In ‘Shantytown,’ César Aira gives shape to the invisible
The Argentine writer César Aira is a master of dark and forgotten places. Like his late countryman Jorge Luis Borges, he writes narratives that feel like fables. He is the author of 80 books, most of them novellas, only a handful of which have been translated to English.
At a slim 128 pages, “Shantytown” recounts a story set in a slum, or “villa miseria,” as they’re known in Buenos Aires. I lived within earshot of such a Buenos Aires shantytown not long after Aira originally published this novel in 1998. (It’s taken all of 15 years for an American house to finally translate it.) Tropical music blared from the shantytown’s homes, which remained largely invisible to me, hidden by a ridge and tall grasses, even though it was a mere 100 yards or so away.
The existence of such collections of shacks in a city as elegant in Buenos Aires is a source of shame and mystery to the city’s residents. In “Shantytown,” Aira plays with the sense of the slum-dwellers’ invisibility. The plot, part urban philosophical meditation, part noir thriller, revolves around one man’s attempt to see the slum with his own eyes. In the process, Aira creates a haunting narrative in which layers of truth are gradually and absurdly revealed.
Maxi is the son of a middle-class family, a bodybuilder and “giant” of a man without much direction in life. He finds a sense of purpose one day in helping the slum-dwellers in their daily work of “cardboard collecting” and scavenging through his neighborhood. The scavengers work in family groups, pushing enormous carts filled with their bounty of rescued cardboard and other objects.
“An act performed once, on the spur of the moment, had developed over time into a job he took very seriously,” Aira writes. “It had begun with something as natural as relieving a child or a pregnant woman of a load that seemed too great for someone like that to bear.”
Maxi gradually gets closer to the slum, then enters. Each image he sees along the way, and each encounter, is rendered by Aira with a sense of strangeness and of unexpected discovery. The slum is a kind of maze, narrow streets arranged in an enormous circle. “Every time he went down one of those oblique alleys, under the bunches of light bulbs, he was filled with a feeling of wonder.” He comes upon a young man who’s survived the winter in a shelter of newspaper, sleeping in a “white chrysalis,” and realizes “the boy had endured, with the mettle of an unknown hero.”
It’s unusual to see a middle-class man mingling with the city’s untouchables, and Maxi’s daily activities draw the attention of a police detective, Cabezas, who’s trying to penetrate the slum’s drug-dealing rings.
Cabezas unwittingly sets off a chain of events that reveal, gradually, the set of relationships that bind the slum to the city around it. Aira does this with the kind of magnificent understatement for which South America’s greatest writers are known, and “Shantytown” is a reminder of why Aira repeatedly makes some annual lists of long-shot candidates to win the Nobel.
Aira is not a genre writer, though he’s been known to play with genre forms, including science fiction. The final third of “Shantytown” unfolds in the way many detective novels do: with a series of sensational encounters involving concealed identities and assorted television and newspaper reporters.
But with Aira the melodrama quickly falls away. There are no easy truths here, no pat judgments about good and evil. Instead, with a few final acts of narrative sleight of hand (and some odd soliloquies) the reader is left at once dazzled and unsettled.
New Directions: 128 pp., $13.95 paper
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