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.

 

Alvaro Mutis: Amirbar (1990) The Fifth Adventure of Maqroll

And if you want to change your life – for the better – and have never read the Colombian novelist Alvaro Mutis, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. A collection of seven novellas that can be read at a run or singly, it features the greatest rainbow-chaser since Quixote, but a lot sexier and ravenous for both learning and love, not to mention fantastical, doomed schemes to make a pile of loot.

Alvaro Mutis is a Colombian author who lives in Mexico. He is famous for his stories about Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero is composed of seven novels and novellas which can be read as a whole or individually. Each tome is around 120 pages long and they seem to vary greatly in style and narrative technique. Some are like diary entries, others are letters, still others contain more straightforward story telling.  I’ve had  the novella Amirbar, part 5 of Maqroll’s story, on my book piles since years and never got around to reading it. Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu’s (Winstonsdad’s BlogSpanish Literature Month seemed like the perfect time.

Reading Amirbar was an amazing experience. While Mutis is compared to Conrad – although he himself calls Dickens his greatest influence – I felt he was much more like a Latin American Blaise Cendrars. Amirbar reminded me of Cendrars’ amazing book L’or – Gold but is still a very distinct book. It has also something of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights.

All the Maqroll stories are told by a narrator who works for some big corporate company and meets his friend Maqroll in different countries and cities at different times. Maqroll is a mariner and adventurer who travels the world without ever settling down for long. The sea is his chosen home and when he is at land it’s only to make business, most of it either illegal or highly adventurous. Whenever he meets his friend, the narrator, he tells him all of the stories that have happened in the meantime. When they do not meet, he writes long and winding letters all containing fantastic stories as well.

At the beginning of Amirbar, Maqroll and the narrator are in the US. Maqroll is ill and almost dying, he has contracted some tropical fever. The narrator takes care of him and sends him to live with his brother in California for a while. It is there that Maqroll tells them the story of Amirbar – a gold mine.

This is how the novel begins (translation taken from the English version)

Los dias mas insolitos de mi vida los pase en Amirbar” nos cuenta Maqroll el Gaviero. En Amirbar deje  jirones de mi alma y buena parte de la energiaque encendio mi juventud. De  alli descendi tal vez mas sereno, no se, pero cansaado ya para siempre. Lo que uno despues ha sido un sobrevivir en la terca aventura de cada dia. Poca cosa. Ni siquiera el oceano ha logrado restituirme esa vocacion de soñar despierto que agote en Amirbar a cambio de nada.

I spent the strangest days of my life in Amirbar. In Amirbar I left shreds of my soul and most of the energy that fired my youth. Perhaps I came down from there more serene, I don’t know, but I was everlasting weary too. What has happened to me since then has been a matter of simply surviving each day’s difficulties. Trivialities. Not even the ocean could give back to me my vocation for dreaming with my eyes open; I used that up in Amirbar and received nothing in return.”

Maqroll is driven by the urge to find gold, not so much because of its monetary value as we understand but because it symbolizes much more to him. It’s an obsession, a magical metal, something that calls for him from the entrails of the earth in which it is buried. The mine is in the Colombian Andes. He first discovers another one but has to flee it when they find a grave with people who have been murdered by some sort of Military Junta. Finding the skeletons puts them in grave danger. The next mine he explores is Amirbar. The wind in the tunnels systems of the mine seems to have a voice and what it is calling is the word “A-mir-bar” which has a special meaning for Maqroll.

One of the traits of Maqroll is that he has a lover wherever he is. In Amirbar it is Antonia who gets unhealthily attached to him. The relationship between Maqroll and Antonia is one of many small side stories in the book, one of many stories which turn into a desaster. Another important trait is Maqroll’s love of books. He is always reading. Most of the books he reads are obscure historical texts. He loves to immerse himself in another era and read about people who are long gone.

As fantastic as some of the stories sound they are infused with a high dose of realism. Set in a corrupt country, some of the characters are arrested, the gold is confiscated more than once and those who help Maqroll end up in prison and are tortured.

You can easily read Amirbar or any other story on its own but one thing is for sure, it will very probably make you want to read them all. I’ve read a few reviews since I started the book and it seems Amirbar isn’t even the best of the stories. In Maqroll Mutis has created some sort of alter ego, a character who feels so real that in his real life Mutis speaks about him with his friends as if he really existed.

Amirbar is a wonderful book, full of life, stories and tales. Reading it is an adventure in itself. I think it would be an excellent introduction to Latin American literature because despite of its complexity and exuberant story telling it is a very accessible, entertaining book.

Amirbar is a contribution Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month.