05 September 2014

The cart, the folding bed, the stegosaurus

Shantytown by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2013)

Maxi, the muscular and boyish protagonist of César Aira's La villa, was a volunteer loader of junk and trash in a suburban village in Buenos Aires, in a section of the city right beside the curving rows of shanties whose lights at night lit up like unblinking fireflies. He became a regular, reliable help to the trash collectors, all of whom were dwellers in the shanties. Maxi's selfless assistance earned him the trust of the mobile community. Garbage and trash picking was perhaps a fitting backdrop in a novel whose components and small pieces were collected and assembled into a novel form which attained solidity and function despite the pliant materials. The ingeniousness of the garbage collectors in creating something useful out of trash was evident in the way they fashioned found objects into functional art; for instance, the trash cart itself.

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 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 every way, really. Some were made with planks, sticks, or pipes, others with wire mesh or canvas or even cardboard. The wheels were from a great variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, tricycles, baby carriages, even cars. Naturally, no two carts looked the same, each had its own particular beauty, its value as folk art. This was not an 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.

Each individual cart was unique in itself, functional, and artistic. The fastidious construction of a cart might be another self-referential nod to Aira's own artistic program (or lack of it). The final output was determined by literary discovery, by an improvisation. Building sturdy carts out of ordinary, available materials was an engineering project determined by just the basic literary requirements of form and structure. A parallel example was later made with the building of a folding bed, which eventually played a critical role in a critical juncture in the story – the opportunity when the garbage collectors could finally repay their debt to Maxi's unsolicited yet welcome help in carrying and hauling their trash for them. The bed was custom-built for Maxi – customized and reinforced to withstand his extra-large size, to fit into a small space (as in the space within a fileteado), and to be handy and portable enough to be transferred from place to place at short notice.

It was a sort of camp bed, made of coarse elastic fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, with four sets of hydraulic hinges. It had solid metal detachable feet, two feet high, arranged in three rows, one at either end and one in the middle. The shanty dwellers made a folding bed because it would have taken up too much space otherwise, and naturally they didn't want anyone but Maxi to use it. Plus it was easier to hide. ... They also carried out simulations every so often, to be sure that when the moment came they could unfold the bed and make it up in a few seconds.

Between the cart and the bed was the story of a policeman pursued by a female judge while he was trying to bust a suspected drug ring. The policeman was also spying on two girls – Maxi's sister and her friend  – who were eavesdropping on Maxi. Shantytown was a cat and mouse novel, obeying Aira's fictional model (or lack of it). His were novels of pursuit. The one who pursues was in turn being hunted by another pursuer. In The Hare, the title animal was pursued by a scientist, while Indians were searching for their chief who went missing, and somebody else was tailing someone else. In Ghosts, a young woman was being pursued by male nudist ghosts. In The Seamstress and the Wind, a child, a seamstress, the bridal gown the seamstress worked on, the bride, and a talking wind were all somehow mixed up in a Patagonian pursuit.

Perhaps the novel of pursuit was the ideal fictional template with which Aira could manifest his instinctive storytelling. The outcome of a racing contest, like any contest, was unpredictable, open to any possibility, to any inconceivable cannonball run. In How Became a Nun, a young child named César suddenly became aware of a stalker following him. He fell victim to the whims of storytelling. So was Carlos Fuentes who was the target of a mad scientist who was planning to clone the novelist.

This appeal to a dynamic plot was driven by improvisation. The weird turns in the story were "dictated" by an organizing principle we can call improvised realism, a term both tautological and oxymoronic. Improvised realism was the construction of fictional reality on the spot. The novelist gambled everything though he was not after the prize.

Results were secondary. The masterpiece came first. In the end, after all the time he'd spent thinking about it (or not: it came to the same thing), the operation had performed itself; he'd barely had to intervene. After all that thinking and promising not to let what he did be governed by impulse or circumstances, it had been an improvisation on the spur of the moment. That's why it had been easy; that's why it had seemed to happen all by itself.

