Another cheer for Don César

I regularly get preoccupied on Cesar Aira, go back through his interviews (especially the Spanish ones like this one for Lokunowo), dip through the New Directions translations (which I am compulsively collecting–I’m compelled to take in his whole translated body of work as it comes; the nature of his work seems to demand it).

Had a hard time getting into CONVERSATIONS, but today (Nov 23) I started a reread of GHOSTS, which I read way too fast and too distractedly the first time, because these opening pages are thrillingly gorgeous. Aira is linked with me right now to Magritte. I always liked Magritte, but sometimes I wonder if it’s kitsch. Only the paintings full of commodities, perhaps, but kitsch isn’t merely illustrative technique. Magritte was an ad illustrator for a living, and his surreal pictures have the same instant readability. So too with Aira and Gothic novels in general — opaque, materialist styles come from Modernism — no, the narrative is linguistically transparent, all the more to see the romantic, magical content.

In the long first paragraph, which feels very 19th century with its floor plan and set dressing and portraits of people coming and going on business, the actual first glimpse of the ghosts in the prime apartment building are slipped non-nonchalantly in a series of images.

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. The owners were not bothered by the delay, partly because they didn’t have to make the last payment until they took possession, but also because they actually preferred to have a bit more time to organize the furnishings and fittings.

Another image, of two naked ghosts sitting on the TV dish, “a sharp metallic edge on which no bird would have dared to perch,” evokes a stillness that gets picked up with the young mortal workman balancing on a dumpster with an empty bucket.

The only unusual thing about him was that stillness, which is rare to see in a person at work, even for a brief spell. It was like stopping movement itself, but without really stopping it, because even in those instants of immobility he was earning wages. Similarly, a statue sculpted by a great master, still as it is, goes on increasing in value. It was a confirmation of the absurd lightness of everything.

Suppose that these elements, the workman in his pose with the bucket, the reflections on wage labor and the contemporary art market, are in fact dictated by chance as Aira claims with his flight forward method. Somehow we still get, at least here, a thematic progression. The class contradiction is taken up from here in the portrait of the architect Felix Tello. The narrator reflects on page 10 that Tello is caught between bourgeois and proletariat, and from his perspective they are almost two of a kind: neither hang on to their money, because they both need to seize whatever opportunities come their way — it actually makes  sense. This clarifies the class contradiction in one way, but the thought is also tethered to Aira’s dream world, a world of the id (defined against Tello’s ego), which is all expenditure, all ludic play, and no work.

And the bit that’s hard to forget, with the two proletarian ghosts. Naturally if there are ghosts in the story we want to know how they interact with matter. This passage answers with something whose plain cartoon otherness is just as easily mediated as that wonderful last construction, “the lowest string of a Japanese harp.” And the details of “naked” walls and paving.

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 on 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.

Every Aira book lays bare the common device. We have a narrative that imitates a 19th century family chronicle; indeed, what we really have a version of the bourgeois interior that is the fuel for fine art. Laying it bare means creating this comical situation where it is still being produced (and the producers are still present).

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