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César Aira: La guerra de los gimnasios [The War of the Gymnasia]

Ferdie Calvino is a young television star in Argentina. He lives at home but supports his family. His father is out of work, his mother is very ill and his sister still studying. One day he decides that he needs to work out and goes to enrol at a local gym. His aim, he says, is to inspire fear in men and desire in women. (He is a virgin, though, as Aira comments, his family, friends and colleagues would be surprised if they learned this.) He decides to join the Chin Fú gymnasium, despite being vaguely aware that there is a war between gyms in the Flores district of Buenos Aires (where Aira himself lives). We are later to learn that Chin Fú, run by a giant Chinaman, is at war with the Japanese gym, Hokkama.

Ferdie starts off doing a bicycle test with Julio, one of the trainers. His score is below the minimum and he never seems to be able to improve this score much during the novel but Julio tells him not to worry. While he is doing the test, two Asiatic men appear and threaten the staff but are frightened off by the giant Chin Fú himself. Meanwhile, after the test, Ferdie briefly faints and his bag is stolen. Ferdie visits the gym regularly. Despite the war, whose results Ferdie can frequently see, with damage to the gym, he finds the gym a place of refuge and tranquillity. However, he notes that there are rarely many people there.

Ferdie is a virgin but it is never made clear why he does not have a girlfriend. However, there is an undercurrent of sexuality. On one occasion, for example, he inadvertently enters the women’s showers, and sees a naked woman. Later a woman will make the same mistake and come into the men’s showers while he is showering. But it is the undercurrent of violence that is stressed. Ferdie has an outlook common in his generation, according to Aira, namely of filtering his experiences through the world of horror films, TV and comics and tends to see the attacks in that way. The attacks increase though they tend to be focused only on the equipment and not on the staff or customers. However, he is approached in the street by a man who warns him that Chin Fú will be destroyed and all staff and members killed. He later reads in the bulletin of the Hokkama gym a mocking attack on him for joining the Chin Fú gym instead of the Hokkama gym. The final scene, which sees the gym under siege, Ferdie without his clothes, which seem to have been stolen, and a scene straight out of a B movie horror film strongly bring home the undercurrent of both sex and violence.

One of Aira’s trademarks is the use of popular culture genres and here it is the horror genre that creeps in, particularly at the end. His stereotypes of people from the Far East, fantasy and surrealism are all found in this novel. Above all, there is the sense that Ferdie, facing both violence and increased sexuality, is still essentially childlike, unsure what is happening to him and around him and how to cope. He just carries on with his existence, almost as if nothing was happening. This is one of the many Aira novels not available in English (though you can read it in French) and while not necessarily his best, it is different and well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish by Emecé in 1992
No English translation
Published in French as La guerre des gymnases by A. Dimanche in 2000