César Aira
Chris Andrews, Translator

(New Directions)
A New Year's Eve party on the seventh floor of an unfinished condominium in downtown Buenos Aires. Raúl Viñas lives as caretaker of the building, in a shack on the top floor, with his wife Elisa and his step-daughter, fifteen-year-old Patri. Other children come and go, Elisa's sister-in-law arrives at sunset, along with other family members and later, her fiancé, handsome Roberto.

Oh yes: the ghosts. There are ghosts, flitting about: naked ghosts --- all men --- quite a few of them drifting through the construction site "white with cement dust." Some of the visitors see them, some don't. The women do. The kids.

Drunks, too. Raúl Viñas, Patri's step-father, uses them to cool his wine. "It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced."

    When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.

Patri, fifteen years old, surname Vicuña, sees them quite clearly, like her mother. Talks to them, too. At sunset, they are floating around the condo-to-be. They tell her about a party at midnight. They then treat her "to a sight that could not have been more extraordinary."

    As if inadvertently, they were entwined by a kind of luminous helix, enveloping them in invisible yellow. The dust on their skin was barely a hint now, a down. At the sight of these men, Patri could feel her heart contracting ... as if she were truly seeing men for the first time.

"Don't go, ever!" she says. As they disappear, they tell her that she can come to their midnight party, but if she does, she'll "have to be dead."

§     §     §

Ghosts is about as odd at it gets. On one level, it's not much more than a very shaggy shaggy-dog story. Aira can and does go on about condos in Argentina, Chileans, Argentines, the difference between Chilean and Argentine men, soap operas, slow-moving lines in grocery stores, doing the laundry, neutron bombs, feral cats, homeopathy and allopathy, eating ham and melon, Zulus (!) ... and Aborigines(!!).

I guess if you are going to be floating naked ghosts up and down and around the story, in this case, the seventh story of a condo, you must ground them all, somehow. After all, these wandering spooks do provide us with a merry contrast (and they are merry as they meander through walls and ceilings) ... very merry compared to the stiff-necked condominium owners.

It's a story grounded in reality: ham and melon, in-laws, drunks, neutron bombs there in a not-yet-quite-finished condominium building; but, too, it is a ghost story, told in a ghost building (no one lives there yet). It's New Year's Eve: "The union of the year and the moment was like the ownership of the building."

    Each owner possessed a floor, a garage and a box room, but nothing else: that was all they could sell. And yet at the same time, they owned the whole building. That's how a condominium works.

He's right: in a condo, you own nothing but a tiny hunk of the ground and several square meters of space above. It's a real spooker, it is.

§     §     §

Kafka presented us with Gregor your solemn insurance-company drudge who, overnight, turns into a dung-beetle. The writer announces the fact on the first page, then spends the rest of the time defending his odd thesis with the details: What does a dung-beetle eat? What does he do all day? How does a family react to the breadwinner turning into a bug-on-the-wall? How does the chamber-maid react to the new tenant?

Aira does exactly the same, with spirits, with such gusto. When I finished, went back to start it all over again. How did he do it, and how he did he do it so well?

The conflict of young Patri, for example. Should she go to the ghost picnic that demands, at 11:59 on a New Year's Eve, that she die?

"She kept coming to the same conclusion: the mysterious smile on the lips of the ghosts. It was inevitable, given her skeptical nature: ending with a mysterious smile, like an impenetrable barrier."

    She wanted to see them like that for all eternity, even if eternity lasted an instant, especially if it lasted an instant.

--- Carlos Amantea
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