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César Aira: Los fantasmas (Ghosts)

This novel is set in a high-rise block of flats in Buenos Aires, which is still being built. We even know where it is: here, close to the police station (which is mentioned in the novel) and the hospital. The flats are intended for the very well-off. The novel takes place on New Year’s Eve and it is very hot indeed.

Though the building is not yet finished, the flats seem to have sold out and the prospective purchasers have come to visit, in many cases so their designers can measure up. It is not really safe – the walls are not all in place – but they still come with their children.

The building is already partially inhabited – by the Chilean caretaker, Raúl Viñas, and his family. Aira makes a clear distinction (and continues to do so throughout the book) between the Chileans and Argentinians. Chileans were different: smaller, more serious, more orderly. And in the architect’s experience they were also respectful, diligent, excellent workers.. Their flat is not very nice: no fridge or washing machine, very poor water connection (they can only run one water outlet at a time). They are also illegal immigrants and very badly paid. Raúl drinks heavily and, not surprisingly, the burden falls on his wife, Elisa, and their eldest daughter, Patri (who is, in fact, Elisa’s daughter by a previous relationship).

As well as making a distinction between Chileans and Argentinians, Aira also makes a clear distinction between the rich (i.e. the purchasers) and the poor (the workers) though says in some ways they are similar: The very poor and the very rich regard it as natural to extract the maximum benefit from the person they happen to be dealing with, unlike the middle class. The workers are described and, indeed, mildly mocked by Aira.

As this is Aira, we have our philosophical discussion, this one on architecture, on the difference between the built and unbuilt environment, on the anthropological study of how tribes set up their dwellings and, finally, as Patri is asleep and dreaming at the time, on dream architecture and the dreaming of the Australian aborigines,

As well as the Chilean caretakers, there is another group who have already moved in. These are the eponymous ghosts. They live in the building. They seem to be all male and seem to be all naked. They generally seem to be taken for granted by the workers and the Viñas family. One worker, for example, jovially pulls and stretches the penis of one of the ghosts. The Viñas children (there are four, in addition to Patri) see them but do not bother with them.

As it is New Year’s Eve, the workers leave after lunch (they are fed by the firm) and the Viñas have family over to visit, Raúl’s twin brother and his family, and Viñas’ younger, still unmarried sister. While they are there, Patri goes off wandering and sees the ghosts rushing around. She asks them what is happening and they tell her that they are going to the Big Midnight Feast. They invite her to the feast but tell her that, to come, she must be dead. She said that this did not matter but then walks away.

Patri struggles with what she do. All the while her family are enjoying themselves, eating, drinking and letting off fireworks. They also tell ghost stories as everyone either seems to have encountered ghosts before meeting the ones in this building or know someone who has. In particular, Patri tells what is claimed to be an Oscar Wilde story (I can find no evidence that it was by Wilde) about a princess who was bored with her life and is invited to a party by a group of ghosts. She accepts.

As always with Aira, this is a strange story. Patri is different. She is the only one of the five Viñas children who is not Raúl’s daughter. She does not have a boyfriend and is mocked for this. Indeed, she does not have much of a life, except helping her mother and looking after her younger siblings. She is also the only one who takes the ghosts seriously. However, unknown to her family, there is clearly something else going on inside her head, which could be simply teenage angst but turns out to be more.

Aira tells his story very well as always, leaving us guessing where it is going, throwing in his philosophical aside and setting the story in a location that is its own little world, separate from the rest of the world. He shows his sympathy for women, as usual, here bearing the burden of looking after the family, but also shows sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, often taking the side of the Chileans at the expenses of his compatriots. Above all, of course, he gives us a thoroughly original story.

Publishing history

First published by Grupo Editor Latinoamericano in 1990
First published in English by New Directions in 2008
Translated by Chris Andrews