My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I find it nearly impossible to describe a César Aira novel. This is because his effects operate in mysterious ways, somehow underneath plot and characterization. But let me nutshell Ghosts without spoiling the arc, which begins in a typically wandering Airaesque way before firming up and acquiring the character of Fate.
Raúl Viñas and his family live on the site of a luxury condominium building under construction. This is because Raúl, in addition to working on the site, has been engaged by the builder to keep an eye on things around the clock. The family’s accommodations, like the building itself, are unfinished—missing walls, staircases with no bannisters, faucets that operate only one at a time (turn on two at once and no water at all comes out). Like the Viñases, the reader inhabits a space of transition. The sense of transition is heightened by the fact that the story takes place on the last day of the year, when the normal round of daily activities has yielded to the fluid conditions of a day given over to preparations for a New Year’s celebration that, in the end, brings the extended Viñas family together. I should add that the family are exiles (the Viñases are Chileans who years before had come to Buenas Aires for work), and as such exist as though suspended in a state of permanent transition: they live in Argentina but hold tightly to their Chilean character, and although their lives are more or less happy, they are beset by nostalgia. In this twilight state, neither the family nor the reader is particularly surprised that the construction site is haunted. Yes, there are ghosts—all male, all naked, reputedly gay—who are also (it seems) planning a New Year’s party, though in the end it turns out to be more of a cruel ruse than a celebration.
Now, all this does very little to convey the experience of reading Ghosts. Aira constantly mixes the quotidian with the marvelous as if they were one and the same—and maybe they are. In any case, he frequently interrupts his straightforward narrative to pry the tops of our heads off and let some fresh light in. Here’s one small example—a glimpse into the mind of the teenage girl Patri, who is even more exiled than her family, being the daughter of a father who vanished before she was born:
By nature she was particularly taciturn, but this predicament helped her to see the usefulness of speaking. When you speak, you automatically stop thinking; it’s like being released from a contract. Or rather, as she said to herself, it’s like those stories in which an especially handsome man appears, to whom the virile protagonist feels inexplicably attracted, which he finds disturbing, understandably, until it is finally revealed that the handsome man is in fact a woman in disguise. Such is the dialectic of thinking and speaking.
In the end, Ghosts is not a ghost story at all, but a meditation on human visibility and invisibility, speech and silence, family and isolation. It’s among best by Aira I’ve read so far, almost as excellent as An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (hence the 4 as opposed to 5 stars). I have to add, though, that I’ve loved and felt illuminated by every encounter with the uncanny Argentine genius from Coronel Pringles.