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César Aira: Canto Castrato

When the book I am reviewing has not been translated into English, I sometimes struggle to produce a title in English. I generally go for a literal translation but that is not always possible. In this case, it has been trickier. Canto means singing and castrato refers to a boy/man who has been castrated before puberty so that he will maintain a beautiful boy-like singing voice in adulthood. It has been prohibited since 1870 but used to be more frequent and some castrati, such as Micchino in this book, made a lot of money in return for their testicles. Clearly, Aira has gone for alliteration in this title, which cannot be maintained in English. Something like the The Singing of the Castrato might work but when I saw that the French translation (it has only been translated into French) left the title in Spanish, I decided to do the same.

This was Aira’s fourth novel, i.e. one of his early ones and a novel that he has partially rejected. It differs from his later novels in a few ways. Firstly, it is by far the longest novel of his that I have read – over three hundred pages, not very long for a novel but very long for an Aira novel. Secondly, it is, essentially, a fairly conventional novel. If you read this novel without knowing it was by Aira you would not immediately guess it was by him. Thirdly, it does not have much of his trademark style, such as philosophical discursions, an abrupt change in style and focus in the middle of the novel and a completely unexpected ending.

The novel opens in 1735. Aira has a go at the geopolitics of the day. Countries/regions changed sovereigns frequently, traded away for alliances or for territorial gains as though there were merely coinage. Naples, where the book is soon headed, is a case in point. The region was handed over to Charles, Duke of Parma, a younger son of King Philip V of Spain. As Aira points out, on the whole, the locals did not care.

We then meet some passengers en route by coach to Naples. One of them is an Austrian called Augustus Klette, with his servant Sesamo. When the coach has an accident he stops at a farm, where he meets a Dane, Vigaaren and we learn that Klette is the impresario of the famed castrato singer Micchino. We learn (but the others do not) that Micchino seems to have got tired of his fame and has disappeared. Klette is looking for him and feels that he might have gone back to Naples, from whence he came.

Klette heads for the Naples Conservatory where Micchino trained and where other castrati have trained and still are. He hears various singers but, while he is impressed, none has that something special. However, he gets the impression that they may know more about where Micchino is than they are revealing. Maybe he is hidden there.

He spends some time in Naples. Initially, he noticed that he was being followed by a friar and this friar eventually accosts him and urges him to attend the. opera. Kette refuses, as he has been many times before and has not been very impressed. When he later goes, accompanying his friend, the princess, he is bored and plans to leave when the friar appears again and takes him to a special box. He soon recognises the performer in a minor role. It is, of course, Micchino. Micchino and his friends are enjoying themselves in Naples and plan to stay for a while and Kette joins them.

Kette has a daughter, Amanda, who, though still only seventeen, is planning on a divorce. Micchino is very fond of Amanda and it is seemingly this that persuades him to return to singing, so they all go back to Vienna.

At this point the book seems to droop somewhat. We follow Micchino and his followers in Vienna, Kette’s private life (he has five children, a mistress and, apparently, no wife) and Amanda’s affection for Micchino. She even suggests that he kill her husband, a suggestion that he declines.

The novel picks up a bit when Micchino, Amanda and gang head for St Petersburg. Kette stays behind in Trieste. Amanda is surprised and horrified to find her husband there and a dastardly plot ensues, involving said husband, various Russian nasties, possibly the British embassy and possibly even Catherine the Great, who is on the Russian throne at that time. It gets messy and complicated. We end up in Rome with Pope Clement XII mocked but implicated in the plot.

I must say that this is the first time when I have been disappointed in an Aira novel. Firstly, it was not at all Aira-like. Secondly, it was seemingly just a conventional historical novel, with two fairly weak plot lines and a lot of background – gossip, geopolitics, local colour galore, mild satire and chit-chat. Had it not been by Aira, I very much doubt if I would have read it. Every author is, I suppose, allowed one lapse, particularly an author as prolific as Aira and I shall mark this down as Aira’s lapse. I would stress that it is not a particularly bad novel but certainly not a good one and, more importantly, not an Aira novel.

Publishing history

First published by J. Vergara in 1984
No English translation
First published in French as Canto castrato by Gallimard in 1992
Translated by Gabriel Iaculli