Ghosts by César Aira and a Zaha Malbec wine match

On Friday I read Ghosts, a novella by the acclaimed Argentine writer César Aira (first published in 1990 and translated in 2008). It’s a strange little book, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Nevertheless, something about it caught my eye. You’ll see why later, but first I should introduce Ghosts, albeit briefly.

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The novella is set on a construction site; more precisely, in a half-finished building of high-end apartments for the well-heeled inhabitants of Buenos Aires. As the building is still under construction, the only human inhabitants are Chilean night-watchman, Raul Viňas, his wife and children who run around the structure hiding in nooks and crannies – the children that is, not Raul and his wife. But there are other dwellers besides the Viňas family, and they are the ghosts of the title. Aira’s creations are not your typical ghosts though. They are like naked men, big, boisterous and raucous, and come covered in fine cement dust:

They were listening too, but only as a pretext for bursting continually into fierce, raucous laughter. Or not so much laughter as vehement, theatrically sarcastic howling. […] 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 fee, 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. (pgs. 9-10)

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure what to make of the story as a whole, but there’s a dry humour to it which I enjoyed, especially in the first half of the book. My difficulty came at the halfway point where I got more than a bit lost as Aira slipped more deeply into philosophical territory.

What I loved about the story though was the following passage about wine, and I couldn’t resist posting it here. The Viňas family are living without the benefit of a fridge, but Raul (a ‘prodigious drinker’) has discovered an inventive method for keeping his wines cool – it’s desperately hot in their part of the building:

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. There were two things he hadn’t noticed, however. The first was that, during the cooling process, the wine came out of the bottles and flowed like lymph all through the bodies of the ghosts. The second was that this distillation transmuted ordinary cheap wine, fermented in cement vats, into an exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon, which not even captains of industry could afford to drink every day. But an undiscriminating drinker like Viňas, who chilled his red wine in summer just because of the heat, wasn’t going to notice the change. Besides, he was accustomed to the wonderful wines of his country, so it seemed perfectly natural to him. And, indeed, what could be more natural than to drink the best wine, always and only the best? (pg. 29-30)

What indeed. And how fortunate to have that kind of ghost nearby…

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Well, I didn’t have any Argentine (or Chilean) Cabernet Sauvignon to hand on Friday, but I did manage to find a bottle of Zaha Malbec in the cupboard by the stairs. That’ll do nicely, I thought. The Zaha (which stems from the word ‘heart’) comes from the Altamira district of Mendoza, a cool-climate area where the grapes are grown at high altitude. Inky purple in colour, with a whiff of eucalyptus and a flavour profile of blackberries and liquorice, it’s unmistakably a New World wine. The grapes are mostly Malbec (90%), but I think there’s a touch of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in the blend for additional interest and complexity. Not a bad match for the Aira, and a very good wine without the need for any interventions from ghosts.

ALOD 2014

I read Ghosts to link in with Richard’s celebration of Argentine (and Uruguayan) Literature of Doom. All comments are welcome here, whether they’re about Aira, Ghosts or wine. And if you’ve read any of Aira’s books, I’d love to hear from you…

Ghosts is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, tr. by Chris Andrews. Source: personal copy. I bought the Zaha Malbec, 2011 vintage, from The Wine Society (no longer in stock).

50 thoughts on “Ghosts by César Aira and a Zaha Malbec wine match

  1. MarinaSofia

    A ghost as a wine-chilling cabinet? Brilliant!
    I opened the Gewurztraminer from the Aigle domaine in the South-West of France, by the way, last night. It was very fruity and fresh, an unexpected and very different kind of treat.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Isn’t it. I’d quite like my own ghostly wine cooler!

      I like the sound of your Gewurz, as while I enjoy the occasional one from Alsace I can find them a bit too heavy and spicy for my own personal tastes. Fresh and fruity sounds very appealing so I’ll take a look at the Aigle domaine. Cheers, Marina!

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    A little Aussie boast to say Chris Andrews, the translator, is One Of Us. He’s also translated Marias. He’s a good poet too, and to top it all off is the partner of Michelle de Kretser, a novelist worth following up if you don’t already know her.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Fantastic! I didn’t know about the link between Chris Andrews and Michelle de Krester. She’s a writer I must get around to one day as I’ve heard great things about Questions of Travel.

      Reply
  3. Col

    I like the sound of this – there’s something bizarrely engaging about ghosts covered in cement dust! And I loved the wine cooler ghost – no doubt those clever bods at IKEA will design and mass produce ghost-wine-coolers any day now!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Isn’t there just! It’s an uncoventional little book, one that might mess with your head, but I loved the dusty ghosts.

