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César Aira: El santo [The Saint]

This novel is somewhat longer than many of Aira’s works (though not much longer), has a more coherent plot than many and is set in the Middle Ages (which Aira tells us instead of leaving us guessing as he sometimes does). However, it is in many ways a fairly typical Aira novel, with digressions, fantasy/magic realism and philosophical ruminations.

Our eponymous saint – he is given no name and known throughout the book as The Saint – is a priest in a small Catalan town. During his career, he has helped the poor and infirm. Indeed, in a somewhat unsaintly way, he tells us later that he has performed around eighty miracles, which is a lot better than many saints who have only performed one. Most of his miracles are quite minor. Indeed he admits they are not always obvious and include curing ailments such as scrofula. Nevertheless, his colleagues, the local populace and the town officials consider him a saint and are sure he will be canonised when he dies.

He is now getting old. We are not sure what age he is but some (unspecified) months later, he is sixty-four. This might seem quite old for the era but, later in the book, he does not feel that he is all that old. In any case, he has decided to retire. To the consternation of everyone, he has decided to retire to his native Italy. This is of concern for a saint, dead or alive, is good for tourism and the economy. Without him, the town would lose a major source of income as people come from far and wide to get cured. They try to dissuade him but in the village he comes from in Etruscan Italy, there is a decidedly unChristian view that those buried away from their homeland are condemned to live among men as ghosts.

They consider various plans but eventually decide that the best way is to have him murdered and hire a suitable thug for the purpose. All the other residents of the monastery move into the chapel at night to pray while The Saint goes to bed blissfully unaware of his fate. However, something warns him. He gets up in the middle of night, leaves the monastery and flees. He wakes up on a Greek boat.

The Greeks think he is a dissident fleeing Catalonia and this is not the first time they have rescued a dissident. Had they known his true identity, they well have thrown him into the sea. As he seems to manage knots well, he is able to pull his weight on the ship. However, the ship is attacked by Turkish pirates. Those who resist are killed, the others are thrown into the hold, to be sold as slaves in North Africa. Interestingly, the slaves are not given food but opium, which is cheap and plentiful and keeps them calm. The Saint has various religious experiences when he takes the opium.

The slaves join a camel train and are sold off en route. We have one of Aira’s many interesting digressions here, as he discusses how marine men have to try and adapt to working on the land and how some people are suitable for some work and others for other types of work. This is all discussed in a straightforward manner as though it was normal. The Saint is sold in the last group to an Abyssinian warrior called Abdul Malik.

To his surprise, he is given his own room and does not seem to have much work. Eventually, he is made a waiter but is hopeless at the job, so much so that he is given a boy to help him. The boy, who like most of the characters in this novel is not named, stays with him throughout the book.

When wandering around, the Saint meets a man who turns out to be Abdul Malik. Here and elsewhere, the Saint seems to have no problem conversing in a mutually understandable language. We learn a lot about the economy of Abdul Malik’s domain. He has a form of apparatus which scares birds from the cherries and makes a strange noise. He is able to market this device. This is one of the many areas where Aira makes casual comparisons between the Middle Ages and the past. In this case, we see the world moving from a priestly, warrior society to a commercial one. We shall see this elsewhere.

In his discussions with Abdul Malik and the Saint, there are discussions on economy and organisation of the domain, the unpleasant nature of roses, miracles, polygamy and other topics, which gives Aira a chance to indulge in his usual commentaries.

One of the issues Abdul Malik faces is the cost of maintaining slaves. He deals with this by often sending them off on spurious missions, hoping that they will be eaten by lions. This is what happens to the Saint. He and the boy set off. There are no lions and the Saint enjoys his travels, eventually arriving at the domain of Queen Poliana. He states that he is glad for the attempted murder, as it has given him chance to broaden his horizons and take him out of the humdrum nature of his life.

The rest of the novel is taken up with his time in Queen Poliana’s domain, where he very much broadens his life in the company of the Queen. The Saint and Queen naturally have differing views on life and these become the subject of often heated discussions. We also learn about their political structure which, again, shows changes, with the royal family becoming increasingly irrelevant, though increasingly corrupt, and the merchant class taking over. Aira is certainly critical of the royal family though whether this is just part of the story or a reference to modern royal families is not clear.

As always, Aira tells a fascinating tale with lots of interesting digressions. There is a twist to the plot at the end but it is almost tagged on as an afterthought and does not seem to be key to the story. The Saint, who clearly is a good man but, at the same time, by no means always saintly, is an interesting character, learned, of course, but generally a man of his time, prepared to adapt to new circumstances and not overly eager to return home either to Catalonia or to Italy, as he realises that there is a life beyond being a saint in a small Catalan town. Indeed, if there is a message – and Aira is not normally one to give overt messages – it is that we should break away from the every day, try something new and different and I cannot argue with that.

Publishing history

First published by Literatura Random House in 2015
No English translation