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.

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Owen Rowe on The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernai, translated by Katherine Silver, and 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. This is technically the first of two reviews (hence the Aira reference in the first paragraph), and Owen’s Shantytown review will run Saturday or Monday to keep it all groovy and together. But for now, here’s the beginning of the Bernai half of things:

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

For the rest of this first part, go here.

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

Filiberto García is Bernal’s antihero, a ready-to-retire police detective who’s never quite broken out of low-level cleanup (i.e. killing) assignments for one corrupt government department or another. The KGB, in Mongolia, has heard rumors of a Chinese conspiracy to assassinate the US president on his upcoming trip to Mexico City. The Americans and Russians both send agents to uncover the plot, and García is assigned to be their local guide. Or as he puts it, “Now I’ve been promoted to the Department of International Intrigue. Holy shit!” The world-weary government thug thus finds himself called out day and night to try to pick apart the threads of a delicate geopolitical clusterfuck. Meanwhile, he’s made his first emotional connection since forever with Marta, a girl from Chinatown who may herself be implicated in the plots and counterplots—but to sleep with her, he’ll first have to get a chance to sleep at all.

There are some fantastic set pieces, like the conversation where the Russian and the American compare memories of the coups and conspiracies they’ve staged around the world, while the Mexican listens on in envy—he’s only ever been involved in home-brewed trouble. The Russian asks, “An electrical cord is very effective. Don’t you think so, Filiberto?” and that sends García into a reverie worthy of Sam Peckinpah:

It was in Huasteca, and I was carrying out orders. Puny old devil who spent the whole day in his rocking chair on the porch of his house. The Boss gave the order. I came up behind him with the cord. . . . When he stopped moving, I put him in a coffin we had brought, and we took the main road out of town. The best way to carry a body discreetly is in a coffin. A laborer coming down the road with his oxen even doffed his hat when he saw it. Then, suddenly, as we turned a corner, the fucking old man started kicking. Like he wanted someone to notice. We had to lower the coffin, open it, and give him another squeeze with the same cord. Fucking rowdy old man!

Francisco Goldman, in his Introduction, says “the real action [of The Mongolian Conspiracy] springs from its language.” The narrative often slips directly inside García’s thoughts as he tries to piece together a moral stance from the shit surrounding him. Like the distinction between mere “stiffs” and a real “corpse” (the kind of body that might once have harbored a soul): “Fucking stiffs! You don’t only have to make them, you’ve also got to carry them as if they were children.” The old killer begins to suspect he has a heart after all. Or worry that he’s had one all along.

But Bernal’s García doesn’t quite hang together as a voice, for all his vigorous cursing. The language stumbles from the stiff and formal to tough-guy talk that would make Philip Marlowe blush, without (to my ear) settling into a vernacular consistent and believable for the time and setting. I don’t fault translator Katherine Silver—I’ve seen her skill at a remarkable range of registers in other works—so I wonder whether Bernal was just a little out of his depth. It must have been a tough assignment, an insider-turned-outsider inventing a language for someone who is just crossing that line himself. There’s no doubting why its plot and characters make it a “revered cult masterpiece,” but forty-five years later the lasting punch of The Mongolian Conspiracy may be not in its own language, but in the language it paved the way for, from Roberto Bolaño to Álvaro Enrigue and . . . “César Aira“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=9592.

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