      The wine-cooler ghost is wonderfully surreal. I wouldn’t mind one myself.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s an interesting one, Helen. I loved the ghosts and would have liked more of them – they pop up every now and again, but the story does meander around a bit. Some really interesting ideas, humourous scenes and a breathtaking ending. A bit strange, though! I hope you enjoy your malbec!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      No, I haven’t, in fact I’d never heard of that one. It sounds fun! I’ll take a look at your review but it might be a day or two. My pc died this morning so I’m doing everything on my phone at the mo. Not ideal!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is rather unusual: some surreal scences, an undercurrent of dry humour in the early sections, but it does meander around (the middle section is very philosophical). Loved the ghosts. He’s an interesting writer, I think. Certainly not a conventional one!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I suspect you’d find it a frustrating read, Guy. At first I thought it might be a social commentary on the differences between the super rich and impoverished inhabitants of the city. There’s an interesting early scene in which the architect is showing a group of wealthy inhabitants around the building. Aira starts to comment on the ways people from different classes (the very rich, very poor and middle) approach negotiations. But the purchasers disappear and this social commentary theme isn’t developed (or if it is, i missed it). As I say, I got bogged down in the middle, but I did enjoy the ghosts!

      Reply
      1. Guy Savage

        I’m used to it in S. American books, but that was also a funny statement as I can’t imagine where that would be in this book. (Although Jacqui mentioned the contrast between the superrich and the poor).

        Reply
        1. Richard

          Ah, that explains things then, thanks! As Tom mentions below, there is a possible “political” reading of this novel that’s not present in most of Aira’s other novels, where his concerns are more apparently aesthetic in nature let’s say. However, I was wondering how you could come up with that interpretation based on Jacqui’s review alone. I was at a loss there for a while! :D

          Reply
  4. Gemma

    This sounds intriguing. I enjoyed the passage you quoted about chilling the wine – very unusual, and certainly memorable! The cover of the book is quite striking too, in an understated way. Great review!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a great passage, isn’t it…and there’s much to enjoy in this book. I just got a bit waylaid in the mid-section – more a case of feeling frustrated with myself rather than the author as I was trying (and failing) to piece everything together.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, Grant. I’ll head over to yours for a read of your review once I’ve got a working pc again. I’m definitely game to try more by Aira as he’s interesting even if I can always see where he’s going with a particular thread. Your observation on Aira’s style is enlightening as it sounds (from Tom’s comment below) as if he never rewrites! The Literary Conference is in my set of three novellas, so I’ll try that one next. Good to know you enjoyed it (and I can always ask you what it means if I get stuck!).

      Reply
  5. Richard

    So glad you gave this a try, Jacqui! As I’ve let on before, this is my current favorite Aira-in-translation. A couple of the things I liked best about it are the tension between the “realistic” and the “supernatural” elements in the story, which is also responsible for some of the humor you touched on (i.e. many of those male ghosts are, ahem, rather well endowed, and also more charismatic somehow than many of the “real men” young Patri meets), and the way Aira resolves the finale where the protagonist has to decide between attending the ghosts’ New Year’s Eve party or staying with her family among the living. I also enjoyed the narrators’ cracks about books and readers throughout, but the philosophical interlude in the middle that you mentioned may be something of a head scatcher until/unless you get used to these sorts of bits in other Aira novels (this one is more abrupt/intrusive than usual as I recall). Cheers!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Richard, many thanks for recommending Ghosts; I really am glad I read it (and still keen to try others)!

      That’s a great point about the tension between the realistic and supernatural elements of the story, and I would have liked more of the latter if anything! I loved the description of the ghosts and the fact that they don’t conform to typical ghostly stereotypes i.e. they’re big, boisterous and funny as opposed to slight, ethereal and spooky. And I had fun with the wine coooler/transformer idea of course. Also, there’s a very funny extended scene near the beginning where the ‘notoriously dopey’ Abel goes to the supermarket to buy food for the builders’ lunch. It’s NYE, the store’s heaving, and when he gets to the one cashier on duty, she makes a huge fuss about him not having the exact change. All this despite the wad of one-austral notes in her till. I loved everything about that whole section, and the ending’s great too (for the reasons you mention). I just need to get my head around the mid section…I think Aira was trying to make a connection between architecture and the writing process, almost as if the unfinished building could be likened to the development of a work of literature. But I could be talking nonsense here…

      Anyway, thank you so much for your comments and insights – very much appreciated! I’ll try The Literary Conference next, but it might be next year.

      Reply
      1. Richard

        The Literary Conference is actually one of my least favorite Airas so far, but almost everybody else who’s written about it seems to appreciate it much more than I did. Hope you enjoy it more than I did!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh no! Now I really am worried… It’ll probably be next year before I get to another by Aira, but I have read Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel so I should have another Argentine post for you in December!

          Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, do try one, Naomi. I’d love to hear what you think of Aira, and you might find him interesting from a style and form point of view. Also, I think you’d enjoy the ghosts in this one!

