Literature’s Ghosts


Ghosts Something I love about Cesar Aira–and a reason why we need more of his books available in translation–is his incredible range. This is they guy who can go from writing an off-kilter-but-clearly-realist novel to creating a Calvino-esque modern fable, and do an above-average job at each. (He's got 80-some more books left, and I'm dying to see them in my local bookstore.)

I just finished Ghosts, which seems to be a sort of extended allegory for the creative process in art. The book is about a half-finished high rise apartment building in Buenos Aires. A bunch of impoverished Chileans live in it while they finish building it, and some of them have a very casual relationship with ghosts that seem to live in the building too. They can see each other; they joke around; it's no big deal. For Aira, the ghosts are just another part of atmospheric detail, neither remarkable nor unremarkable.

Right in the middle of the book–right when you're starting to wonder–What's the deal with all these ghosts everywhere?–the action breaks off and Aira dives into an extended, 10-page digression on the nature of art. It begins with:

The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film doesn't get made. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all–which technological advances have exacerbated if anything–isn't actually an essential part of cinema's charm, since, paradoxically, it gives everyone access to movie-making, in the form of pure daydreaming. It's the same in the other arts, to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.

That "without ghosts" in the penultimate sentence is a killer, and I'm still trying to figure out just what it means.

As to the rest of Aira's legnthy digression, I won't even bother trying to summarize the range and twisted logic therein. Suffice to say, it ranges from Mbuntu and Bushmen societies to architectural aesthetics to the practice of the potlatch.

I will say, however, that Aira's constant invocation of structures–especially unfinished ones–is important in the context of Ghosts. The book, after all, takes place in an unfinished building, which (at least in this book) is Aira's favorite metaphor for the transitional area between the work of art as an idea and the work of art as reality.

I haven't quite gotten my head around the book sufficiently to have worked out a complete theory on what's happening in Ghosts. But I think the fact that the main character is a young woman who embodies a point between the world of the humans and the world of the ghosts is important. I also think the constant dramatization of daydreams and the aforementioned backdrop of an unfinished building all point to this book being about transitional areas between thought and reality–especially in regards to art.

I like what Aira says about "the made" and "the unmade" coexisting in literature. In my opinion, they coexist within the mind of the reader; that is, literature–in a very literal sense–is the imagination. The unmade we can take as the writer's vision, the made we can take as the words on the page, and the crossover occurs in that space within your head where the reading takes place.

Recent Posts

Criticism Isn't Free

CR is dedicated to thoughtful, in-depth criticism without regard to what's commercially appealing. It takes tens of hours each month to provide this. Please help make this sort of writing sustainable, either with a subscription or a one-time donation. Thank you!


Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hey Scott,
you should check out Aristotle’s metaphor on housebuilding (I believe he uses it in Metaphysics, to illustrate the mover who doesn’t move, and in Physics, precisely to discuss art -although there “art” is understood in a broader sense) pretty much the same thing. Also, it’s curious that the scholastic reading of Aristotle, for instance Thomas Aquinas, introduces the term “ghost” whenever they refer to “thought”.

These are very interesting points. Given the kind of writer Aira is, I find it hard to believe the resemblance to Aristotle is coincidental. Thanks for pointing this out!

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2015. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.