Sunday, May 24, 2009

Douglas Messerli | Attending the Dead (on Cesar Aira's Ghosts)

Douglas Messerli
Attending the Dead

César Aira Ghosts, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2008)

Strangely, the short novels of Argentine writer César Aira—the most recent one, Ghosts, is only 139 pages long—seem to my way of thinking like much longer fictions. Perhaps it is the casual way in which Aira describes his characters, or is the result of his often spiraling structures, based more on associations than on any predetermined plot. Moreover, Aira never seems in a hurry to move his characters forward, and in the case of Ghosts, the poor Chilean workers he portrays, celebrating the New Year on the roof of an expensive, unfinished condominium which they're currently completing, are people who are in no hurry, enjoying the simple pleasures of Elisa's (the wife of the night watchman) grilled chicken, fruits, and wine, telling story after story of their own countrymen and the cultural differences between Chileans and Argentineans.

They are a fairly simple people, whose greatest joys in the world center upon the family more than on material possessions. Living for some time without electricity, water, or proper toilets, Raúl Viñas' family take their pleasures in almost any form they're offered, and while the parents live for their children, they are also curiously inattentive to the numerous young boys and girls scampering from floor to floor through the open staircases and empty rooms of the six-story building on which they are working.

Without explaining it, Aira also gives these people, in their open acceptance of life and their unstated commitment to faith, the ability to see ghosts, who show up, often by the dozens throughout the complex, hanging upside down by the towers as they laugh and mock the activities of workers and their wives.

Aira begins his narrative with a visit from the future tenants, each arriving, with decorators in tow, to plan their final move into the complex in the next few months. Through this meaningless hubbub these wealthy men and women create, we compare the builders with those who have paid for their jobs, recognizing, as Aira hints, that there are not as many differences between the two groups as one might think, and yet the differences that exist are essential to both societies. What these more "fortunate" figures lack, is a recognition of their condition and the vision to see the world around them—the very qualities which poorer Chileans are blessed.

Although it may first seem, however, that Aira is moving toward a Marxian tale of the haves and have nots, his real concern lies elsewhere, represented by the oldest of the Viñas children, Patri, who in almost every sense exists in a world that lays outside of the one all others inhabit. Patri is too young to be properly treated as an adult, and is too old to be able to play with her siblings. Indeed, her mother treats her, at times, as a kind a servant, a young girl expected to look after her brothers and sisters, share in the cooking, the setting of the table, and other chores. Yet, Patri is clearly not quite able to even focus on these activities. Her mother describes her as "frivolous," and in some senses, unable to focus on any activity long enough to identify with her acts, Patri, if not simply frivolous, is dreamily self-indulgent.

She has clearly not yet fully experienced her own sexuality—a clear failure in a family where the women warn her to find a "real" man—and she feels equally outside the world of male-female relationships. By following up one of Patri's dreams with a long, semi-comical disquisition of how cultures define their own relationships, in part, through architectural constructions and the paradigms of their thinking, we recognize that Patri is perhaps more intelligent that her large family and their friends, and, accordingly, feels as even more of an outsider.

Patri, in fact, has no place in this grand circus of family life. She has no money or great sexual interest to pull her into the streets, but also has no commitment to that way of life, and does not fit into the socio-sexual relationships of the surrounding adults.

It is almost inevitable, accordingly, that the ghosts, outsiders witnessed and despised by all these simple people, are attracted to her, speaking to her and, finally, inviting her to a "Big Midnight Feast." While those around her grow more celebratory and drunk, lighting the sky with their explosive New Year's rockets, Patri pulls away from their society in an attempt to think out her response. Will she attend the party of the non-living ghouls or attend to the celebration occurring around her at this very moment?

The elders call for celebratory toasts, and the oversensitive Patri toasts her father (her own father is not Raúl, but a man who died—another ghost—before her mother remarried), quickly adding Raúl's name to avoid any confusion. And in that faux pas, we recognize that Patri is not even a true Viñas. In this world she has no identity.

As Patri creeps further and further away from this world of "real" men and women, her mother perceives suddenly that she is in danger. As Elisa and several other women run to pull her away from the edge of the roof, Patri "leaps into the void," giving herself up to the dead and their party. A passing ghost catches only her falling glasses, returning them to Viñas as he stands at the edge of what for him can only be an incomprehensible tragedy.
Douglas Messerli is a poet, dramatist (writing under the name Kier Peters), and fiction writer (Letters from Hanusse). He edits Green Integer and Exploringfictions.

©2009 by Douglas Messerli

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