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César Aira: Embalse [Reservoir]

One of César Aira’s many traits is to describe a situation which is clearly unsettling, either to the main character(s) and/or the reader. He does not necessarily use the methods of, say, horror writers, with something nasty in the woodshed, some monster creeping around in the dark, but, rather, a more subtle approach, where things that should seem normal turn out to be not quite normal, though more often than not with an unusual, at times uncomfortable ending. However, with those books known as the Legibrerian hare books – La liebre (The Hare), La guerra de los gimnasios [The War of the Gymnasia], Los misterios de Rosario [The Mysteries of Rosario] and this one – while we start off with the more subtle approach – there does appear to be something nasty in the woodshed.

In this book, Aira starts off by mentioning what is happening – it is not like floating in a dream, but rather, floating in what has become a reality, in other words like a distorted reality but, nevertheless, reality and not a dream. However, the reality becomes something distinctly unpleasant.

Our story is set in Embalse. Embalse is the Spanish for reservoir but, in Argentina, small towns next to a reservoir are sometimes called Embalse. This one is near Córdoba. A couple – Martín and Adriana – have rented a house from a family called Lennon, who despite their name, are Brazilian and have now bought a house in Brazil, with a view to eventually selling this house. (The Lennon reference, as we might expect from Aira, does come in, with Adriana and Martín arguing over the murder of John Lennon.) Martín and Adriana are staying at the house for a couple of months (they live in Buenos Aires) with their two children, the five-year, very disagreeable Franco and an unnamed baby.

As we are told at the beginning, the couple have very particular ideas about people and are very observant. We might be more direct and say that they have prejudiced ideas. The Cordobans tend to have darker skins, naturally have different accents when speaking Spanish and, with the not unusual views of the people from the capital as regards those from rural areas, are considered by Martín and Adriana as somewhat inferior. They talk openly about this.

Indeed, they seem somewhat prejudiced against others. Back in Buenos Aires, they have a Spanish maid and consider her stupid. There is a gay/transvestite (possibly transsexual) community in Embalse and they despise them. Martín compares them to the former Nazis who are said to live in this remote area. More than once, when meeting a local, Martín is filled with contempt. He is critical of the neighbours, whose young son, Franco becomes friendly with. Indeed, Martín is somewhat critical of his wife, considering her a person people do not readily take to. Martín is not aggressive. On the one occasion when he may have got involved in a fight, he shied away and, we are told that he has never got into a fight in his life.

There is a not a great amount to do in the area, though there are a walks and a Fish Centre. Martín often goes out on his own or with Franco, as Adriana is devoted to the baby, though Martín does his bit in looking after it.

Each time, he goes out on his own, he makes some odd discoveries – the view is completely different on each walk, something that looks one way from one perspective looks completely different, often unrecognisable, from another; he finds paths near his house that he had never seen before; he keeps coming across large houses, often near to his house, which he has never seen before. What are they are and who lives there? He stumbles across an automated laundry in the middle of nowhere, with no-one there, though it seems to be in operation.

He has heard about stone mushrooms and he sets out to find them but finds one in the middle of someone’s garden. Is it the real one? Well, yes and no. There are strange animals – chickens not like chickens he has ever seen before who wander around and which may or may not belong to a strange dwarf, unusual dogs, bats. There are also, of course, odd people. He bumps into a man he instantly despises but the man turns out to be Professor Halley and claims descent from the the Halley of Halley’s Comet. He is very friendly to Martín and Franco. But there also pollsters who come to the door when Martín is out and frighten Adriana. They even get a visit from an obnoxious man who is looking for the Lennons and who introduces himself as César Aira, the distinguished writer. Martín and Adriana have never heard of him. He invites them to his house. They go a few times but do not like Aira at all. Fortunately, he suddenly disappears, apparently to go and visit his friend, the King of Spain.

Martín and Adriana watch a lot of TV when back home in Buenos Aires. Indeed, it is not unknown for Martín to watch four films in succession. However, here they have no TV and, in a way, they miss it. However, Aira points out that nature had replaced TV.

Pero, sin saberlo ellos, la naturaleza había tomado el lugar de la televisión. Y como la televisión es tiempo en estado puro, es el lenguaje del tiempo hablando por sí mismo y de sí mismo, esa lengua adámica del tiempo que la humanidad buscó infructuosamente como una quimera poética hasta que la encontró sin darse cuenta en la banalidad total [But, without their knowing it, nature had taken the place of television. And as television is time in its pure state, it is the language of time, speaking for itself and of itself, this Adamic language of time that humanity looked for fruitlessly like a poetical chimera, till it found it without being aware of its total banality.]

So Martín follows his TV/nature, looking for the adventure and thrills he was accustomed to finding on the TV screen back home. And find them he does, from swimming chickens to a massive influx into the town of the coutnry’s top footballers, from strange glows to their babysitter, Katrina, and something odd about her and her boyfriend. It is all linked, all peculiar and, eventually, almost apocalyptic.

Almost every time I read an Aira novel, I think that that one may be the best I have read, This is certainly the case with this one. Aira’s cryptic philosophical ramblings, the strange effect of nature and its wonders on Martín, Martín’s reactions to what he sees, each time stranger than the last, the odd inhabitants of the town, the peculiar buildings, the distorted perspective, the benign Professor Halley, who may not be as benign as he appears and even the author himself putting in a self-deprecating appearance, all make for a thoroughly original novel, with each step more unexpected than the previous one, culminating in a very much unanticipated ending. Sadly of the four Legibrerian hare books, only one, La liebre (The Hare), has been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published by Emecé in 1992
No English translation