The about face parenthetical aside – "or not: it came to the same thing" – was characteristic of someone pulling one's leg. The third person storyteller of Shantytown was prone to these asides ("Vanessa saw her turn slowly, like a sleepwalker (or was it an effect of the distance?) and look all around"). The teller was sketchy on many details; memory's demand was the least of his concerns. Uncertainty and unreliability were the fate of works of improvised realism. What differentiates it from magic realism was its ability to conveniently forget. Steve Dolph, a translator of Argentinean novelist Juan José Saer, described in an interview how uncertainty was subsumed within Saer's prose style and how this style differed from that of a Boom author like Gabriel García Márquez.

On the formal level, the narration in many of [Saer's] novels, especially after Glosa, is hesitant, unsure. There’s quite a bit of direct questioning and a sort of vulnerability in the way it reaches out to the reader for support. All of which creates these long, intricate thoughts that build up, clause after clause, to form a dense cloud of uncertainty. In that syntactic fog, without a clear focus to the sentence, or the paragraph, the reader doesn’t quite know which way to turn. Within all of this, one of the central themes of Saer’s novels is the fragility of memory, how fraught our effort to reconstruct the past becomes when narration, whether through text or images, is the means we use. This sense of what memory is and how it does or doesn’t function effectively to portion out our identity is starkly different from what you find in a writer like Márquez. So as to avoid getting too wonky in the analysis, just look at the central characters in their novels and note the difference in the way they remember things: Márquez’s characters tend to have incredible memories. Not so much in Saer, or at least there’s often a strong force that undermines their efforts to remember.

Even Márquez’s own positioning as an author, from the monumental autobiography that effectively concluded his career, to the often-repeated quote that he’d gathered all of the material for his novels by the time he was eight, from his grandparents, overhead gossip, urban legends, and so on, all of which suggests that his entire oeuvre is one immense act of remembering. (Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious” is the perfect parody of this authorial position.) It’s possible that his popularity in the U.S. owes something to an analogous sense of fiction in the ’60 and ’70s, which wholeheartedly valued this strong, romantic concept of the value and reliability of individual memory. 

The "syntactic fog" was a kind of improvisational image, the very fog that was lifted in the fictional worlds of García Márquez. The foggy memory of improvised realism was a clean break from the magical clarity and the perfect memory in García Márquez. (Even the latter's journalism was hyper-realistic as in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Clandestine in Chile. Their narratives relied on 100% memory: the verbatim transcription of a subject's words.)

The black hole of perfect memory had the tendency to devour fiction. Aira's hyper-plot, even at the level of a sentence, managed to escape the gravity of the situation.

A massive wind had risen, blowing in all directions, chaotically. The plants in the little gardens were thrashing about madly, throwing off leaves and buds like a frenzied gambler throwing dice.


She saw him as a bloodthirsty stegosaurus hoisting his rocky neck from a lake of oil, on the night of the end of the world.

Uncertainty is a byproduct of improvisation. To be perfectly certain is to throw realism to the mad wind. When it closes the room for interpreting or questioning reality, hyper-realism disables realism. And perhaps humor.


For The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom by Caravana de recuerdos.


  1. I hope to get to this Aira...eventually, Rise, but I'm curious where it fits in your personal rankings of him. One of his better ones or not so much? I love the visual joke of the common name "Maxi" being used to refer to a biggish, non-mini sized character, by the way, and that line about the bloodthirsty stegosaurus is kind of funny too although I'm not really sure why. Anyway, thanks for the early Doom action!

  2. Richard, I haven't really thought much about ranking his translated books, but on its own, this one is a solid entertainment and literary diversion, an elegant variation of his themes. Perhaps the way it interacts with other past books already read affects my reception of it. Although familiarization with the other books is not a guarantee of comprehension since he always bring something new to the table, some disparate elements that can not always be pinned down. There are indications that everything that happened in this book (or some parts of it) was dreamed up by a character in sleep or maybe freely imagined by a drug user. Maxi the simpleton guy is a winning character and his sleepiness is one aspect of the book that is repeatedly referred to. There are overt references to (Borgesian) doubles and mirrors facing each other.