(a version of this review was published in the Los Angeles Times
By Cesar Aira
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
New Directions: 139pps, $12.95.
Are there ghosts in “Ghosts?” Short answer: you betcha. Long answer: well that is what reading this wonderful novel is finally all about: what is a ghost?
Or maybe not. The fourth of the Argentinean Cesar Aira’s more than seventy books to be translated into English (the third to be available in the United States) is an incitement to the sensuality of thought, of wonder, of questioning, of anticipation.
Beware: some novels are quite shy about announcing their intentions, the greatness that lies within. “Ghosts” is a model of such reticence , “ On the morning of the 31st of December, the Pagaldays visited the apartment they already owned in the building under construction at 2161 Callle Jose Bonifacio, along with Bartolo Sacristan Olmedo, the landscape gardener they had hired to arrange plants on the two broad balconies, front and rear.”
Admittedly not the most gripping of opening sentences but readers who have had the good fortune of reading the two recently published Aira novels and their opening lines, “Western art can boast few documentary painters of true distinction.” (“An Incident in the Life of a Landscape Painter.”) or “My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in my life; I had just turned six.” (“How I Became a Nun”) will remember their own startling realization, as they began to read on, that the brevity of these novels and the inauspicious opening were all aspects of the ingenuity of the author who has established himself as one of the greatest writers and it is not ludicrous to place him in the same garden with Nabokov and Borges--- both masterful insinuating charmers.
“Ghosts” takes place in the construction site for a luxury apartment building in Buena Aires on New Year’s Eve. And the first deception is that it does not concern itself with the owners of the apartment building but with the men who are building it and in particular the large family of one of the workers who is living in one of the half finished apartments and acting as watchmen. Much of the novel is taken up with the comings and goings of the preparations for and the actual party welcoming in the new year. This being in the southern hemisphere there is an oppressive heat wave on and there are many mischievous children and assorted relatives, lovers and hangers on milling about. While always interesting, the conversations ,the careful detailing of the uneventful activities complete with the letting go of fireworks seems random yet there is a great delight in the ordinariness of life complete with the gentle though pointed rivalry between the Chilean workers and their Argentinean surroundings. Of course one is reminded of early novels of Manuel Puig such as Betrayed by Rita Hayworth which saturated itself in the rhythms of ordinary speech and left the meaning to the reader…
However the distractions, the ruminations hold the reader and one which begins with trying to to tease out the difference between the built and the unbuilt continues, “The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: 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. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all--- which technological advances have exacerbated if anything--- isn’t actually an essential part of cinema’s charm, since, paradoxically, it gives everyone access to movie- making in the form of pure daydreaming. It’s the same in the other arts, to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists under the name of literature. “
My reason for this long excerpt is to both hint at the genius of Aira and to preserve the plot of the novel which concerns itself with Patri--- the increasingly obvious center of the novel--- the eldest daughter, but not that old, though burdened with looking after those mischievous children, shopping, chores but who has seen the ghosts, “they (the ghosts)seemed to be making an exception for her, as if she were the object of their ostentatious senseless amusements. She didn’t take offense, because it wasn’t serious. It was more like a flying puppet show, a out-of-place, unseemly kind of theater. She had seen naked men before of course (although not many); she didn’t find that especially frightening. But there was something implausible about it since you wouldn’t normally see men without clothes except in particular situations. The way they were floating in the air accentuated the ambivalent impression…”
A final reviewer's sigh: the charm--- if that is still meaningful--- so refreshing and what a gift in such trying times, looking forward to reading a new Aira novel every year for the rest of our lives!
An afterword ON TEACHING.
( By Auberon Waugh quoted by his son Alexander in the book FATHERS AND SONS The Autobiography of a Family)
Teachers live in a small world and their job is an unpleasant one. Among the few consolations it offers is an aura of semi-divine omniscience which enables them to patronize and feel important. This is what is threatened every time a pupil raises his hand with the correct answer. How pleasant it must be for a teacher, as he ignores the raised hands in front and approaches some bemused oaf in the back who hasn't the faintest idea what he's talking about, to imagine he is making his contribution towards a fairer, more equal, society in the future.