Monday, 5 January 2015
Ghosts - César Aira
(Translated by Chris Andrews)
I was expecting Aira to be a strange writer, although not sure in what way. I had bumped into him at a few of my favourite blogs: Caravana de Recuerdos; In Lieu of a Field Guide; Jacquiwine's Journal; Wuthering Expectations; Six Words for a Hat and probably a few other places as well. And strangeness I did get, although not quite in the way I expected.
Ghosts gives the sense of being improvised and contains the mundane and the supernatural living comfortably together. It takes place on New Year's Eve in a building that is under construction and seemed to me to be a reflection on how we construct spaces, stories and cultures. It explores choice, inviting us to consider the choices that are always being made by the writer. As the novel progresses the focus moves from the builders of and future owners of the apartments to the family of one of the builders, the alcoholic, Chilean Raúl Viñas, who is also night watchman. His family live with him in an apartment "no more finished than the rest of the building".
It also circles around the idea of difference, of how and where we draw the border between different classes, or nationalities, or genders; between children and adults; between living spaces. How much of anyone's understanding of the world is based on reality and how much on shared fictions?
On the day in question the future owners of the building come to look over their homes. They are all wealthy, this is an exclusive development. It even includes a swimming pool on the roof. Some have come with their interior designers and plans are being made for how these spaces will be finished. Aira riffs on the idea of measuring space, and of constraining/containing it, while also reflecting on the infinite. "The real universe is measured in millimetres, and it is gigantic. Where children are present, dimensions are always mediated, scaled down. The decorators were crafting miniatures. Besides, all these powerful people and this profitable business were operating for the benefit of the children; if not for them, the parents would have chosen to live in hotels. Horrible and half-naked, the builders came and went among them. The frontier between rich and poor, between human beings and beasts, was a line in time; the space occupied by one group would soon be taken over by the other. In spite of its symbolism, the 31st was a crude and obvious allusion to this state of affairs."
The architect of the building acts as a link between the future owners and the builders: "he had associated almost exclusively with two opposite fringes of society: the extraordinarily rich people who bought part of his sophisticated buildings, and the extremely poor workers who built them. He had discovered that the two classes were alike in many ways, and especially in their complete lack of tact where money was concerned. In that respect the correspondence was exact. The very poor and the very rich regard it as natural to extract the maximum benefit from the person they happen to be dealing with. The middle-class principle, natural to him, of leaving a margin, a ghostly "buffer" of courtesy, between the asking price and the maximum that could be obtained, was foreign to them."
There are passages of carefully pitched mundanity but among these lurk strangenesses, much like the "horrible and half-naked" builders. "A woman in violet was catching her breath on the stairs between the sixth and seventh floors. Others didn't have to make an effort: they floated up and down, even through the concrete slabs." Indeed the titular ghosts turn out to be fully naked and covered in cement dust, much like builders. These ghosts inhabit a separate reality, although they acknowledge the physical world and can interact with it. "The naked men shouted louder and louder as if competing with each other. They were dirty like builders, and had the same kind of bodies: rather stocky, solid, with small feet, and rough hands. There toes were spread widely, like wild men's toes. They were behaving like badly brought-up children. But they were adults. A builder who happened to be passing by with a bucketful of rubble on the way to the skip stretched out his free hand and, without stopping, grasped the penis of one of the naked men and kept walking. The member stretched out to a length of two yards, then three, five, ten, all the way to the sidewalk. When he let it go, it slapped back into place with a noise whose weird harmonics went off echoing off the unplastered concrete walls and the stairs without marble paving, up and down the empty elevator shafts, like the lowest string of a Japanese harp. The two ghosts laughed more loudly and frenetically than ever."
As well as the ghosts we can see another anti-realistic strain at work here. Aira defines the builders as if they were a species that had evolved separately to build, rather than the usual ragtag collection of humanity that make up most groups of people. He often does the same thing, particularly when talking about Argentinians and Chileans. "Chileans were different: smaller, more serious, more orderly"; "a typical Argentinian beauty walked past; broad weight-lifter's shoulders, pumped-up breasts, narrow hips (viewed from the front, because side on she was markedly steatopygous), dark skin, almost like an African, indigenous features with certain oriental characteristics, thick protuberant lips, black hair dyed a reddish colour, a very short denim skirt"..."Inés and Patri, petit and delicate, slipped past her like two ants beside an elephant." There is a kind of cod-anthropology at work, and Aira takes this further in the middle of the book, where he enters a long digression about the architecture of various societies, including the song lines of aboriginal Australians, which he sees as one of the unbuilt architectures, a category which may also include literature: "the Australians concentrate on thinking and dreaming the landscape in which they live, until by multiplying their stories they transform it into a complete and significant 'construction'. The process is not as exotic as it seems. It happens every day in the western world: it's the same as the "mental city', Joyce's Dublin, for instance." There is something about this method which brought to mind sci-fi or fantasy, certainly not quite realism, even in the 'realistic' passages.
Zola's L'Assommoir, a key 'realist' work, is mentioned as being the favourite novel of the apartment block's architect, Felix Tello. There are interesting parallels between the books, different as they are. The fathers in both are alcoholics. Building sites and the potential for falls are key in both. The mother has a laundry in L'Assommoir and the mother in Ghosts is slightly obsessed with washing, using bleach so that new clothes are faded and thin after only a few washes. (All these parallels were not spotted due to my familiarity with Zola's novel but due to a Wikipedia search. It would be interesting to see what someone familiar with the Zola book thought.)
Aira's writing method is, apparently, to write the novel straight through and to work on that days writing but to never edit the work finished on a previous day. This seems somewhat similar to the novels/stories written by groups of authors where each one has to continue where the last one left off. These works often derive their energy from the audacity of the bridges between chapters and they have a tendency to leave loose ends and to forefront digression. It also means that there is possibly no plot arc at the early stages of the novel so it is genuinely open ended. In Ghosts it feels that rather than set up a plot Aira is setting up and exploring certain opposing dynamics operating on each other to form a sort of loose dialectical method.
How do the living act upon the dead? How do the dead act upon the living? How does the space we inhabit shape what happens within that space? How does our perspective shape and alter that space?
The Zola thread, does, however, invite a social-realist, or at least political reading of the book. It has been suggested elsewhere that the ghosts represent the disappeared and this seems to fit the question I have framed above: How do the dead act upon the living? This quote from Aira suggests that he is a writer who is very concerned with reality: "“I think of my books,” Aira has said, “less as reflections or representations and more like instruments or tools with which to operate on reality.”"1 Does he do so with the aim of revealing the inner workings of reality or with the audacity to think he can change reality?
Aira sets up a journey for the female characters which involves finding a "real man" and getting married: "the really important thing, in love, is to find a real man. Not the real men again! exclaimed Patri. That's what mom's always telling me. Well she knows what she's talking about, I promise you. How does she know? Inés shrugged her shoulders." "This is contrasted with the pull of the ghosts, naked and virile seeming. The pull of the ghosts acts particularly upon the eldest daughter Patri who stands on the border between childhood and adulthood. This becomes the plot element which propels the story towards the end, and maybe beyond, when Patri is invited to celebrate the New Year with the ghosts. This seems like the tension between representations of the perfect man or woman and 'real' people.
Ghosts is a fascinating book, the method not totally overwhelming the sense that you are reading a conventional novel while at the same time resisting the rules and expectations. This is carried offwith a playful sense of humour but also a high seriousness. I look forward to seeing how this works in some of Aira's other books. This one came as part of a set of three, along with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Literary Conference.