César Aira: Princesa primavera [Princess Springtime]
This novel starts off as though it is a traditional fairy story. We have the eponymous princess, who lives in a palace, which is called The Castle, even though it has no castle-like features. She appears to live on her own, except for servants. Indeed, if she has a family, they are not mentioned. The Castle is located on an island off the coast of Panama. It is relatively small. Apart from the Castle, there is a small village of 200-300 inhabitants, and a few small hamlets with three-four families in each. Much of the coastal area is uninhabited and much of the mountainous inland is unexplored.
The inhabitants of the village make their living from fishing and from employment at the Castle or supplying the Castle.
We are wondering where this is going. Where does the princess get her income from and will a handsome prince come along? But this is Aira, so we know the answer will be unexpected. The first question is soon answered. The princess is a professional translator. She translates popular novels from English and French into Spanish for various Panamanian publishers. She does this every day and, apparently, does it very well. Aira mocks other translators as dilettantes.
The princess is very conscientious in her work and, indeed, is aware that she is far more conscientious than other translators. She has seen their work, either by having to complete work abandoned by others or by doing the translation of subsequent works in a series,. She is not impressed. Not only is she a better translator, she is also more reliable, always getting her work done on time, unlike other translators.
Aira, as is his way, goes into something of a tortuous discussion of the nature of translating popular works versus translating classical or quality works. He also discusses the nature of popular versus quality works. The public, as far as popular works go, seems to want predictability. Indeed, the princess feels that she could easily give a class on how to write a popular novel. She also feels that many of the works are by pseudonymous authors or even by multiple authors.
There are two people on the island at this point who are named. The first is her housekeeper Wanda Toscanini Horowitz. As you can see from the link Wanda Toscanini Horowitz is a very real person, the daughter of the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini and wife (later widow) of the famous pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In real life, she lived between New York and Massachusetts after her husband’s death, not as the housekeeper to a princess on a Panamanian island. Aira is quite scathing about her and, indeed, and more scathing about Horowitz’s ability, saying that he died with his reputation in tatters (not true) and that he was talentless. As a result, Wanda had to seek this alternative employment.
The other person named is a Frenchman called Henri Lissaurrie, who is fictitious. He had come to the island to study the fauna, the flora and geology. He had done that but had seemed reluctant to return home. He remained on the island, having little contact with the locals. He had never met the princess but had seen her from a distance and had fallen in love with her.
At this point, things get even stranger. The princess and the other islanders notice something strange. The weather turns and, indeed, seems very menacing. All are worried as to what the cause is. They soon find out. There is a large ship anchored off the coast. An old family legend in the princess’s family is that their worst enemy is General Winter and, indeed, it is he who is on the ship, accompanied by his lieutenant, Christmas Tree who looks like a Christmas tree.
Winter sends a Morse code message. Your last hour has come, you dirty little slut. You are screwed. The princess panics and retreats to her room. Fortunately, for her, the general is cautious and, even more fortunately, there is a certain amount of bad blood and distrust between the general and his lieutenant. If we are expecting a happy ending, with the arrival of Horowitz’s embalmed corpse, talking ice creams and a castaway called Picnic, we will inevitably be surprised.
As always with Aira, you have no idea where the book is going, it is totally original, plunges into philosophical discussions (on translation and popular vs quality literature), subverts traditional forms (in this case, fairy tales with happy endings) and does not really care who it mocks. Sadly, it has not been translated into English.
First published by Ediciones Era in 2003
No English translation
First published in French as La princesse Printemps in 2005 by André Dimanche
Translated by Michel Lafon
First published in German as Die Prinzessin Primavera in 2017 by Matthes & Seitz
Translated by Christian Hansen