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César Aira: La liebre (The Hare)

The book starts off with a historical character, Juan Manuel de Rosas, known as The Restorer of the Laws. We follow his daily routine, his criticism of his daughter (an idiot and a snob) and the audiences he has with various people. This book is not, of course, in any way about Rosas.

One of his audiences is with an Englishman called Clarke. Clarke is a naturalist who has come to Argentina to explore the Southern plains, a common locale for Aira, as that is where his home town of Coronel Pringles is located. Interestingly enough, Clarke claims to be the brother-in-law of Darwin. Given that Clarke is not (and never has been) married and is the only (adopted) child of an English couple, it is not clear how he has a brother-in-law, Darwin, or anyone else. He is not aware of who his biological parents are and, as he tells another (adopted) character later in the book, has never given the matter much thought.

Rosas gives him a wonderful horse, called Repetido, and Clarke goes and visits a local painter, where he outlines his plans. He plans to study animals (but not capture or kill them), not least because, according to Darwin’s theories, animals were constantly changing and there was no point in preserving them in any fixed form. The painter is worried that he will be killed by the Indians but Clarke seems to be not concerned by this possibility. Clarke also revels that he is, in particular, looking for the Legibrerian hare. There is, of course, no such animal in the real world. So Clarke sets off with his guide, Guana, and a young aspiring painter, Carlos Alzaga Prior.

As this is Aira, we have an idea of some of what might happen. There will be philosophical discussion of some topic. There will be fantasy/magic realism. Things will not be as they seem. There will be exciting adventures and a complicated plot. We get all of these and more.

The philosophical discussion involves one of Aira’s and, indeed, of philosophers’ favourite topics, language. Clarke seems to be an excellent linguist. We learn that he speaks excellent Spanish but he also seems to master Huilliche, the language spoken by the Mapuche Indians who befriend and help him. In his discussion with the Mapuche chieftain, Cafulcurá, Clarke learns much about the semantics of their language. For example, many words have multiple and varying meanings, which is not confusing, at least for native speakers. Words in Mapuche seem to have pretty unstable meanings. There is further discussion of language, in the usual Aira style. Cafulcurá had met Darwin, and thought him a simple lad and is interested to learn about his theories.

Clarke is a scientist and therefore, for him, things have to be seen and touched and examined to have their existence confirmed. The same applies to language. However, he is brought up short when Prior, who barely knows English, points out that the word game can have two completely different meanings, i.e. sport and animals to be hunted, and even explains this.

This issue extends to the eponymous hare. A group of the Indians see it and go out looking at it and for it. They see it flying through the air and then running around at their feet. Clarke is there but does not catch a glimpse of it. Is it there? Does it exist? From the Indians’ point of view the question about the reality of the hare which caused all the fuss today was irrelevant. It was something which, literally, was of no interest to anyone. In other words, there is more to life than what you can see and touch. Reason itself can prove you wrong, Prior says to him. Indeed, Clarke and his Englishness come in for some gentle mockery throughout the book.

However, this book is also about adventures, with Aira giving us his usual wonderful, fanciful, often improbable story. Clarke and his friends get very much involved in the Indians’ political situation. Indeed, Clarke is, at one point, made their general, as they realise his organisational skills may serve some purpose in battle, not least because he has studied Napoleon’s tactics. Cafulcurá is kidnapped – or is he? The Vorogas cause trouble. We meet a whole tribe who live entirely underground. The widow Rondeau may or may not have the hare-shaped diamond (which may or may not exist) and Clarke faces a whole range of unusual phenomena: ducks as big as people, impromptu throat-slittings, a drunk flying over his head, a column of warriors riding through underground tunnels, his double rising to meet him at midnight while Prior never paints anything.

Things all turn out (more or less) well, involving not only the Indians, but Clarke, Guana, Prior and others. And the hare? Well, reality, as Aira frequently tells us, is not just about what we can see with our eyes. Another first-class work from Aira.

Publishing history

First published by Emecé in 1991
First published in English by Serpent’s Tail in 1998\
Translated by Nick Caistor