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César Aira: Prins

César Aira’s novels get progressively weirder and this one is no exception, starting with the title. The word Prins does not appear in the book (apart from the title). It does mean prince in various languages, but not Spanish. Maybe it is the name of the unnamed protagonist and narrator of this book. Who knows?

The narrator is a writer of Gothic novels. We later learn that the first one he wrote was intended to be an allegory on Argentina, with the fortified castles symbolising the oligarchies who exploited the people, the cruel feudal lord symbolising the current dictator, the ghost in the tower the worker martyr and so on. However, the subsequent novels he wrote soon turned out to be formulaic and he gives us, in some detail, the requisite formula: the medieval manuscript found in a trunk in a convent, written in Greek or Aramaic, and translated by a wandering monk who just happened by, the castle high up in the mountains, surrounded by a deep moat, with a drawbridge, bats, rooms in decay, the evil count who owns the castle, and so on.

He has managed to churn these books out, often at rapid speed (they are read rapidly and therefore a new one is needed very soon.) He makes a decent living out of it, too, with a large house with many rooms, though he is single, with no children, seven servants, and a collection of rare first editions of Gothic classics. The artist is like the devil, he says, he only satisfies himself.

However, he is not happy. Indeed, he is fed up churning out these novels and and does it for two reasons: to make a living and because he cannot think what else to do. He would give it up – longs to give it up – but needs to continue to make a living and because he cannot think what else he could do. On further reflection, he realises that he could sell his valuable books and live on the income from that but he still cannot decide what else to do. Pottery is boring, he does not really like music and stamp collecting is not really a way to pass the time. He looks at various other ideas and, finally, decides, there is only one possibility: opium.

The problem with opium is where to get it. You cannot just get it from the supermarket. However, he does know Armiño and he will know. He even has a good idea where to find Armiño, hidden in the centre of a park. He finds Armiño and Armiño does indeed tell him: get it from Antiquity. Antiquity? Antiquity turns out to be the name of a house where he can it get it. It is in the seedy part of town where our narrator has never dared venture but Armiño tells him that the 126 bus will take him to the door.

The 126 does take him to the door but it also introduces him to Alicia, one of the passengers. Alicia is no longer a young woman – she is a grandmother and her husband is in poor health but he is somehow attracted to her. He finds Antiquity without problem and is let in by Ujier, who does not question him. When Ujier produces the opium, our narrator realises that it is much larger than he expected. Fortunately, the price includes free delivery and Ujier uses his Estanciera (a sort of jeep). What our narrator does not realise till he gets home is that it also includes Ujier. The key to Antiquity is buried in the opium and, till it has been consumed, Ujier cannot go home so has to stay with our narrator. Alicia also moves in, all the servants are fired and the trio set up house.

The three stay in the house, not even going out to buy food. We gradually learn (as we gradually learn various things) that the house is enormous. When our narrator was making a lot of money, unlike his wife (of whose existence we only learn towards the end) who had been brought up rich and so enjoyed the fine things of life, he did not know what to spend his money on, so he bought up the neighbours’ properties, knocked down their houses and extended his own. It is now so enormous that even he gets lost in it.

However, two things are happening. Firstly, the opium is having an effect on him. As we are told more than once, opium will only bring about hallucinations based on what is already in the mind of the user. Secondly, possibly or even probably because of the opium, things are changing. Specifically, he is becoming the mad count of his Gothic novels and his huge house the castle. Alicia is too astute to be his damsel in distress or, rather, this Alicia is. For we now learn about another Alicia. She may be the same one, she may be a different one or she may simply be a fantasy. In any case, we jump back to his student days, when he used the unfinished science building at his university as his Gothic castle, he became the evil count and Alicia, a young engineering student, the damsel in distress.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Aira gives us one of his favourite tropes. The peasants are revolting. In other words, unknown to the our narrator and his two friends, things are going to hell outside, with riots and the light disappearing (it is not clear whether this is a physical phenomenon or merely power cuts).

As is often the case with Aira, it is not always clear what is going on. Moreover, we have a very unreliable narrator, made more unreliable by his use of opium. The story changes frequently. We are not clear how many Alicias there are, who is writing his books (he seems to have lackeys to do it for him), what books he has written, how rich he is, what happened both to his parents and his wife, Estela and what is going on in the outside world. As long as you do not take it too seriously, it is another enjoyable book from Aira about a world gone topsy-turvy.

Publishing history

First published by Random House in 2018
No English translation