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César Aira: Los misterios de Rosario [The Mysteries of Rosario]

One of Aira’s usual methods is to start a novel as though it were a straightforward realist novel and then veer into the fantastical, sometimes quite abruptly. This novel follows that approach. More interestingly, it is about climate change, somewhat ahead of its time.

Our hero/narrator is Alberto Giordano, a thirty-three year old literature teacher at the Faculty of Humanities in Rosario, Argentina. He is setting out to work at the Faculty, where he will be starting a new class. It is October. The normal weather in Rosario in October is between 50°F and 70°F. However it is bitterly cold – Alberto claims it is thirty below zero (centigrade), and it is also snowing heavily. He is not happy.

While the weather certainly contributes to his unhappiness, there are other reasons. Firstly, he is heading to the one place he hates most in the word: the Faculty of Humanities. Secondly, he is hiding various dark secrets, which no-one knows about. We are told of one: his addiction to the drug proxidine, This is a drug invented by Aira. It produces euphoria and makes things appear closer together than we normally see them. We will meet it again in Aira’s La villa (Shantytown). Alberto gets the drug from his decidedly dubious doctor, Dr Oliva.

The third issue is about to occur. He finally arrives for his class and there is no-one there. He waits and no-one turns up. He assumes that it is because of the weather but his friend, the sociology teacher and academic secretary, Ricardo Rincón Fox tells him that no-one registered for the class.

At this point we get various other peculiarities. The first is that people do not seem to recognise people they know. Ricardo barely recognises Alberto, as he seems to have deteriorated drastically. He seems shorter, fatter, more dishevelled. He has not shaved for three days and he is limping. The limp is apparently caused by the proxidine. Alberto himself is standing in the lobby of the Faculty when he sees, to his surprise, a black woman. There are no blacks in Rosario and, indeed, he claims never to have seen one. Yet, this is Sandra, a woman he knows well. She and two other women came over from the Ivory Coast, learned Spanish and stayed. They also set up a publishing company and are apparently about to publish books by both Alberto and Ricardo. Or not, as they now seemed to have backed out of both projects, to both men’s dismay.

These are not the only instances of people not recognising people they know well. Related to this is that people mistake identities and seemingly know little about people whom, in theory they know well. For example, Adriana, another of the Ivorian women had been talking to a woman called Lina, which, she assumed, was the secret identity of Analia, Alberto’s wife. However, it turns out that Lina really does exist and is Analia’s identical twin. Alberto assumes that Ricardo, his best friend, is married to Olivia, a woman in one of his classes. It seems that he may in fact, be married not to Olivia but to a distant cousin of hers. Again, there are other examples of these issues.

Analia adds to the confusion. It seems that she and her friends (who are, in many cases, his friends as well) watch a lot of soap operas. To simplify matters, when referring to soap opera characters and, indeed, in some cases, other real people, they use their close friends/relatives as stand-ins. For example if she is talking about two sisters, she will call them Analia and Lina or if she is talking about a husband she will call him Alberto. Alberto was not aware of this, so it is added to the confusion. Indeed, a considerable amount of the book is about identity and mistaken identity.

After his non-class, Alberto headed to the nearby bar where many of the Faculty regularly go. The TV reported that the weather is getting worse. It is the end of the world, someone commented. Well, at least the end of Rosario, Alberto retorts. Alberto’s friends and colleagues will continue to say that it is the end of the world throughout the book but seem remarkably relaxed about it. One of the African women, Adriana, accosts him and tells him that Cecilia has been kidnapped. Neither he nor we have any idea who Cecilia is nor who Pellegrini, the alleged perpetrator is. All will he revealed later in the book, when this becomes a key plot theme.

Out in the snow, things get stranger. Alberto has the feeling he is being followed. He is being followed by a snowman, who even talks to him and does somersaults. Alberto is looking for his doctor, Dr Oliva. The similarity between his name and that of Olivia, mentioned above, is no coincidence The two characters will merge at one point. In fact, a third character is also involved.

Dr Oliva has his practice in a run-down building but spends most of his time in the neighbouring bar and it is there that Alberto finds him. He takes Alberto to his lighthouse, located at the top of the building, giving Alberto a splendid view of snow-covered Rosario. Dr Oliva gets a better view, as he flies off.

We continue to follow Alberto as he and his wife argue but also worry somewhat about the weather. They head out to have dinner at a restaurant, despite the fact there is city-wide power cut which, for some reason, does not seem to effect televisions. Of course as this is Aira, things do not, even vaguely, turn out how we might have expected. With a fairy like creature granting three wishes, a kidnapping, a Peronist plot, more confused identities, and political correctness issues, Aira, as usual, shoots off in all sorts of tangents.

For a climate change/end of the world novel, this book does have a lot of twists and turns. The snow storm rages for most of the book and its consequences weigh heavily on some of the cast but then seem to be ignored. However, Aira, as always, is concerned with other issues, such as identity, the question of what is reality and what is not, and even what is modernism. Again it is a thoroughly original work and different both from his other works and from the work of others.

Publishing history

First published by Emecé in 1994
No English translation