Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ghosts, by César Aira

All fiction is allegorical—which might explain why I don't read much fiction anymore. One tires, after a certain age, of lessons.

Most contemporary novelists try to disguise their allegories in the centuries-old conventions of realism. They pretend to be wholly—not selectively—reporting the world. But César Aira can't be bothered. So my principle reaction to Ghosts was relief: at least this guy isn't pretending. He's an unapologetic child of Kafka—or, more to the point, he shows us we all are, fancy literary embellishments aside.

But I didn't only feel relief; I also felt like I'd been returned to fiction as it sounded when I was a child. We're trained early to look for the lessons—the moral—in stories. The history of my life as a reader can be summarized as a slow transition from explicit to implicit allegory. And now back. In this case, it's a happy return.

Aira's topics in Ghosts (which are really one topic) are the birth of desire, the end of innocence, the death in life that goes by the name eros. The book evokes that death with levity and precision. Like Kafka, Aria is never clever. He is compassionate, lucid, and funny. A girl in her mid-teens lives among ghosts, all of them men, naked phantasms covered in dust. She's lived among them for months, seen them floating about—but one day she actually sees them. And that's the difference, right? To really see a body. That's the moment when everything changes. This little book evokes that moment—when, to put it conventionally, a girl becomes a woman—exquisitely.

I read the book at a leisurely pace, in part because I was re-learning how to read like a kid. Sometimes I felt a kind of aching impatience to know what was going to happen, what the lesson would be. It might take me a while to once again experience that impatient ache as pleasure.

But among the book's many indisputable pleasures: a fantastic essay, dead in the middle of the book, on architecture; and its cast of characters, a family of immigrant Chileans living in Buenos Aires. Wonderful: people I love, a city I love, both evoked with generosity and intelligence.

Chris Andrews' translation is, as always, superb. Heartily recommended.

(I reviewed another book by César Aira—An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painterhere.)

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