Shantytown by Cesar Aira (Chris Andrews, translator)

2.

I never know what to expect when I crack open a new César Aira book.  It’s now always love at first sight.  Varamo grew on me over time.  The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira initially excited me, but now ranks as least favorite.  A reader on Trevor’s (of The Mookse & the Gripes) forums made the comment that in Spanish Aira tends to be hit or miss. That’s not entirely a surprise. Consider the 60+ novellas the author has written and the diversity of topics/genres he covers.  While there is that underlying thread of  “Aira-ness”  to everything I’ve read so far – no two are the same.  Shantytown is no exception.

So what is Shantytown?  If Quesadillas (the novella I wrote about last week)  is all chaos and craziness, then Shantytown is an exercise in  precision.  It lacks the powerful, plot driving first person narrative voice of Villalobos’ book.  Instead, Aira moves his characters through a carefully choreographed (though equally absurd) plot. Coincidences and clichés abound in what amounts to a modern fable – complete with a gentle giant,  nefarious villain and pair of lovers separated by circumstances.  Somehow Aira and his translator Chris Andrews make these old archetypes feel authentic and fresh.

The hero and protagonist, Maxi, is described in the opening pages by the omniscient narrator as a “meathead”.  A good-hearted young man who spends his mornings working out in the gym and his evenings pulling carts for the city’s scavengers (politely referred to as “cardboard collectors”) who move ahead of the garbage trucks looking for items of value.  Their route ends at the shantytown of the title – brightly lit by a web of electric bulbs strung over their makeshift homes.

The shantytown is known as the “Carousel” by the local police.  The name is a reference to the town’s borders which form a circle.  The streets lead into the circle’s center – like the spokes of a wheel. People go there to buy drugs; exactly where is difficult to track because the cars drive around and around the carousel.  The shantytown, its inhabitants and Maxi (because of his evening labors) have been watched by one unsavory officer in particular, whose motives are questionable and methods unscrupulous.  He is obviously up to know good.  Somehow Maxi’s sister and her best friend become involved in the adventure, as does a young housekeeper and a homeless boy Maxi tries to befriend.  The stories of all the characters converge at one point in time and  space – much like the  roads leading into the shantytown – and the story concludes, as we knew it would, with almost everyone living happily ever after.  Though it contains few (if any) plot twists, Shantytown is overall a satisfying read.

That has everything to do with the prose.  This novella contains some of the loveliest imagery since 2006′s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.  In both Aira somehow skirts the borders of magical  realism without ever fully setting foot within them.  Like when his characters are left stranded in a diner as the rain floods the city:  “The four of them looked out of the windows: the storm had resumed in all its fury, as if it were starting over again, with a lavish festival of thunder and lightning, and the rain pounding like millions of drums.  They had to rest their feet on the crossbars of the chairs because the tiled floor was under four inches of water.  The waiters were sitting on the bar.  There was nothing to do but wait.”

An even better example is the descriptions of the cardboard collectors’ carts , which Maxi pulls in the evenings:

Every new cart he pulled was different. But in spite of this variety, all of them were suited to the common purpose of transporting loads as quickly and easily as possible. Carts like that could not be bought, or found in the junk that people threw away.  The collectors built them, probably from junk, but the bits and pieces that went into them came from all sorts of things, some of which were nothing like a cart.  Maxi was hardly one to consider things from an aesthetic point of view, least of all these carts; but as it happened he was able to appreciate them more intimately than any observer because he was using them. More than that: he was yoked to them. HE had noticed how they were all different, in height, capacity, length, width, depth, wheel size … in others with wire mesh or canvas or even cardboard. The wheels were from a great variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, tri-cycles, baby carriages, even cars.  Naturally, no two carts looked the same, and each had its own particular beauty, its value as folk art. This was not entirely new phenomenon. The historians of Buenos Aires had traced the evolution of the city’s carts and their decoration: the ingenious inscriptions and decorative painting (the renowned fileteado). BUt now it was different. This was the nineteen nineties and things had changed. These carts didn’t have inscriptions or painting or anything like that. They were purely functional, and since they were built from assembled odds and ends, their beauty was, in a sense, automatic or objective, and therefore very modern, too modern for any historian to bother with.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace At Night”

The more of these little books I read, the more apparent it becomes that  Aira is constructing the geography which his characters inhabit with care.  Miniature worlds bound by finite borders.  Almost claustrophobic and with every detail carefully considered.  Like the carts.  Or the lighting.  In this particular book most of the action takes place in the early morning or evenings.  To convey this twi-lit world Aira seems to rely on a color palette reminiscent of Van Gogh’s painting Café Terrace At Night – shades of blue with pops of yellow.  Yet Aira, himself, would contradict this.

