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César Aira: El divorcio (The Divorce)

Our narrator is, unusually, named (he is called Kent) and also unusually, he is almost certainly from the United States and not fluent in Spanish. At the beginning of the book, he is living and teaching in Providence, Rhode Island. He has recently divorced and is struggling with it, particularly seeing his daughter, Henriette, regularly. He decides that he needs a month’s break. It will be best for him and best for Henriette. He chooses Buenos Aires (almost at random, he says, because it is far away and has a climate the opposite of the climate of Providence and is the only city that meets both these conditions where he knows people). However, if you think that, because of the title and the story so far, this book is about divorce, you clearly do not know your Aira. It is about a lot of things but divorce is not one of them.

While in Buenos Aires, he stays in a hostel and frequents a café run by man known as El Gallego (The Galician) because he is originally from Galicia in Spain. One day he is having a coffee with a videoartist called Leticia, It has rained the night before and when El Gallego pulls down the awning, a large mass of water which, unknown to him, had been sitting in the awning, pours out in front of Kent and Leticia, soaking to the skin a man pushing a bicycle along the side of the café.

Your reaction and mine would be to scream. Moreover, you would assume that this is the start of something. Indeed, it is but, by the end of the book, we are still outside the café, with the soaking wet young man still standing there. His reaction was not to scream at the shock of being soaked but to cry out Leticia!

We now get a series of Aira-like stories, fantastical, improbable and thoroughly original. The young man, Enrique by name, clearly knows Leticia. It turns out that they had not seen one another for fifteen years, when both were thirteen. Enrique had been at what he thought was a boys’ boarding school, a liberal, secular establishment, with buildings like an English college.

One dark night – there is no moon – there is suddenly a huge fire at the school, apparently caused by some electrical fault (Aira deliberately leaves it vague) which starts fires all over the school. As it is midnight, the boys are asleep and as it is dark – the thick smoke does not help – they have trouble finding a suitable exit. Enrique gets lost and is suddenly taken in hand by a girl his age who is, of course, Leticia. He wonders why there is a girl there and will wonder even more when they find a girls’ dormitory. The couple, hand in hand, traverse the seemingly endless premises, discovering rooms they never dreams existed, passing other children trying to escape and even seeing a flock of Jesuit priests, of whose existence they were unaware. Aira gives us a wonderful description of the fire and the confusion – paintings and pianos burning, ceilings collapsing, windows exploding, false exits and so on on which takes up a significant part of this relatively short book.

Meanwhile back at the El Gallego’s, Enrique has hugged Leticia when he suddenly recognises Kent. Kent has not recognised him but now does. Enrique is the owner of the hostel where Kent is staying and they had become fairly close. It seems that it is the trend in Buenos Aires to have your hostel themed and Enrique, interested in evolution has chosen that as his theme.

Aira continues in his normal way as we follow an abusive sculptor, a host of barking and copulating dogs, a drug dealer masquerading as a sculptor, Krishna appearing in a Buenos Aires suburb, a woman dumped in the boot of a car and shot five times in the head by the Mafia but yet surviving and going on to run a large sanatorium without any experience whatsoever, a management manual which seems to be the key to all wisdom and the Chinese economy and its influence on the Argentinian economy. While we thought that Enrique was soaked by water from the awning, it seems divine intervention may have played a role.

This is certainly one of Aira’s more interesting book, not least because it gets increasingly improbable, starting with the coincidence that Enrique knows three of the customers at the café as he passes by and with all the stories getting stranger and stranger, with the one at the end I can guarantee no-one will have guessed (not that I guessed any of the others).

Publishing history

First published by Mansalva in 2010
First published in English in 2021 by New Directions/And Other Stories
Translated by Chris Andrews