Ghosts, Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews). New Directions. 144pp, $12.95.
Argentinean writer Cesar Aira is the author of more than sixty books, though his novel Ghosts, recently published by New Directions, is only the fourth to be translated into English. The story revolves around a family of squatters living on a construction site where luxury condominiums are going up; the family spends their days and nights together in a paneless, tileless, partially roofless space. The father works on the construction team during the day and the mother takes care of the children, who run around the entire building, playing in the empty spaces and the empty swimming pool . . . and with the ghosts.
They appear like a “flying puppet show,” their appearance is “the opposite of flight,” and no one—parent or child—is terrified or bothered by them. Aira is not an ordinary writer and Ghosts is not spooky or a horror story, despite its theme; in fact, the second time we hear of the ghosts, Raul Vinas (the father) is using them to refrigerate his wine: “It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.” And Ghosts is in fact a funny book: from the descriptions of an inept cashier at a grocery store (“it was part of a chain that belonged to an evangelical sect; you could tell by the lack of business sense”), to Raul’s nephew Abel (“young, foreign and therefore naïve”), this slim novel is speckled with strange bits of humor. But, as with Aira’s How I Became a Nun, translated and published by New Directions to general acclaim in 2006, there’s a twist and an undercurrent of menace throughout, even if that menace doesn’t come from the ghosts themselves: imagine the dangers of small children playing on construction sites with no supervision.
The children’s mother, Elisa, is “a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd,” and one who speaks to ghosts of her own. (“Like many Chileans, she had the inoffensive habit of addressing long, casuistic explanations to an imaginary interlocutor, or rather a real but physically absent person.”) Elisa’s main concern regarding her children’s safety is “the bad influence the ghosts might have on [them].” But the children don’t fight and they run and play, and even though Raul seems to drink too much there’s an air of just plain happiness in the family.
At first Ghosts seems to be mainly a juxtaposition of the mega-rich versus the mega-poor, and while the rich are stressed out about the contracts and missed construction deadlines, the poor are happy despite the squalor of malfunctioning plumbing and shaky electricity, as they plan for the party that night—New Year’s Eve. But like the other Aira novels available in English, there seems to be a shift of concentration midway through, and the focus moves to the daughter Patri, to whom the ghosts actually speak, inviting her to a party. Everyone is aware of the ghosts, everyone knows about them and watches them float up through the ceilings or down through the floors, but it is only Patri’s interactions with the ghosts that concern the latter half of the novel.
Patri, who is getting to be of marriageable age, is constantly reminded that she should find a “real man,” a concept to which Patri compares the ghosts: “real men” seem elusive, even rarer and less real than the ghosts themselves. And when Patri comes into the kitchen and is described as an apparition (from Elisa’s point of view), one begins to wonder what sort of parties ghosts have and how humans might attend . . .
Ghosts is unique (and an example of what makes Aira stand out as a writer) in that the ghosts themselves are never explained in the reality of the world of the novel, nor are they set up in any sort of obvious fable-like or metaphorical sense. We can speculate that perhaps these are ghosts of poor families displaced when the developers moved in, or something even bigger than that, but what is most impressive about Ghosts is how Aira writes the story. Ghosts is completely realist, not fanciful or fantastic, and as he does with fantastic elements in his other fictions, Aira here inserts the ghosts as a natural component of the family’s daily life without trying to eke out anything shocking or waste time (or insult the readers’ intelligence) attempting to explain their presence. This seems the right way to do this sort of story, particularly since (in another twist) these ghosts hold no sense of menace, and in the end we believe in and accept the ghosts because the characters believe in and accept them.
Ultimately a novel about the mechanics within families and the ways in which they create expectations for our lives, expectations which perhaps we can’t or don’t always want to meet, Ghosts is another welcome novel from Cesar Aira, making one hopeful that more and more will be translated into English. The four that are available are both quite different from each other and unique within the larger spectrum of serious contemporary literature—though all are distinctly Aira: How I Became a Nun is a tale of a boy whose father beats a vendor to death after the vendor serves his son rancid ice cream; both The Hare and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter show men on explorations out in the wild, one to paint and one to hunt down an elusive rabbit. (Characteristically, in the latter a character is struck by lightning—twice!) Ghosts lacks the documentary or autobiographical elements of these other novels, but in its focus on the ordinary people of Argentina there’s a realism present that overcomes what might otherwise be an outright disbelief in the eponymous inhabitants of the construction site.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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