According to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist’s role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can be made. Whether he executes these or not is secondary; Aira’s business is the plan, not necessarily the result. Why is procedure all-important? Because it is relevant beyond the individual creator. Anyone can use it. (Quoted from The Literary Alchemy of César Aira by   / The Quarterly Conversation) 

If this is true – and I’m always skeptical of claims to divine inspiration that doesn’t require any work  - then César Aira has benefited greatly from being translated. And Chris Andrews may have earned the title of collaborator.  While his Spanish critics seem to feel, like the forum reader, that the quality of Aira’s work is unpredictable – the novellas which  have been translated into English are (with only a few exceptions) remarkable.

Publisher: New Directions, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 8112 1911 2

 

 

 

 

 

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey & with an introduction by Neel Mukherjee)

1.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novella Quesadillas* is set in the Mexican backwater of Lado De Moreno,  in a house on a hill called Cerro de la Chingada (which roughly translates into “the armpit”) and tells the adventures of a boy named Orestes.  “Oreo” for short.  This follow-up to last years’ Down the Rabbit Hole is about many things: adolescent angst,  class economics and the impact of  gentrification on a family. And you can’t leave out: alien abduction, sibling rivalry and grass-roots revolution… which should just about cover the first 2 chapters.

Orestes is the second of seven children (reduced to five in the first few pages when the fake-twins Castor & Pollux go missing).  All – Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor and Pollux – are named for classical Greeks. Despite their father being a  high school teacher the family lives in abject poverty, surviving on a diet of quesadillas.   A good portion of the narrative is spent describing the varieties of quesadilla Orestes’ mother cooks.  Changes to her recipe directly correspond to changes in the Mexican economy.

We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalization of every member of my family.  We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home.  We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listen in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.

Like Tochtli, the hero of Down the Rabbit Hole, Orestes is unhappy with his family’s circumstances and trapped in a world of his parents making.  But there the similarities end.  Orestes and his  problems in no way resemble those of a Mexican drug lord’s son. He is speaking to us from 25 years in the future about his 1980′s adolescent self; describing “the period when I passed from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to youth, blithely conditioned by what some people call a provincial world-view, or a local philosophical system.”   This system collapses when a wealthy family moves next door and his own family’s poverty becomes glaringly apparent.

‘Father, forgive me for being poor.’

‘Being poor is not a sin, my child.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘No.’

‘But I don’t want to be poor, so I’ll probably end up stealing things or killing someone to stop being poor.’

‘One must be dignified in poverty, my child. One must learn to live in poverty with dignity. Jesus Christ our Lord was poor.’

‘Oh, and are you priests poor?’

‘Times have changed.’

‘So you’re not?’

‘We don’t concern ourselves with material questions. We take care of the spirit.  Money doesn’t interest us.’

My father said the same thing when, in order to prove my mother was lying, I asked him if we were poor or middle class.  He said that money didn’t matter, that what mattered was dignity.  That confirmed it: we were poor.

This scene takes place after the disappearance of the fake twins.  Oreo goes on to consider the relative merits (more quesadillas!) of getting rid of a few more siblings.

Irreverent, profane and strangely touching – Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey have captured the sarcastic and rebellious voice of adolescence.  Just as  they did a 7-year old’s innocence while describing a world he didn’t fully understand. Oreo’s take on the world is ridiculously funny.  At its best Quesadillas is George Carlin-brand comedy; laced with anger and frustration and politics and sheer astonishment at the absurdity of human foible.  As the novella progresses the situations increase in absurdity to the point of incredulity.  And yet Villalobos always provides a possible, if unlikely, explanation.  Regardless, most readers will happily suspend their disbelief for the brief period of time it takes to breeze through this book.    That’s the beauty of the novella: longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.  An author has the time to throw out a few curve balls, be a little crazy and break some rules.

All without running the risk of losing his audience.


Publisher:  FSG Originals, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 374 53395 3


*FSG Originals published the U.S. edition of Quesadillas.  The imprint has positioned itself as Farrar Strauss & Giroux’s “edgy” paperback division – meant to target the publisher’s  “well-educated, pop-culture-obsessed, young-ish urban readership” whose needs, one assumes, were not being met by the house’s current catalog and who were more likely to seek out the non-traditional offerings of smaller, independent publishers. There are a few facts that I find interesting about this.  First that the FSG Originals catalog is a carefully curated (or life-styled, as they say in the fashion world) mix of titles – some of which in their original incarnations were websites, apps, and other non-traditional/non-book storytelling mediums; in 2013 FSG Originals introduced a Digital Originals program; the aggressive targeting of a specific demographic of consumer; and that both the Villalobos titles were originally released by & Other Stories – the UK indie publisher (with a U.S. office) that’s been making a name for itself with a roster of unusual and  innovative authors like Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rodrigo de Souza Leao & Deborah Levy.