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César Aira: El volante [The Flyer]

Norma Traversini is a teacher of dramatic arts as well as jazz dance, body expression and related subjects, as well as being an amateur actress. She is twenty-four years old and lives in Buenos Aires. She runs the Lady Barbie Studio of Dramatic Expression. She is planning on offering her services to the local neighbourhood, not to teach them how to act (though she is happy to do that, if they want) but to teach them how to be more sincere. She plans to use all her experience in the dramatic arts to show people how to be more sincere in their everyday dealings, whether with a lover, a boss, a friend and, in particular, between a mother and child.

To advertise her services, she is writing a flyer, explaining all of this and explaining exactly how her course will work, why it will be useful to her neighbours and what she hopes will be the result of taking this course.

By her own admission, writing is not her strong point. She is much better at face-to-face communication. This soon becomes apparent, as she gets carried away with her explanations about her course and its benefits. At times she waxes poetical, comparing a useful flyer appearing under the door to the moonlight shining under the door. Eventually, she realises that her explanations have not been very clear and that she should perhaps start again. Again, she waffles, again she admits that she should have stopped well before. Accordingly, she changes tack.

She decides to explain the name of her studio which, as you may recall is called the Lady Barbie Studio. She does not read much, as she does not have the time but has recently read a book called Appearances. She has recommended it to everyone she knows, as she thinks it is a wonderful book. She is going to give us a brief summary which, as you might imagine, is far from brief.

The book is set in the early twentieth century. The heroine is Lady Barbie Windson (sic). She is the daughter of Sir Horace and Lady Harriet Windson. (Pedants’ corner: in England, the daughter of a knight, which Sir Horace obviously is, by his title, has no title, unless she has one by her own right or my marriage, which does not apply to Lady Barbie. In other words she should be Miss Barbie Windson.)

Sir Horace had tea plantations in India. When Barbie was still quite young, Sir Horace started an affair with a local lady. As a result, Lady Harriet returned to England with her two daughters. Barbie was in a boarding school in Kent (this one?). The couple reconciled after four years and Lady Harriet returned to India, without her daughters. Sometime later a son was born though, we later learn, Sir Horace was not the father.

When Barbie was twenty, Lady Harriet suddenly died and Barbie was summoned to India to be the lady of the house and bring up her brother, which she does. Norma describes what happens in great detail but then realises, as before, that she is being too long-winded for her flyer. She decides then to focus on the atmosphere of the book, which she considers very important, with a brief summary of the plot afterwards.

Not surprisingly, she finds it difficult to describe the atmosphere in an effective way, so she is soon back to the plot. As this is Aira, things start to get really interesting, with Catholic vs Protestants battles, kidnappings, crocodiles, polo ponys, Indian mystics, teleportation, silk worms, the ruined city of Kali, resurrection from the dead and a strange character called The Mask.

It all ends apocalyptically, as we have seen in other Aira novels and, as we have seen in other Aira novels, the author clearly had great fun writing it. An interesting note is that one of the main characters is called Pringle. Long time readers of Aira will know that he is from the town of Coronel Pringles (named after a hero of the Spanish-American Wars of Independence) and that many of his works are set there. The Pringle in this book is an Earl. And the flyer? Oh dear!

Publishing history

First published by Beatriz Viterbo in 1992
No English translation
First published in French as Le prospectus by Christian Bourgeois in 2006
Translated by Michel Lafon