Born near Buenos Aires in 1949, César Aira has published something like 70 books of fiction and essays. Yes —70. His 2001 novella Shantytown is the ninth and most recent to be translated into English. It has a bit more of a noir vibe to it than How I Become a Nun or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but it also solidifies Aira’s stature as South America’s answer to Haruki Murakami and as a true heir to the great Jorge Luis Borges.
Shantytown follows the complicated interactions of a group of people living, working and dealing drugs in and around an Argentine slum. It also carries all of the rambunctious energy of a Breugel painting. The rain and fear and stench are palpable.
Inspector Ignacio Cabezas has taken on the responsibility of tracking down the people behind the shantytown’s drug trade. He has “passed the age of fifty and begun his decline: he knew exactly what he’d done with his life, and took it for granted that the fabric of a man’s destiny is woven by every one of his actions, no matter what his age.”
Nevertheless, he proves willing to stoop to unscrupulous means of doing so, including passing himself off as the father of a murdered girl — and worse.
Cabezas quite accidentally sets in motion a series of events he could not have foreseen and which provide Aira with every opportunity to bring this web of characters fully to life. Among them is Maxi, a well-meaning young man whose poor vision keeps him on a diurnal schedule, his sister Vanessa, and a kooky religious man known as the Pastor, who could be a drug boss or a police informant or maybe even both.
The increasingly unstable Cabezas steals the show, however. A more compelling and despicable character in recent literature is hard to find, but Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian comes to mind.
“He ascended to untrodden heights, to the summit of the cosmos, abode of the great forces that move all things, beyond the realm of life. Who said he was just a corrupt policeman? And what if he was? Even confined to the meanest of forms, even if he was nothing more than a stray bundle of policeman’s atoms, he could still channel the supreme powers of evil and create a new universe, a new city for himself, the hidden city, of which he would be king and god.”
Time and time again, Aira rightly reminds us that “society works with classes far too broad and crude to capture the variable properties of individual.” At its best moments, his fiction succeeds in remedying this. His characters are as real — and as flawed — as we are, and they account for many of the tremendous pleasures Shantytown has to offer.
Andrew Ervin’s novel “Burning Down George Orwell’s House” is forthcoming from Soho Press.