César Aira’s Ghosts: Meaning-saturated, beautiful and complicated.
A heat soaked hallucination, this short novel moved through the minutes of the last day of the year in a building so new that it was still under construction. The story moves between the floors of this half finished apartment complex, and out of the high flying dust comes something amazing, something weirder than anything else I’ve ever read.
I bought this book for its cover: A bleak gradient gray, a black-and-white of the washed out sky with a single white point on the front, an embossed flaw in the photograph, and a black ladder raised halfway up the back, close to the spine. I didn’t know what I was in for.
At first, I thought that Ghosts was about the differences between rich people and poor people. About “horrible and half naked builders” toiling in the sun and the personal bureaucracies of the very wealthy; their supplicating decorators and landscapers. The first pages are full up of the measurements for prisons, traps laid for rich and poor. Maybe time here is a prison, the past year delineated from the next by a solid wall of one day. But then it became about a lot of other stuff.
The story is seemingly familiar, a teenaged girl stands on the cusp of womanhood, and yet it is all but insensible. Patri and her family live in the partially completed caretaker’s suite in the skeletal apartment project. A fifteen-year old Chilean girl with an underpaid stepfather and pragmatically optimistic mother besot by life with five kids in Argentina, Patri spends New Year’s Eve craving some ineffable celebration so desperately that the line between frivolity and serious dedication spreads out thick into its own limbo.
Plus there are the ever present ghosts, pissing off the balcony and perching on the satellite dish.
The ghosts of the novel are accepted as coolly as naked fact. The characters assign them limited significance, and this fundamental and constitutional lack of concern directs the reader into the same stance. It is one of the many ways in which Aira enables you to really get into it, to think of yourself as part of this story, without the intrusive qualities of second person or annoyingly inserting himself as a character or using heavy and overbearing narration. Another way he does this is by having the family be immigrants, outsiders in the context of Buenos Aires, so that you can look in on the events of this day, the thoughts of these people, and be at home with them through an empathy shared between foreigners.
I loved this book in part because of the sheer power of its language. Chris Andrew’s translation feels authentic, and there are bizarrely beautiful rhythmic passages. Like this sentence: “The building would be finished when it all became inside.” Or this celebration of the open wonder of recessed vowel sounds: “how is it that conversation topics keep coming up, one after another, inexhaustibly, as if they weren’t tied to objects, which are finite, as if they were pure form?”
I also loved the way that Patri relates to her young mother, Elisa, and how their relationship is conspiratorial and domestic. The way that these women exert their femininity through conversational fantasies and talk around sex, even when the air is heavy with it. My Mom and I are relatively close in age, and in my view Aira gets it exactly right, the feeling of being the older half-sibling to a pack of younger kids. Of being friends with your mom. And also the feeling of being, once again, slightly on the outside, not quite a parent or a sibling, separated somehow from your immediate family.
Ghosts has some serious bite, for such a little book. Within it Aira likens literature to a building that has never been built, to an architect’s dream. And though he never comes out and says it, I get the sense that for him the reader is always a ghost, haunting the unbuilt and the imagined, flying through time to attend to the party on the page.