10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

The central axis of the book is a road: Calle Bonorino, with a rich neighborhood of apartments and shops at one end and a shantytown at the other. Maxi, a high schooler from the rich end, helps the trashpickers and cardboard collectors from the shantytown cart their booty home. His foil is Cabezas, a police inspector gone rogue after his daughter is killed:

The gulf between the two men was evident in the forms of their respective enterprises, which although superposed were incompatible. Maxi’s was linear, an adventure open to improvisation, like a path disappearing into the distance. The inspector’s enterprise, by contrast, resembled the deciphering of a structure.

Add in drug dealers (“proxidine” gives its user the sense that all distance has been abolished), rich families employing shantytown maids, and a suspicious priest, and all the elements are in place for a glorious and confusing mess. At the climax, in an epochal rainstorm, details are literally flooded out.

So much for the plot. But geography is not just a metaphor in Shantytown; the characters themselves can’t see details clearly. Maxi seems to be emotionally dulled or turned inward, perhaps on the autistic spectrum; he tells his love interest (although even that is weirdly deflected, in a mirror): “Either you think about other people, or you pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t do both at the same time.” Aira the narrator can, though—and he frequently puts the narrative on hold for thematic mini-essays:

Outsiders never went there [the shantytown], for a number of reasons, which all came down to one thing: fear. It’s true that there was no real reason why outsiders would want to go there in the first place. But that was a part of the fear. And fear is the key to all places: social, geographical, even imaginary. It is the matrix of places, bringing them into existence and making it possible to move from one to another. Being or not being in a place depends on a complex system of actions, and it is well known that action engenders and nourishes fear.

It’s this narrative perspective, self-aware but never cheaply ironic, that makes Aira such a blast to read. Aira has written scores of short novels in Spanish; New Directions has published nine translations so far, with a tenth due later this year. Aira fans thus get to witness the larger adventure of Aira’s narrative invention itself—and this book in particular has a lot to say on that theme. Late in the novel, Cabezas feels trapped: “He had to keep fleeing forward, but to where?” Aira’s compositional technique—never changing anything once it is set down, only adding later deflections and specifications—is referred to as “flight forward”; I’ll bet this is the source of that phrase.

Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Aira’s claim is similar:

People always assume that to improvise is to act without thinking. But if you do something on an impulse, or because you feel like it, or just like that, without knowing why, it’s still you doing it, and you have a history that has led to that particular point in your life, so it’s not really a thoughtless act, far from it; you couldn’t have given it any more thought: you’ve been thinking it out since you were born.

Aira’s worlds always have something of the noir to them. We’re always trying to decipher the structures, get things down in black and white; we’re often frustrated, yet still compelled to follow the thinnest, most unpromising narrative thread towards a distant possible exit. At least there aren’t always bodies piling up.

The world is full of moral ambiguity, with no clear good or bad. Stiffs (and occasionally corpses) continue to pile up left and right. That’s just the daily news—hell, it’s the whole world, whether it’s a geopolitical or a neighborhood clusterfuck. So the narrative voice is what makes The Mongolian Conspiracy and Shantytown noir? But the pull of the voice applies to César Aira’s other novels, to half the books I read—it doesn’t even have to be a tale of crime, just something human and murky, with a faint light of hope.

Maybe noir doesn’t really mean anything after all. Maybe nothing does. Maybe that’s the whole point.

10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is the continuation of a larger piece by Owen Rowe, today on César Aira’s Shantytown, translated by Chris Andrews, out from New Directions.

Owen (Matt) Rowe is a writer, editor, and translator (from Portuguese and Italian) based in Port Townsend, Washington. Stay tuned for his upcoming transformations into bookseller and audiobook entrepreneur. As already mentioned, this is the second part of a combined review (the first part was on Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy). All I can say is that the cover for Shantytown is super, super cool.

Here’s the beginning of this part of the review:

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

18 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Emily Davis on César Aira’s The Hare, from New Directions.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and now lives in India, rubbing elbows with other awesome translators, and is also one of the contributing translators to Open Letter’s forthcoming Spanish fiction anthology. (She’s also the original East Coast version of me—or I’m the original Midwest version of her. For those of you who know either of us, you know both of us.)

Here’s a bit of Emily’s review:

It’s hard to boil down a wild, digressive, fantastical plot into a neat, compact, simple summary, but here’s an attempt: Clarke, a British naturalist, is traveling through Patagonia in, say, the 1830s, and as he meets more and more of the local Mapuche people, he gets more and more caught up in their mysterious politics as he’s asked to help find a chief who’s disappeared into thin air, all the while also searching for the so-called Legibrerian hare. And, for those of you following along at home, some parts of the story here are loosely (very loosely) based on actual events that took place in Argentina in, say, the 1830s. Juan Manuel de Rosas, “the Restorer of the Laws” himself, features in the opening of the book, and Calfucurá appears (and disappears) prominently as well.

