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.

 

On Claudia Piñeiro’s “Elena sabe” (Elena Knows) – “Elena weiss Bescheid” (2007)

Elena sabeElena weiss BescheidElena et le roi détrône

Claudia Piñeiro is an Argentinian crime writer. Most of her novels have received prizes. This one is no exception. It received an Argentinian and a German prize. The good news—most of Piñeiro’s novels have been translated. The bad news—for reasons I really don’t get, this is one hasn’t been translated into English, but you can read it either in Spanish Elena sabe, French – Elena et le roi détrôné or German Elena weiss Bescheid. I suppose there are other translations.

Ever since I read Piñeiro’s All Yours – Tuya  in 2012, I knew I wanted to read more of her novels. Not sure why it took me so long. Two weeks ago, I thought of her again and ordered this one and another one, Thursday Night Widows.

Elena knows tells the story of a woman, Elena, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Her daughter, Rita, has been found dead in a belfry. The police have ruled that it was a suicide but Elena cannot accept that. She is sure that Rita was murdered. The book follows two alternating timelines, both from Elena’s point of view. The first is set firmly in the present, while the second timeline tells Elena and Rita’s story in flashbacks up until the suicide/murder. Since the police have stopped the investigation, Elena has decided that she will investigate on her own. Since she suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, this is a difficult task. The timeline set in the present follows her on a journey from her apartment to someone else’s apartment. She hasn’t seen this person in twenty years but hopes that she will “lend” her her body and investigate on Elena’s behalf.

What a breathtaking story. So well done and with an amazing twist at the end. I can’t say I knew a lot about Parkinson’s before reading this novel. I do now. I had no idea how awful this is. Elena’s days are an ordeal. Every single thing needs careful planning. Even the most mundane, routine acts. She cannot lift her head anymore, due to atrophied muscles in the neck. She cannot move, walk, etc, unless she takes tablets that take a certain amount of time to kick in and whose effect dwindles all too quickly. The flash back sections tell us that she lives with Rita, a forty-year-old single woman and that their relationship is one of love and hate. They exchange sentences that feel like the cracking of whips. Needless to say, Rita is the one who takes care of Elena. From what Elena tells the reader, we can deduce that Rita’s disgusted by her mother’s illness.

Following Elena on her trip to the other end of the city, is painful to read. But it’s equally painful to read about Rita’s life with her.

In a novel that is told like a taut crime novel, Claudia Piñeiro explores topics like illness, getting older, the responsibilities of women to take care of the elderly and of kids. She shows us women trapped in situations from which there’s no escaping. The end came as a shock but made perfect sense.

This is an outstanding novel. Sharp, taut, and unsparing. Highly recommended.