by Joyelle McSweeney on Apr.24, 2012
Bookclub, here’s an interesting take on the Ghosts in Aira’s Ghosts, part of a long piece on Aira by Marcela Valdes in The Nation. It links Patri’s attraction to the Ghosts to the Argentinian people’s inability to give up on the Disappeared, even as various governments attempted to enforce a kind of amnesia/amnesty. What say you?
In this newly shaken environment Aira completed Ghosts, one of his most moving novels. Set in an unfinished luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires, the novel recounts a day in the lives of a group of construction workers who can see the dead. The ghosts hover around the building’s concrete skeleton, and look much like the workers they haunt. They’re strong young men “with small feet, and rough hands”; they’re covered with a “fine cement dust” that looks “dirty.” The building’s wealthy owners, and their architects and decorators, can’t see the phantoms. But the workers treat them with familiarity, grabbing the ghosts’ hilariously elastic penises and shoving bottles of wine down their throats—a technique that not only cools bad wine but also improves its quality.
A few details suggest that the ghosts may be desaparecidos. The first is their gender and youth: 70 percent of the disappeared were men, and 81 percent of them were between the ages of 16 and 35. The second is their revulsion at the sight and smell of grilling. When the workers cook steaks for lunch, the ghosts “disappeared…as they did every day when the smell of meat rose from the grill, as if it were detrimental to them.” In the slang of Argentina’s detention centers, the word for “grill”—parrilla—was also the word for the metal beds where captives were tortured with electricity. As one survivor recalled, “Despite the bonds [tied around captives’ hands and feet], when on the ‘grill’ one jumps, twists, moves about and tries to avoid contact with the burning, cutting iron bars.”
At the novel’s midway point the focus shifts to a worker’s 15-year-old daughter, Patri, who has suddenly become the object of the ghosts’ “ostentatious, senseless amusement.” On New Year’s Eve only Patri notices that, as night approaches, the ghosts change: “The dust that covered them had become a splendid decoration [that] allowed the dark golden color of their skin to show through, and accentuated their musculature, the perfection of their surfaces.” Seeing the ghosts’ youthful beauty, Patri experiences a spasm of love and pain. “Stop! cried her soul. Don’t go, ever!” And so amid the novel’s jokes and surreal juxtapositions emerges a poignant, enigmatic tale about a “frivolous” young woman who discovers she can’t resist following the dead.