César Aira: El tilo (The Lime Tree; The Linden Tree)
César Aira’s usual modus operandi is to discuss some philosophical issue and then move on to telling a strange story, possibly fanciful, which may or may not be linked to the philosophical issue previously raised. This book, however, is somewhat different. There is the philosophical issue (which is, perhaps, more psychological than philosophical) and, while it does link to the subsequent story, the story is neither strange nor fanciful. Instead, it is simply the boyhood of our narrator in Coronel Pringles (home town of Aira himself), enlivened with a few anecdotes.
Apart from being born in Coronel Pringles and subsequently, as a young adult, moving to the Flores district of Buenos Aires, the unnamed narrator also seems to be about the same age as Aira, so the story must be at least in part autobiographical.
The narrator is an only child. One thing he had noticed is that many families either had a single boy or three girls. He surmised that, if they had a boy, they stopped trying to procreate but, if they had a girl, they would keep on trying to have a boy but would give up after three. He admits that his observations might not be entirely accurate but it is what he sees around him. Indeed, part of the book is what the boy sees and surmises, which may not be and, indeed, often is not, what an adult might see and surmise. The book has many of these little snippets.
His parents are something of an odd couple, at least by the standards of the town. His father is what is called in Coronel Pringles black. He is not black. There are no blacks there but he is swarthy, possibly, again as surmised by the narrator, because of Indian blood. Argentina essentially wiped out its native population, so there is no stigma attached to dark skin, as there might be in countries where there is a population of blacks or dark-skinned natives. The father is working class but has married a middle-class, white woman. She is very small – he uses the term dwarf – so has found it difficult to find a husband of her own class. Of course, as they have had a son, there have been no more children.
The philosophical issue raised is about reversal, about changing styles and habits and doing things in reverse. Frankly, I did not find it as convincing as some of the issues he raises in other books. We start with the father. He had been a fervent Catholic. This is unusual for, unlike in other Latin American countries, Catholicism is mainly the preserve of the rich, upper class and the upwardly mobile middle class who aim to imitate the rich. Most of the working class are atheist but the father prayed regularly and frequently. Indeed, the narrator hears two women talking about him and condemning him for it.
However, the father is also a Peronist. Juan Perón came to power, committed to social justice but he was also opposed to the Catholic Church and opposed to it on many issues, including abortion and divorce. Once this became apparent, the father abandoned Catholicism almost overnight and never entered a church again. Peronism trumped God as, later Peronists became anti-Peronists.
His Peronism helped him get his job. He was in charge of and, indeed, sole person involved in the public lighting of the town. Every evening he would set off on his bicycle, carrying a long wooden ladder, to ensure that the lights all over town were on.
However, just as there had been a reverse from Catholicism to Peronism now there was another one. Perón was overthrown and father lost his job. He became a freelance electrician but the narrator is not sure that his father was competent to do the job, again a perspective from the eyes of a child, without any concrete evidence. Despite his son’s scepticism, he made a living out of it.
The family lived alone in a large house. It has been owned by French migrants and it was owned by their descendants. For some reason, the narrator’s parents were given a lease on one of the room but then Perón brought in rent controls so there was no incentive to rent out the rest of the house. The owners all hated one another, which made matters more complicated. Because of this, when the father went to pay his rent, he asked for a receipt and was refused so father refused to pay the rent. This continued indefinitely – no rent, no receipt. An annual judicial sale and a very large house with the narrator’s family only occupying one room made things more interesting.
These stories were what entertained our narrator, Indeed, he picked them up when, as a boy, he worked for an accountant. His job was just to be in the office when the accountant had to go out. The local farmers, the accountant’s main clients, came in, and regaled the boy with all sorts of repetitive stories, as did the accountant himself. No one else was privy to the repetition, and this I found inexpressibly satisfying. I noted the variations, the expansions, the refinements, and later, on my own, I went over the stories again, adding and varying and polishing even more.
Another change, a reverse, which the farmers referred to, was the lack of suitable workers. Most boys now went to study, instead of going straight into a working job, and became clerks or accountants, leaving a reduced workforce. Again, we get the child’s perspective on this.
His perspective on writing was mainly conditioned by the stories he heard but also by a remark of his father’s, who had been listening to a radio play. He struggled to express himself about how a writer would write something that was the opposite to what he might be feeling. He ends up by coming out with It’s all in reverse. That’s what it is. The writer has to live life in reverse.
All my life I’ve been trying to understand that simple, lapidary formula: ‘life in reverse’. I’ve explained it in a thousand ways, and none of them entirely convinces me., says the narrator. Unfortunately, it did not entirely convince me either.
And the lime tree? There was a huge lime tree in the main square. The father would collect the flowers dropped by the lime tree, which he dried and made a tea out of it. This tea, he claimed helped his insomnia. The lime tree acts as a frame to the book, opening and closing it.
While this is certainly a fascinating tale of growing up in a remote Argentinian town, and has a few interesting anecdotes, it is not in my view, one of his better works. However, as always, Aira writes well and is worth reading for Aira fans like myself.
First published by Beatriz Viterbo in 2003
First published in English by And Other Stories in 2017