César Aira’s novellas—I’ve read five so far—usually feature everyday middle-class Argentines going about their lives, their lives being told in Aira’s stubbornly dry, deadpan prose. They drift through their ordinary days until they walk into an otherworldly oddity—something they (and we as readers) never expect, even though it’s often hidden in plain sight. They break through, or are broken through, in a way that upends their existences, and that makes their lives seem startling. The fantastical—ghosts swarming through a newly constructed apartment building (Ghosts), a sentient wind (The Seamstress and the Wind), a giant silkworm accidentally made from Carlos Fuentes’ tie (The Literary Conference)—is always intruding on the quotidian, shaking things up.
To disrupt things further, Aira often meanders into a mini-essay in the middle of a narrative, into something indirectly unrelated to the goings-on. These digressions occasionally make no sense whatsoever, and are maybe parodies of academic theory and critical analysis. Sometimes, they seem like too-obscure private jokes. Like his work in general, they frustrate attempts to resolve neatly, and instead peter out of gas when Aira seemingly tires of the idea. All of this—the pseudo-essays, the urban realism, the Twilight Zone oddities, the slapstick comedy—is told in the flattest, most straightforward of modes: past tense, 3rd-person limited.
In Shantytown, even the genre’s a tried-and-true one: the mystery novel. Well, I say “straightforward.” Shantytown is Aira’s most “normal” novella, and the most purely enjoyable one I’ve read. The critical essays run a page or less, and tie into the main thread. Though odd things seem to occur, they all prove to be ultimately plausible—not likely, just theoretically plausible. All the weirdness, warped and drug-addled psychologies, mistaken identities, and mystery go on in the characters’ heads. Practically everything in Shantytown occurs because its characters believe things are stranger than they actually are.
That being said, the book’s bizarre. One protagonist gets at the feeling of entering Shantytown perfectly:
Vanessa was dazed and not exactly sure where she was, as if she’d been magically transported to a foreign city and didn’t even know its name. Her little world was tottering. She started walking automatically, while her brain went into overdrive. But it was useless; she couldn’t thing about anything. Or, rather, there was just one thing she could think about; and she thought about it so intensely that it left no room for anything else: she had to find help.
As in any good mystery novel, there’s a detective on the case, a splash of violence, mistaken identities, and someone who needs help. But Vanessa’s not the one who needs it—in fact, she unknowingly puts her brother Maxi in danger—and the detective’s a nut who causes most of the trouble.
Maxi, our ostensible protagonist, is really the mystery. A young, aimless man with more muscles than mindpower, Maxi spends each day working out, and then helping poor shantytown dwellers picking through rich folks’ garbage for scraps, food, and tools. We don’t know why Maxi does it, other than that it passes the time. In most noir films or mystery novels, Maxi—strong, silent, capable, vaguely handsome—would be the hero. Instead, Aira makes him an absent protagonist. Maxi’s the pivot around which the whole novella turns but the boy disappears from the book for the last third. By the time Aira floors us through all of Shantytown’s events, in a brief 128 pages, there’s been an almost-biblical downpour flooding Buenos Aires, a manhunt involving drug smugglers, a media circus swarming around a crusading judge, a shooting, a kidnapping, and multiple stakeouts. How do these events shape our “hero”? Well, here he is near the end (and, no, this isn’t a spoiler):
Meanwhile, Maxi was sleeping more deeply than ever. If it’s true, as people say, that nothing is more soporific than the sound of rain beating on a roof, conditions were ideal, though he didn’t really need any help. And the natural process had not been interrupted. No one had come to bother him; no one had entered his cubicle. But he must have been dreaming as never before. Unfamiliar beds make for more abundant dreaming because there are more physical disturbances for the dreamwork to interpret.
You’d never know that a maniacal, hopped-up cop was searching for Maxi at that moment, that absurdities are swirling all around the boy. No, no. Aira’s hero is sleeping, and the author spends that critical moment making a weird-but-true observation about the dream state.
In fact, Maxi sleepwalks through his own novel. Aira needed a way for the reader to enter Shantytown’s dense, weird little world. Everything connected to Maxi—his gym instructor, a hobo he sees every morning, Maxi’s sister, her frenemy Jessica, Jessica’s family maid, the mad cop chasing them all—comes across more vividly than Maxi himself. He’s a blank, and that’s by design. Everyone projects an intricate mystery of personality around this ultimately dull-witted blank of a boy. Those fevered, false assumptions form the core of Shantytown’s comedy.
Aira shows us those false assumptions, weaving his prose in and out of almost every character’s head, darting from one voice to the next. (Surprise, surprise: Aira rarely puts us in Maxi’s head.) Maxi mistakes an odd reflection emanating from the apartment across the way as a ghost. A cop thinks Vanessa is involved in some intrigue in the shantytown. Vanessa, middle-class and white, imagines her friend’s maid must know the true secret, simply because the maid is black and a shantytown dweller. Jessica thinks Vanessa is using the “secret,” which doesn’t exist, to get back at her for some slight, based entirely on a phone call that she didn’t even hear. A boy breaks up with the maid over a misunderstanding.
In many ways, the dry wit and sudden explosions over misunderstanding remind me of the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, an underrated “crime” movie in which every act of violence could have been avoided if anyone listened to anyone else instead of to the imagined crime-movie narratives in their heads. Shantytown’s characters, though, are cursed—and curse themselves—because they think they’re living in a Hollywood noir film, when they’re really living in something even stranger and more wondrous: a César Aira novella.