Little kids used to scare me. Though maybe “intimidate” is a better word. Kids are so emotional, you know? These little events upset us so much and remain deeply ingrained in our memories and psyches as moments of momentous injustice that we never, ever forget. I remember crying as a 5-year-old when a girl wouldn’t share her potato chips with me (we’re friends now on a social networking site, another testament to the weirdness that is the Internet). I guess I really, really wanted those potato chips (it was also the first day of kindergarten, so I was probably already pretty emotionally drained). There are so many moments at my job when I’m dealing with a kid who is just incredibly upset by something that seems so trivial to an adult (someone cutting ahead of you in a line is a big one).
The kids themselves in this novel aren’t as scary as the situation they’re in. Childhood was an important theme in Aira’s How I Became a Nun (perhaps more important than I realized when I first read it) and plays a similarly prominent role in the most recent of his works that I’ve read,Ghosts. Ghosts is my favorite of the three Aira novles I’ve read, maybe because it’s the one written in the most realistic tone. The focus of the novel is on a Chilean immigrant family living in an apartment building under construction. The father is the night watchmen. A lot of references are made to his heavy drinking, but all in all, this feels like a happy family. The children run up and down the stairs, play in the empty swimming pool, but an uneasy, ominous feeling hangs over everything.
And then there are the ghosts. Aira’s treatment of the ghosts is what makes this novella worth reading. It’s an understatement to say that I’ve never read anything quite like it before. They first appear sitting on the sharp metallic edge of the giant satellite dish, “on which no bird would have dared to perch, three completely naked men were sitting, with their faces turned up to the mdday sun; no one saw them, of course.” Here is the first full descriptive passages of the titular ghosts, from page 12:
The naked men shouted louder and louder as if competing with each other. They were dirty like builders, and had the same kind of bodies: rather stocky, solid, with small feet, and rough hands. Their toes were spread widely, like wild men’s toes. They were behaving like badly brought-up children. But they were adults. A builder who happenned to be passing by with a bucketful of rubble on the way to the skip stretched out his free hand and, without stopping, grasped the penis of one of the naked men and kept walking. The member stretched out to a length of two yards, and then three, five, ten, all the way to the sidewalk. When he let it go, it slapped back into place with a noise whose weird harmonics went on echoing off the unplastered concrete walls… The two ghosts laughed more loudly and frenetically than ever.
It feels significant that the rich folks that are being given a tour of their future apartment can’t see the ghosts, but the workers can. Aira never explains where the ghosts come from, how the workers first saw them, or how long it took for them to get used to naked men floating around the air and through walls. In a way, this is probably the best way to handle the ghosts. It’s like an extreme version of Kafka or Garcia Marquez, where we come to accept the fantastical elements of a story because they’re written in such a matter-of-fact, realistic way. In the end, we accept the ghosts because the characters accept them in such an unquestioning, logical fashion. For instance, the next passage in which the ghosts appear (after the member-pulling) concerns the father’s innovative wine-cooling system: “It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.” (29) How practical!
The sense of impending doom (or “climate of malevolence”) (67) that hangs like a cloud over the children throughout the novel comes not so much from the ghosts (who come off more like a “flying puppet show” than a genuine menance or threat), but from how dangerous it is to have the children roaming around unsupervised in a roofless building with exposed electrical wiring. During a standard trip to the supermarket, the mother is described as “that anomaly, not nearly as rare as is often supposed: a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd.” (23) Is this attitude is an effect of becoming numb to the presence of the ghosts? Needless to say, we’re being set up: by the novel’s end, one of these kids is done for.
In David Lodge’s essay “The Novelist Today: Still at the Crossroads?” from his book The Practice of Writing (I’ve been on a huge David Lodge kick lately and have several of his lit theory books lying around the house for Corey to trip over and curse), he writes about how fabulation in works such as The Satanic Verses “aims to entertain us with the humorous extravagance and inventiveness of its story while offering this as a kind of metaphor… for the extreme contrasts and conflicts of modern experience.” (7) This could be applied very aptly to Aira, especially since humor plays such an important role in his fiction. My favorite character in Ghosts is Abel Reyes, the night watchman’s nephew, who embarks upon a Kafkaesque grocery shopping quest to buy lunch for the workmen. I love how he obstinately refuses to use a shopping basket and with arms full of bread and meat picks up the Coca Cola bottles with the index finger and thumb of each hand, “which was all he had free.” (20) I’m tempted to type up the entire passage that describes him: he is described as looking eleven years old despite being fifteen, “thin, ugly, awkward.” Much is made of his long gross hair that makes him look like a girl: “Being young, foreign and therefore naive, he didn’t realize that the Argentineans with long hair belonged to the lowest social stratum, and were precisely those who had condemned themselves to never escape from it… In Chile, [with hair that long] he would have been interviewed on television, or, more likely, thrown into prison.” (18) It’s funny, but “thrown into prison” catches us off guard slightly, as we ponder how true this might be.
Even though Abdul Reyes sadly disappears from the pages of Ghosts following his shopping expedition, I think his appearence sets up the subplot of Patri, the teenage daughter, whose musings and interactions with the ghosts comes to dominate the second half of the book. The other characters are consistently reminding Patri that she is reaching a “marriageable” age and worrying aloud about her lack of a social life, neither of which seem to interest her much. When her choice of men are people like Abdul Reyes, it’s unsurprising that Patri’s interest is piqued by the “virility” of the ghosts, who invite her to a party. The results of said party are not spoiler-friendly, and I leave it up to you, dear reader, to discover for yourself. I will say that Patri’s interactions with the ghosts definitely represents a sort of crossing-over journey for her, from childhood to womanhood.
That’s why I feel like childhood is one of the more important themes of the book. The children are made to seem just as freaky and otherwordly as the ghosts in this novel: “compared to an adult, they were always tiny. They were human in every way, but on another scale. And that alone could render them unrecognizable, or give the impression that they had been produced by the baffling distortions of a dream.” (51) For Patri, the ghosts also appear to her “as the opposite of obscenity, as a kind of innocence.” (54) I won’t attempt to unpack the long interlude about Australian aborigenes and Polynesian interactions with sleep, dreams and rite of passage that takes up a good 10-15 pages in the middle of the book, but anyway, it all feels connected in an important, obscure way (while simultaneously feeling quite random and disorienting).
So what are we left with in the end? Are the ghosts an appropriate metaphor for the impossibility of coping with the modern experience? Are the ghosts spirits of laborers or immigrants who died working on the building, or in one of Argentina’s military regimes? The last sentence of the novel is “Man and ghost stared at each other,” (139) and apart from Patri, it could be the first time that any of the characters really “sees” the ghosts (and, more significantly, the ghosts see the living). There are quite a number of scenes concerned with “seeing” throughout the novel, such as when the characters turn off the lights during the New Year’s Eve party in order to see the stars, or on the next to last sentence of the book, when one of the ghosts hands over a pair of glasses.
Lodge writes that one of the prominent marks of contemporary writing is a pronounced concern with communication, as opposed to self-expression (as with the romantic writers) or with innovation and creation of symbols (as with the modernists). Maybe this concern with communication is the result of genuine communication becoming an illusion; maybe it’s the result of the saturation of communications: internet, phones, twitter, blogging, Skype, faxes, e-mail… on and on and on. We live in a hyper-communicative age. I like to think that, like anything, this is a power that can be used for good just as easily as it can be used for evil. For better or worse, it’s the world we live in.
We’ll just have to see, I guess.