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.
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…
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.
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).