During a late night phone conversation last night, I mentioned that one difference between last year’s BTBA for fiction and this year’s was the lack of a “Big Book.” Last year we had Bolano’s 2666, which everyone and their brother knew would be a longlist title. We also had Moya’s Senselessness, a fan favorite that received a lot of buzz all year. But this year . . . ? There are a few big names—Bolano, again, Pamuk, Le Clezio—but there’s no single book that overshadows all the others, that has achieved that elusive goal of being a translated book that everyone seems to be talking about.
But on second thought, I wonder if Ghosts by Cesar Aira might not fit that bill. Not giving away much by saying that this book was high on the list for most (all?) of the fiction judges. And that we’d been referencing it on Google Docs and e-mails for months.
Aira’s got a few things going for him: New Directions has already published two of his other novels—An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and How I Became a Nun—and will be doing more in the future. Anyone who knows Aira’s work (like every single literate person in Argentina) will point to how each of his books employs a different style, almost as if they were written by entirely different writers.
The other constant is the fact that Aira’s books are short. Which hurts in terms of being perceived as having written a “Big Book,” but also helps in the sense that it only takes a few hours to read one of his novels. (Or novellas, depending on your view of that.) For all its intricate plotting and expansive ideas clocks in at a mere 139 (small) pages—just a fraction of News from the Empire or 2666.
Of the three Aira books to make their way into English, this one is by far my personal favorite. It’s just so tight. Not a wasted word. And the opening is incredibly impressive and grand, depicting the setting for the novel (New Year’s Eve at a fancy high-rise that’s still under construction) through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills and to start his mediation on space, happiness, and potentiality:
The owners of the apartments had their own idea of happiness; they imagined it wrapped in a delay, a certain developmental slowness, which was already making them happy. In short, they didn’t believe that things were going to proceed as planned, that is, quickly. They preferred to think of the gentle slope of events; that was how it had been since they paid the deposit and signed the settlement a year earlier. Why should they adopt a different attitude now, just because the year was coming to an end? True, they knew there would be a change, but at the last moment, beyond all the moments in between. It wouldn’t be today, or tomorrow, or any day that could be determined in advance. Like the spectrum of perception, the spectrum of happening is divided by a threshold. That threshold is just where it is, and nowhere else. They were focusing on the year, not the end of the year. Needless to say, they were right, in spite of everything and everyone, even in spite of right and wrong.
As mentioned above, this high-flying, semi-abstract, cursory introduction to the building ends up resting on Patri, a teenager who is going to have to make a critical choice by midnight. Her story—which serves as the core conflict for the book, one that is both incredible compelling and universal—is encapsulated in this mini-story that’s told over dinner:
Patri thought for a moment before speaking: I remember a story by Oscar Wilde, about a princess who was bored in her palace, bored with her parents, the king and queen, bored with the ministers, the generals, the chamberlains, and the jesters, whose jokes she knew by heart. One day a delegation of ghosts appeared to invite her to a party they were giving on New Year’s Eve, and their descriptions of this party, which included the disguises they would wear and the music to be played by the ghost orchestra, were so seductive, and she was so bored, that without a second thought that night she threw herself from the castle’s highest tower, so that she could die and go to the party. The others pondered the moral. So the story doesn’t say what happened at the party? asked Carmen Larrain. No. That’s where it stops.
This is Patri’s dilemma exactly. There are ghosts throughout the construction site, ghosts that are generally playful but, especially according to Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay,” also have a sinister side. And they want Patri to join them at midnight for their party.
But this ghost story isn’t necessarily that simple. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:
An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don’t think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it’s simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a “thought,” reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, of course, but not really from them.
Overall, Aira packs a lot of beauty into the slender book. It’s an impressive achievement, one that deserves even more attention and readers than it received so far. Impressive enough that it’s one of the favorites to make this year’s shortlist . . .
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To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .