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César Aira: La villa (Shantytown)

Maxi lives in a posh area of Buenos Aires. His father is a wealthy businessman. However, Maxi is not very bright and has failed his school exams. However, he is big and strong. He goes to the gym every day to work out but does not do much of anything else, except watch TV. However, in the summer evenings, he decides that he needs to get out and has started going out in the evening and helping the cardboard collectors. This is an euphemism for scavengers, people from the nearby shantytown who go around scavenging the rubbish put out on the kerb by the wealthy residents, before the dustbin men come and collect it.

What he does is simply help these people. Many of them are weak. There are women and children involved. Sometimes whole families are involved. As he is strong, he will pick up the heavy items and load them on their makeshift carts. Sometimes, he will pull a cart along to the next pile, a cart which may be fully laden with bags of rubbish, as well as several family members. They acknowledge him, they thank him, even, but there is no other real contact with them. He has poor night vision and difficulty recognising faces, so he does not remember the individuals from one day to the next.

Gradually, he gets into the shantytown, each time helping someone to haul their rubbish further into the shantytown. He is amazed by the lighting but soon realises that the electricity is pirated and so they can have as much as they want and they do, though the individual cabins are gloomy, at least. as far as he can see – he is never invited in.

Maxi assumes that no-one he knows or who knows him has seen him as his friends and relatives would never go anywhere near the shantytown. However, he is mistaken. The local police inspector, Ignacio Cabezas, has noticed him and is somewhat suspicious. There has been a lot of drug activity around the shantytown recently and, as a result, there had been an incident in which an innocent bystander – a fifteen-year old girl – had been shot dead. Not surprisingly, the father had made a big issue out of it in the local press. However, somewhat surprisingly, the father is also called Ignacio Cabezas, though is no relation to the police inspector (this confused identity is a key plot issue). Inspector Cabezas has been monitoring the area and the people who go in and out of the shantytown. One person Cabezas has his eyes on is Vanessa, sister of Maxi. She has been seen with a suspicious-looking character and he suspects that she may be using recreational drugs. He decides, at this point, to confront her and does so.

Inevitably, at this point in an Aira story, things start to change. People clearly start misunderstanding the actions and motives of others, starting with Inspector Cabezas. People are viewed through distorted views – two key characters, for example, are seen primarily in reflections by other characters. Inspector Cabezas’ action in speaking to Vanessa, a fairly trivial incident in itself, has massive ramifications. The plot gets quite, no, very complicated, with serious drug running, gun-toting judges, priests who may be drug dealers or may be informers, evangelical churches taking over and, in particular, acquiring the local gyms, a police officer who says the the only viable path is evil, not to mention a cataclysmic storm. Jessica, Vanessa’s best friend and the love interest for Maxi, states This is too much! If there’s one more twist in the plot . . .

Rising above all this, however, is Maxi. He seems impervious to much of what is happening around him but keeps up his good works – he is called a saint by one character – and offers help where he thinks he can be of help. It is made clear that he is not very bright. He is unaware, for example that the Jessica whom he sees at the gym and whom he has fallen in love with is the same Jessica as his sister’s friend. He is unaware that the gym has been sold to the evangelical church. (Interestingly enough, the gym was run by Chin Fú, whom we have already met in La guerra de los gimnasios [The War of the Gymnasia] (not available in English)). He is also unaware that many women are charmed by his innocence and physique.

Part of this book is about the value of individuals. We start with a telling comment: Hardly anything happens, after all, in an individual life: most of the time is spent working to survive and then recovering from work. However, Maxi takes a somewhat different view: Life feeds on life, it has no choice. Life stokes its furnace with life, but not with life in general; it burns the unique and particular life of the individual, and when there’s nothing left to feed to the flames, the fire goes out. And yet . . . no one is alone in this, while Jessica comments: If you really think about it, everything you’ve done has left some kind of mark. Someone remembers it. Even when you’re alone, it’s like you’re being watched, because there’s always someone who can calculate or deduce what you’re doing. This is not a comment on the Internet society, which is irrelevant to this book and still in its infancy, particularly in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires but, rather, on how, to quote John Donne, No man is an island, entire unto himself.

The book is also about perception and awareness. Most of the characters turn out, one way or the other, to be different from how we and, generally, the other characters, see them initially. The good guys might turn out to be the bad buys (or vice versa), the innocent schoolgirl a drug dealer and so on. But it is more than that. I have already mentioned the idea of seeing people in reflections, therefore giving a different view of them. We get similar examples of that – Vanessa and Jessica seen as silhouettes, various people seen (or not seen properly) in the rain, people seen from the back. More than once we get people watching people who are watching people. In short, how you see someone is not going to be the same as I how see them.

Even in a relatively short book, which this, like virtually all of Aira’s works, is, a lot is packed in, with a complex plot, a host of characters and a range of ideas which Aira is playing with. Once again, it is a first-class work, not only well worth reading but well worth thinking about what it is saying.

Publishing history

First published by Emece in 2001
First published in English by New Directions in 2013
Translated by Chris Andrews