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César Aira: Las aventuras de Barbaverde [The Adventures of Barbaverde]

This is definitely something of a different approach for Aira but, then again, many of his novels seem to be a different approach. This one is Aira’s take on the superhero/science fiction trope, with this book actually consisting of four separate stories all concerning the superhero Barbaverde (= Green Beard) and his implacable foe, Frasca (frasca can be an alternative spelling for frasco, meaning flask but can also mean a bunch of leaves and twigs). The story starts with the interestingly named Aldo Sabor (sabor means flavour or taste). Sabor is a journalist in the Argentinean town of Rosario. Indeed, it is his first day as a journalist, working as a reporter for the (fictitious) El Orden which means Order with its Nazi overtones). He has arrived at the Savoy Hotel to interview Barbaverde, who, he understands, is visiting Rosario and staying at the hotel. There is a queue at the desk and, while daydreaming (something he does quite frequently), a woman manages to get ahead of him the queue. She is also looking for Barbaverde and the desk clerk phones up to his room but there is no reply. Sabor overhears and talks to the woman and they both agree to investigate together. The woman, who is older than Sabor, is called Karina and is an installation artist.

As this is Aira, nothing is straightforward. Does Barbaverde exist? Sabor thinks he sees him fleetingly a couple of times, particularly when he (Sabor) later goes to the barber to get his hair cut but he is not sure. Frasca seems to exist. Indeed, he has a flat next door to Karina’s flat and they share a party line telephone, which becomes key to the plot. However, we don’t really see him either. We do, very briefly, see Frasca’s assistant Nildo. What we do see is a giant fish that Frasca has somehow brought from a far-off galaxy and which is anchored over Rosario. The newspaper seems to think that the fish is 50,000 kilometres long but Sabor finds out, though a strange boy, via Karina’s grandparents, that it is fifty thousand light years long. This figure turns out to be correct. The fish (there is some dispute as to what species it is but the final opinion seems to be a salmon) is not particularly threatening out does release “atoms” which have some effect on the population but what exact effect is unclear. The story remains somewhat confused as Sabor tries to track down the story, track down the mysterious barbers and their large barber’s chair, pursue his relationship with Karina and track down his coat (a long and convoluted sub-plot), even while the world may be coming to an end. Storks and Barbaverde’s artistic imagination as opposed to Frasca’s literal scientific bent are key.

The other stories follow a similar pattern. In the second one, El Secreto del Presente [The Secret of the Present], Sabor considers Karina his girlfriend, though he rarely sees her but does think of her all the time. She does not even remember his name. Meanwhile, Frasca is out to destroy the present, leaving only the past and future, while Karina heads off with a group of students to Egypt, where by chance, Barbaverde is. While the students spend their time drinking free beer, Karina and Sabor once again accidentally save the world. In the third story, Sabor is off to the islands, a group of islands in the river between two provinces where suspicious biological experiments are being carried out and where, once again, Barbaverde seems to be located. A host of toys seems to be released in this area, including model Barbaverdes, based on the children’s TV cartoon Las aventuras de Barbaverde [The Adventures of Barbaverde] and, of course, to go against them, Barbies. Of course, this is all a fiendish plot by Frasca, who controls them by a ray, which animates them so they can attack Barbaverde and his allies. In the final story, Sabor is just off on his week holiday when his editor comes to see him. It seems that the Hotel Savoy is hosting a meeting to which the world’s press has been invited. At this meeting numbers will be sold to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to help defeat world hunger. Anyone who uses one of these numbers – on a driving licence or phone number, for example – will have to pay a small fee to the ‘owner’ of the number. Sabor’s paper was not going to send anyone to the meeting, not least because they had not been invited but now an invitation has come for Sabor to attend. It will mean two nights staying free of charge in a luxury hotel. Sabor naturally goes to the Hotel Savoy he had been to in the first story but it turns out to be another Hotel Savoy. The taxi driver, Oscar, whisks him to the right Savoy and Oscar and his girlfriend, Vanessa, will play a key role in his story. When he gets there, it turns out that the hotel is also hosting Fashion Week at which, of course, Karina is present. Naturally, the numbers game is being manipulated by Frasca and, naturally, Sabor, Barbaverde and Karina, aided by Oscar and Vanessa, will have to thwart that plan.

This novel did not entirely work for me, at least when compared with his other novels. It is fun and clever (and, at times, rather silly). Barbaverde and Frasca are barely seen. Frasca is up to all sorts of fiendish plots, rearranging atoms, neutrinos, thought waves and the like with the aim of dominating the world. Sabor is the bumbling journalist, hopelessly in love with Karina, who barely notices him, but, almost inadvertently, saving the world. Of course, Aira’s aim to is to write stories that are fun, that are original and that tell a story, rather than leave a message and, in that he succeeds, but I do not think this will count as one of his great works. At the moment, the book is only available in Spanish.

Publishing history

First published by Mondadori in 2008
No English translation