“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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The Hare
By César Aira
Translated by Nick Caistor
Reviewed by Emily Davis
272 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9780811220903
$14.95
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