martes, 18 de marzo de 2014

Los Fantasmas

Los Fantasmas (Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1990)
by César Aira
Argentina, 1990

How would you write a ghost story that's "realistic" and yet a fucking ghost story at one and the same time?  I'm glad you asked because that's just one of the trick questions that César Aira has up his dapper, impish, conjurer's sleeves in the improbably mesmerizing 1990 Los Fantasmas [Ghosts].  To help explain, it's the last day of the year at the construction site at la calle José Bonifacio 2161 in the barrio of Flores in Buenos Aires.  Various families who will own new homes in the building once the work is finally finished are gathered together with the construction workers to help usher in the new year with the usual assortment of roast meats, wine, friendly ribbing of one another, and fireworks.  As early as the second page in the novel, though, the narrator casually lets slip that "el calor era sobrenatural" ["the heat was supernatural"] (8).  Later, the reader will learn that the building is filled with what one character irritably describes as "esos payasos enharinados" ["those flour-dusted clowns"] (57)--dozens of seemingly harmless (if predominantly nudist and extremely well-endowed specimens of male) ghosts who float around mostly doing what ghosts will do while not drawing any undue attention from the humans who cross their path.  However, things take a dramatic turn once a couple of the ghosts start speaking to teenaged Patricia Vicuña and invite her to a New Year's Eve blowout of their own.  The only catch for young "la Patri"?  In the words of one of the spirits, "Claro que tendrás que estar muerta" ["Of course, you'll have to be dead"] (82).  Dead?!?  The unpredictable Aira, who disappointed me twice last year with the boring cartoonish violence of La prueba and the boring cartoonish sci-fi of El congreso de literatura [The Literary Conference], does everything but saw a body in half here to redeem himself with Los Fantasmas.  A dream that la Patri has about the unfinished building she's sleeping in, for example, leads to a fairly unhinged "analogía arquitectónica" ["architectural analogy"] of a digression on "lo no-construido" ["the unconstructed"] in the arts (47-48)--part of which wryly equates the written word's construction of reality with the scaffolding of an empty building.  What does that have to do with our ghost story?  The narrator proposes conceiving of a form of art in which "las limitaciones de la realidad" ["the limitations of reality"] are minimized to the extent that "un arte instantánamente real y sin fantasmas" ["an art instantaneously real and without show-offs"] is created as if out of thin air: "Quizás existe, y es la literatura" ["Perhaps it exists, and it's called literature"], he (or she) waggishly adds (the analogy is aided and abetted by an apparent play on words insofar as fantasma can mean both the usual "ghost" and "show-off" in Spanish).  Elsewhere, the intrusive narrator judiciously picks his/her spots for editorial asides to the audience.  Right before la Patri gets invited to "El Gran Reveillon de las doce" ["the midnight New Year's Eve blowout"], for example, the reader learns that the teenager perceives an "insinuación de temor, de lo desconocido" ["an insinuation of dread, of the unknown"] emanating from one of the uninhabited rooms.  Still, she hesitantly goes to investigate what's going on, which elicits this ironically pained reaction from the narrator: "Eso es típico.  El miedo no cuenta cuando una mujer, en una película por ejemplo, va hacia un cuarto misterioso que no se atrevería a hollar el más osado de los espectadores" ["That's typical.  Fear doesn't come into play when a woman, in a movie for example, heads toward a mysterious room in which not even the bravest of spectators would dare to tread"] (77).  As you might imagine, la Patri's decision on whether or not to attend the party with the ghosts hinges on how much she can bear to say goodbye to her family in order to accept the once in a lifetime invitation offered by the fantasmas.  What you might not be able to imagine is the perverse glee with which the novel compares "los hombres de verdad" ["the real men"] in the character's life with the virile-seeming ghosts--and what distress la Patri's mom causes her when she says that "los fantasmas son maricas" ["the ghosts are queers"] (99)!  Should this untoward comment matter to the young girl?  I won't give away the secret.  However, in one of the closing sequences, the narrator draws a great comedic parallel between the knowledge absorbed by the young girl from her surroundings and the knowledge obtained by a typical reader of fiction: "Supóngase una de esas personas que no piensan, alguien cuya única actividad sea la de leer novelas, actividad para él muy placentera y en la que no pone ni una sola gota de esfuerzo intelectual, sólo el dejarse llevar por el placer de la lectura" ["Imagine one of those people who don't think, whose only activity is reading novels, a very pleasurable activity but one in which he doesn't expend a single drop of intellectual effort, only allowing himself to be carried away by the pleasure of reading"], he/she begins.  "De pronto, en algún gesto, en alguna frase, por no decir 'en algún pensamiento', muestra que es un filósofo malgré-lui.  ¿De dónde le ha venido el saber?" ["Suddenly, in some gesture, in some phrase, if not to say 'in some thought,' he demonstrates that he's a philosopher in spite of himself.  Where does the awareness come from?"] (103).  After explaining that it would be absurd to expect that type of novel, as opposed to those of say Thomas Mann's, to offer any such enrichment, the narrator moves in for the satirical coup de grâce and embeds it in a well-placed parenthesis: "Con la televisión, el ejemplo se habría hecho un poco abusivo" ["In the case of television, the example would have been a little abusive"] (104).  In short, both a fearless and a funny demonstration of Aira's literary sleight of hand--or, as one character says about an unrelated realist plot twist contained in Zola's L'Assommoir, "¡Qué rudo golpe para el lector burgués!" ["What a terrible blow for the bourgeois reader!"] (13).

