César Aira – El Tilo – The Lime Tree

Argentinian writer César Aira has been on my radar for a while. I don’t think I have come across any negative reviews of his work so far. On the contrary, most of his readers were more than enthusiastic. Aira is known to be one of the most prolific writers. To this day, he’s written over one hundred books. Obviously, his books are mostly on the short side, nonetheless, it’s an impressive number. It’s also a number that makes it difficult for first time readers to choose a book. Since I’d read a few rave reviews of The Lime Tree, I decided to start with that.

The Lime Tree tells a fictional childhood memoir, set right after the fall of Peronism. The narrator is an older man, looking back on his childhood, exploring the role of History on his personal history. The distinction between History with a capital H and history is a major theme of this novel. The way families, in this case, poor Argentinian families are influenced by the History of the country, its politics, is central. For someone who knows little about Latin American – or Argentinian history – it was very interesting. The book explained very well how someone like Perón could be so popular with the working classes who were hoping for social mobility.

Perón and the fall of Perón, were important for the narrator’s family and therefore also for the narrator himself. But there were other things that would play a role. His father, a very good-looking man, was ‘black’, probably of Indian descent, while his mother is described as dwarf-like and very ugly. His father, an ardent Peronist, suffered from his nerves, after the end of Peronism, and hardly spoke while his mother was a loud, chatty woman.

This duality might help to explain his marriage. My mother was white; she came from a respectable, middle-class family, and if she had acquiesced to an alliance with the ‘black’ populace, it was because her physical deformity made it impossible for her to marry at her own level. The alternative would have been to remain unmarried, and as far back as I can remember, she was always expressing her horror at the condition of ‘spinster’.

For the reader, many of the episodes in the novel are amusing, but when you look at them closely, you notice how much pain and tragedy these parents experienced.

Some readers have complained that Aria doesn’t write chronological tales and that it can be quite challenging to read him. I didn’t mind this at all. Reading The Lime Tree was like listening to the monologue of an older relative who is reminiscing, telling stories of his life, jumping from one topic to the next but always picking up the lost thread again. As with many elements of this book, there’s an echo of this reading experience in the text.

Back then, people had so much time, they would tolerate the craziest monologues. I can’t have been the only one who listened to them with pleasure.

It was fascinating to learn more about a place, Colonel Pringles, in Argentina, during a specific period, the 50s. I found Aria’s approach to telling a story interesting because it mirrored his topic – History and personal history and the way they influence each other. And there are many wonderful, colourful scenes and story elements that I liked a lot, like the description of the way they lived – in one room of an abandoned inn. I would actually love to see this made into a movie.

Will I read more of Aira? It’s possible, but I don’t think I would read him in English again. I just felt very far from the original text. That doesn’t mean the translation isn’t good. I’m sure it is. I just wanted to hear the original cadence. I noticed that there’s a new collection in Spanish due to come out in May – here. It contains ten of his short books. Maybe I’ll pick it up.


29 thoughts on “César Aira – El Tilo – The Lime Tree

  1. I have also been wanting to read Aira for some time. Sometimes I find that accounts of life under dictatorships to be a bit hard to take. With that, it is important that authors write about these things.

    I wonder how your impressions of the book would have been different had you read it in the original Spanish.

    • Thsi isn’t hard to read at all, as they get a lot of good things out of Peron. And the book is largely set after the end of Peronism.
      I’m sure I would have struggled quite a bit with the Spanish as I’m a bit rusty and the narrative isn’t chronological but I suspect that he works with sound – maybe I’m wrong, just an assumption and I would love to know what he “sounds” like.

  2. Having read a couple of Aira’s novellas, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably not on the right wavelength for his particular brand of craziness! A minority view, I know, but then again we all have our blind spots. 🙂

  3. I have dipped into Aira in Spanish. mostly for the great short story “Cecil Taylor” – which is in that collection at your link. It is not obvious to me that he makes any particular use of sound, but it is possible that I cannot hear it.

    He does have a strong conceptual method. Have you read about his method? It explains a lot. I wrote a bit about him and it. He is among my favorite living writers, although I have not read quite everything available in English. I’m two or three books behind his translators.

    • Maybe sound as such was the wrong word. More something like rhythm. Maybe I’m wrong entirely.
      I did read a little about his method and that was quite fascinating but not nearly enough to fully understand it. I also have a feeling one needs to read a few of his books to really get to know him. I don’t know how representative The Lime Tree is, as I seem to remember people mentioning supernatural or surrreal elements which are absent here.
      I will have a look at your reviews. I’m also interesting to find out, which one to read next. I can see why he would appeal to you. Now that you mention “Cecil Taylor” I remember an anthology with Argentinian short stories and I’m pretty sure it is among that collection.

  4. I’ve read enough of Aira that he’s become something of a habit, and I’m overdue for a fix. The variety in his novels is quite impressive. I have not read this one, but some have been wildly conceptual while others have been more historical or more fantastic or more tender and intimate. He plays a range from hilarious to horrifying, sometimes within the same work. That short story collection is a good place to start to get a sense of how different one work can be from another.

    • It sounds like this is more conventional, definitely historical and also intimate, to some extent. It sounds like the short story collection might be the way to go from here.
      There are some authirs one doesn’t realky know after reading one title. He seems one of those. I’d love to know what you think of this one.

  5. I enjoyed the other two Aira books which And Other Stories have published, but I haven’t got round to this one yet. I do envy your ability to choose to read him (or indeed anyone else) in Spanish!

    • I think the translations are pretty good it’s just that I prefer reading the original When I know the language. My Spanish isn’t as good as it used to be though.
      I think you can trust the translators.
      Ghosts is a title I’ve seen praised.
      I too love novellas and short novels.

    • It’s the sound, I’d like to hear. You know, sometimes when I read a book in translation that has been translated from a language I know, I seem to hear the original underneath. That’s why I’d never read English translations of my native languages French and German.

  6. I’ve read one short novella by him – The Literary Conference, which I read at a literary conference because it amused me – and this sounds a whole lot less surreal! I’m always impressed by authors who can be prolific AND good. I don’t speak/read Spanish, so I’ll have to keep going in English – and do have a couple of others waiting.

    • I was surprised how realistic this was as almost all of the reviews of other titles mentioned surreal elements. He’s amazingly prolific and creative.
      I hadn’t come across The Literary Conference so far. I’d like to read Ghosts next,

  7. I think my radar must be faulty because I haven’t seen a single blip for any of his 100+ novels. Then again, I don’t read as many book blogs and reviews as I used to. Anyway, I’m glad I read your review, and think I’d like to try this one.

    • I’d love to hear what you think of it. I see many recommendations on Twitter. I can’t read as many blogs as I used to.
      Even here in Switzerland and Germany he’s very well received. I could imagine you’d like this.

      • I’ve been staying away from Twitter too. I like the book conversations, but I always seem to end up getting angry about Trump and Brexit. Anyway, I’ve just ordered this one on Kindle, so I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve read it 🙂

  8. Pingback: March Reading Roundup - Andrew Blackman

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