The real star, though, is the pampas. This isn’t anything new—the Patagonian wilderness plays an important role in many of Aira’s books—but The Hare is all about the setting and its special, otherworldly properties. Clarke is obsessed with the pampas as heterotopia—a place where the otherwise impossible is possible, because the laws of physics that govern the rest of the world don’t seem to apply here. At least, the geometry’s wonky, and the way you can see (or can’t see) things on the pampas doesn’t always make sense.

For the entire review, go here

18 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I should say at the outset that there is a lot of absurdity in the whole thing.”

As the shaman Mallén prepares to explain to Clarke the legend of the Legibrerian hare, I can’t help but read “the whole thing” as not simply the legend, but indeed the entire novel. At nearly 300 pages, The Hare is a great deal longer than Aira’s usually much thinner volumes, and accordingly, there is a lot of Airian absurdity in it.

It’s hard to boil down a wild, digressive, fantastical plot into a neat, compact, simple summary, but here’s an attempt: Clarke, a British naturalist, is traveling through Patagonia in, say, the 1830s, and as he meets more and more of the local Mapuche people, he gets more and more caught up in their mysterious politics as he’s asked to help find a chief who’s disappeared into thin air, all the while also searching for the so-called Legibrerian hare. And, for those of you following along at home, some parts of the story here are loosely (very loosely) based on actual events that took place in Argentina in, say, the 1830s. Juan Manuel de Rosas, “the Restorer of the Laws” himself, features in the opening of the book, and Calfucurá appears (and disappears) prominently as well.

The real star, though, is the pampas. This isn’t anything new—the Patagonian wilderness plays an important role in many of Aira’s books—but The Hare is all about the setting and its special, otherworldly properties. Clarke is obsessed with the pampas as heterotopia—a place where the otherwise impossible is possible, because the laws of physics that govern the rest of the world don’t seem to apply here. At least, the geometry’s wonky, and the way you can see (or can’t see) things on the pampas doesn’t always make sense. Clarke is constantly thinking about this, as he compares the vast empty landscape to an urban labyrinth:

I’ve also lived in London, and what this desert we are going through reminded me of was in fact London, the greatest city in the world. Strange, isn’t it? They would seem to have nothing in common, and yet the effects are the same, even down to details. If you head in any direction, either along its streets or out into this endless wilderness, the sense of being in a labyrinth where there’s no labyrinth, of everything being on view, of homogeneity, is exactly the same . . .

and desperately tries to explain repeated sightings of a “wanderer” whose position and movement appear to be logically inexplicable:

Once, a lone rider who remained in their sight for hours caught their attention. He was travelling along what was for them the skyline, and his trajectory seemed to be moving from one side to the other, not in the manner of a normal zigzag (in which case they would have noticed him moving closer then drawing further away) but rather as if the whole space between observers and observed were tilting. . . . The alarming thing was that they saw him again two days later, but this time at a completely different point, separate from the horizon. . . . Clarke became worried. . . . drawing a diagram with a twig in the dust when they stopped to camp. He was trying to work out how the rider’s position had changed, but contradicted his own calculations when he tried to include the tilting in space he thought he had detected on both occasions.

And then there’s the story about the enormous ducks—ducks the size of humans—that could only be possible within this mysterious world, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Another element of The Hare that’s worth pointing out, especially to those of you who are interested in translation (and considering where you’re reading this, I’m assuming that’s, like, all of you), is the interplay of languages. Not only is Clarke an Englishman traveling in an officially Spanish-speaking country, but most of the people he converses with speak either Huilliche or Voroga. This means that when we read Nick Caistor’s English translation—depending on how willing we are to jump down the rabbit hole—much of what we’re reading is essentially a translation (from Spanish) of a translation (from Huilliche or Voroga). This is all well and good and not that unusual, but I imagine it must be satisfying, when translating, to end up writing a line like “The joke was different in Huilliche of course, which was the language they were speaking in. But it survives the translation.”

What’s more, there’s even special acknowledgment of the difficulties inherent in translation, especially where there are ambiguities of meaning:

In the Huilliche tongue, these last two nouns had several meanings. Clarke could not immediately decide how they were being used on this occasion, and asked for an explanation. He knew what he was letting himself in for, because the Indians could be especially labyrinthine in these delicate issues of semantics: their idea of the continuum prevented them from giving clear and precise definitions.

Of course here, as well as in the line “He [the Voroga chief, Coliqueo] created monstrous sentences, joining the subject of one with the predicate of another, in order to increase their vagueness,” I can’t help but wonder: are you describing your characters’ language, or your own narrative style? And, to be honest, this is precisely why I like it. I realize not everyone is as obsessed with self-referential style as I am, nor as prone to spot examples of it everywhere, almost compulsively, so I’ll stop myself there and skip right to this:

The Hare is disorienting from the start, and yet as the setting turns more disorienting (and the protagonists more disoriented, the plot more convoluted), things start to fall into place. The crazy tale culminates in a bizarre series of plot twists worthy of a daytime talk show, but the biggest surprise of all is that it actually comes off as kind of charming.

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