The phantasmal César Aira
(photo: Javi Martínez)

14 comentarios:

  1. I loved this one, probably the best of his I've read so far :)

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Glad to hear that, Tony. I think this would probably qualify as my second favorite Aira novella to date--not far behind La Vida Nueva (and the short story "Cecil Taylor"). Loved it, too, of course!

      Eliminar
  2. I have never read Aira but this one sounds fascinating. It seems that your choice to keep reading him after a couple of disappointments has paid off. I am not sure if I would have stuck with him for so long.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Brian, I'd had a great track record with Aira before the two back to back disappointments so the choice to keep reading him wasn't all that difficult to make. Many of our mutual blogging friends love one of the books I didn't, by the way, so I might reread that one at some point to give it another chance. This book was fascinating, though, for sure. Cheers!

      Eliminar
  3. Yes, this is certainly up among my favorites of the works I've read by Aira, and, as one of those readers who easily gets "carried away by the pleasure of reading," I much enjoyed revisiting it through your post.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. I knew how much Rise liked this novel, Scott, but I wasn't sure how you felt about it. Not "reviewing" it in December gave me a perfect excuse to reread it this weekend, so thanks for "revisiting it" along with me.

      Eliminar
  4. I remember that head-scratching (for me) digression on the "unconstructed", or the "unbuilt" as I remember Chris Andrews called it. I'd like to read it again one time to see if the story will now feel like finished or constructed. It's a story where the reader himself is the carpenter.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Rise, I thought this held up exceptionally well to a second reading in such a short space of time--"head-scratching" bits and all! On a related note, "It's a story where the reader himself is the carpenter" is such a great line that I have to give you a special thanks for sharing that. Kudos to you!

      Eliminar
  5. I never read Aira, but this sounds like a good place to start.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Miguel, I think this is a perfect place to start with Aira due to the wonderful balance between the novel's "realistic" tendencies and Aira's tendency to go rogue (or comedic) at a moment's notice. Aira is almost always a high-wire act conceptually, but this is one of the novels where he most successfully seems to actively court failure while walking back and forth across that wire with nary a misstep. Quite an impressive feat!

      Eliminar
  6. This sounds like a lot of fun to me. I've not read Aira before, either, but you have me interested. Good review to. Interesting reading.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Thanks for the kind words about the review, James. This book is probably the best/most interesting/most provocative of all the Aira novels I've read that are available in English, but An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and How I Became a Nun are also arresting and recommended. Cheers!

      Eliminar
  7. I picked this up yesterday. Hopefully I'll get to it sooner rather than later. It's very short, so maybe I'll squeeze it in between books IV and V of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Ghosts seems like it'd make a fantastic study break from Rabelais, Scott. Hope you enjoy the strange supernatural fun!

      Eliminar