      Reply
  6. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    For the uninitiated: Aira reads like he never rewrites because he never rewrites! He has a Method. After reading a novel or two, it is definitely worth spending some time reading about what he does. Much becomes clear, or clearer. The one Lisa read, Varamo, is practically an allegory about How Aira Writes.

    I’ve become convinced that there is a political element to Ghosts in that the ghosts are suggested by the desparecidos. See this post at In Lieu of a Field Guide – Rise has written more, and better, about Aira than anyone else who has a book blog, in English at least. Whether this amounts to a message is a trickier question.

    Reply
    1. Richard

      I second Tom’s appreciation of Rise’s blogging on Aira and in general for that matter. in lieu of a field guide is one of the hidden treasures of the book blogosphere.

      Reply
      1. jacquiwine Post author

        Oh, that’s great, Richard – thanks for the recommendation. I’ll add Rise’s ‘in lieu of a field guide’ blog to my reader. It’s always good to discover a new blog by way of a reading friend. Thanks again for your supportive comments.

        Reply
    2. jacquiwine Post author

      Tom, many thanks for your comments and insights into Aira. They’ve helped me gain a better understanding of his approach. I’m minus my own PC at the moment — a ghost may have invaded and corrupted it yesterday — but once I’m up-and-running again, I’ll certainly head over to Rise’s blog and that post you’ve mentioned. Cheers, and thanks for dropping by, much appreciated.

      Reply
  7. realthog

    Oh, I must give this book a try — it sounds right up my street!

    You sure it wasn’t the excellent wine that made the second half of the novella a bit confusing? :)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’d be interested to hear what you make of it should you try it! There’s a lot to like, but I wasn’t wholly convinced by certain elements. I am very glad I gave it a go, though!

      Re the wine, I would love to blame my confusion on a glass or two of that Malbec, but sadly not! I finished the novella in the afternoon and not a drop had passed my lips at that point…

      Reply
  8. The Little Reader Library

    I’m not sure I’ve ever read any Argentinian literature Jacqui, or if I have I have forgotten for the moment. Thanks for introducing me to this one. I’m surprised to find that I do like the very clean, simple look of the cover too.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      No worries, Lindsay. I like the clean, simple lines of the cover too.

      If you are ever thinking of trying something from Argentina, may I suggest you take a look at ‘Where There’s Love, There’s Hate’ – I reviewed it a few weeks ago. It’s a delightfully witty murder mystery set in a hotel, and I think you might like it. Think Agatha Christie transported to a remote area of Argentina. It’s tremendous fun and seems to have been a hit with several bloggers.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Seamus Duggan

    Aira is top of my list once I manage to finish all the books I have lined up to read before the years end. Maybe in January, although this sounds short so if I get it maybe before. I also have a taste for confusing philosophical bits so that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm, which has been sparked by Richard and Rise, in the main.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It sounds right up your street, then! It is very short, and I’m sure you’d be able to be able to knock it out in a couple of hours. Looking forward to hearing what you think of Aira, and if you read this one, perhaps you’ll be able to fill me in on the middle section! I’m glad to have read it though, and Richard’s enthusiasm for Aira is very infectious so I’m keen to try the other two novellas in my set (Literary Conference and Landscape Painter). And I’ve discovered Rise’s blog, so that’s a bonus.

      Reply
      1. Seamus Duggan

        Well, I’ve ordered the same three novel set so I’ll be watching the post. When I get to actually post on them will be another matter. I’m developing a bit of a backlog and with building work going on here between now and Christmas it may not get any better (although I will try to get my GermanLitMonth reviews out in November, for a change.)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, great. It’s a nice little set, although I nearly ripped the outer box when trying to remove one of the books as they’re wedged in so tightly!

          It’s not long before a backlog starts to build up, is it? I’ve a few to catch up with once the last of my German Lit reviews goes up. Best of luck with the building work – I can imagine how disruptive that must be. Looking forward to reading your Roth review whenever you get a chance to post it.

          Reply
  11. Max Cairnduff

    The ghosts struck me as likely political from the review too, but political in a sense it’s hard for me to connect to in the absence of a good introduction providing context since I’m not so familiar with the relevant politics. The In Lieu of a Field Guide post is helpful in that regard.

    I can easily see myself reading this when I’ve read more Aira, but I’m not sure about it as a choice of a first Aira (not including the co-authored ‘Where There’s Love, There’s Hate’).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was interesting to read about the desparecidos, and I can see with the benefit of hindsight how this might be relevant to Ghosts. I think you’d find this an interesting novella, Max, and several others here are very enthusiastic about Aira’s writing. Oh, btw, he’s a different writer to the one who co-authored Where There’s Love, There’s Hate – Silvina Ocampo wrote it with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares (another Argentinian writer so there is a connection). I’ve got my eye on one of his novellas, The Invention of Morel, which NYRB published some years back.

      Reply

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