hoping for the phantasmagoric. When the ghosts do manifest themselves, they glide into the novel, ephemerally, just as present in their absence as absent in our presence. The first ghosts appear as decoration: “Both of them were head-down, with their temples touching; one vertical and the other at an angle of fifty degrees, like the hands of a clock at ten to twelve; but that wasn’t the time (it was after one).” Yet throughout the book the ghosts lurk everywhere, in Aira´s descriptions, around the character’s actions, and up until the very end of the novel, have little interaction with the novel’s real action.

Aira has said that all good writers want to be realists. Indeed, Aira is a realist, in the same way Saul Bellow or John Updike were realists. Despite his very obvious fiction there´s an attempt to portray life at it is generally felt, not only the minute obsolete details that could very well mean nothing, but the triumphal feelings as well (as Bellow was fond of saying about the other Realists, why that reality?). In Ghosts realist detail abounds, as does dialogue and sentiment. Early New Year’s Eve Javier Viñas, Raul´s twin brother, finds a white piece of paper, folds it into a boat and gives it to the mob of kids running around. They need to put it in water, but where? They go put it in the pool and it falls to its side. The paragraph about a falling piece of paper, turned boat, then pool toy, ends, ¨Rock music emerged from a neighboring house.¨ In this detail we can hear the silence of the children, their boredom, even disappointment with the paper boat, as well as the beginning of the Buenos Aires New Year’s celebration.

If literature can be understood in terms of absence (i.e, it´s the notes that aren´t played that count) like the ¨unbuilt,¨ Ghosts has very few silences. Aira performs more like Thelonius Monk, playing all the notes, occasionally placing a note where it´s least expected, making us question if it were a part of the composition or a whimsy tangent from the piece´s solid internal consistency (the opposite of what Theodor Adorno called pseudo-individualization). When we expect some revelation, a dramatic moment between La Patri and the ghosts -- they just invite her to a party and she wonders whether she should go. When Aira alludes to an Oscar Wilde story about ghosts, it is in fact foreshadowing, and inspires Aira´s own tale.

None of these profound literary reflections deny Aira his humor, some of which might be lost on a North American audience (the book´s main recurring joke is the Chilean-ness of the Chileans and Argentine-ness of the Argentines). The ghosts, for example, are naked pot-bellied men. At one point as Viña´s daughters look on, one ghost pulls the other´s penis, sending it flying back like a rubber band.

Aside from the many questions Ghosts leaves the reader with, for Anglophones one larger one remains: what book, of his fifty, is next to be translated? Australian translator Chris Andrews, best known as for his translations of Roberto Bolaño (as well as other Cesar Aira books) has translated his works avoiding ambiguities and hotshot word choice. Of course, given Aira´s clear voice and avoidance of neologism (the only difficult part with this book might have been Aira´s -- an Argentine -- flawless Chilean dialogue) the task is far from Herculean.

Andrews also translated Aira's An Episode in the Life of A Landscape Painted, a historical novel, and How I Became a Nun, a fictional memoir. There are so many puzzling and unique works yet to be released. Perhaps that is what Aira meant by the “the unbuilt,” the ghosts of thought; let us hope that the intrigue surrounding this literati will continue to haunt our bookshelves.  

Ghosts by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions
ISBN: 0811217426
144 Pages