Translated from the Spanish
by Chris Andrews
New Directions: 140 pp., $12.95 paper
Are there ghosts in "Ghosts"? Short answer: You bet. Long answer: Well, that is what reading this wonderful novel is finally all about -- considering the question, "What is a ghost?"
Or maybe not. The fourth of Argentine César Aira's more than 70 books to be translated into English, "Ghosts" is an incitement to the sensuality of thought, of wonder, of questioning, of anticipation.
Beware: Some novels are quite shy in announcing the greatness that is within. "Ghosts" is a model of such reticence, beginning in this mild way: "On the morning of the 31st of December, the Pagaldays visited the apartment they already owned in the building under construction at 2161 Calle Jose Bonifacio, along with Bartolo Sacristan Olmedo, the landscape gardener they had hired to arrange plants on the two broad balconies, front and rear."
Admittedly not the most gripping of opening sentences, but readers who have had the good fortune to remember the opening lines of two recently translated Aira novels -- "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter" and "How I Became a Nun" -- may also remember that the brevity of these novels and their inauspicious openings are marks of ingenuity from an author deserving a place in the same garden with Nabokov and Borges, both masterful, insinuating charmers.
"Ghosts" takes place at the construction site for a luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires on New Year's Eve. Despite the opening sentence, the novel does not concern itself with the owners of the apartment building: Instead, Aira writes about the workmen and, in particular, the large family of one worker who acts as a watchman. Much of the novel is taken up with preparations and the actual New Year's party. There is an oppressive heat wave, and there are many mischievous children and assorted relatives, lovers and hangers-on milling about. The conversations, the careful detailing of activities seem random, yet there is a great delight in the ordinariness of life depicted here, complete with the gentle, though pointed, rivalry between the Chilean workers and their Argentine surroundings.
One thinks of Manuel Puig's "Betrayed by Rita Hayworth," a novel saturated in the rhythms of ordinary speech that leaves its meaning for the reader to figure out. Ruminations on art hold the reader, such as this attempt to tease out the difference between "the built and the unbuilt": "The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film but then you need expertise, finance, personnel. . . . And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists under the name of literature."
In all of the comings and goings of preparations for the party, the novel's increasingly obvious center is Patri, the watchman's eldest daughter, who is burdened with looking after her mischievous younger siblings, with shopping and chores, and who has seen unusual ghosts in the building: "She had seen naked men before of course (although not many); she didn't find that especially frightening. But there was something implausible about it since you wouldn't normally see men without clothes except in particular situations. The way they were floating in the air accentuated the ambivalent impression."
A final reviewer's sigh: the charm (if that word is still meaningful) of this scene -- so refreshing. And what a gift: to look forward to reading a new Aira novel from New Directions every year for the rest of one's life.
McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."