Published 12.8.17. London: And Other Stories. Translated by Chris Andrews. 108 pages.
Artwork by Edward Bettison
How does one write “around 80 books” (or four or five per year since 1993)? One semi-connected anecdote at a time, apparently. That was the overall impression I took from The Lime Tree, a short novel (and judging by César Aira’s section of stack at my local library, they are all short) notionally about the narrator’s childhood, thematically about Peronism and the reaction to Peronism in the 1950s and 60s, and in practice consisting of a goodly number of entertaining anecdotes the author semi-randomly ties in to the broader theme. As the author himself puts it (in a statement that could just as well describe the whole book):
An anecdote my mother once told me about her childhood might serve as a model of the strange daily life that History had imposed on us. Any other anecdote would do just as well.
The book is cast as a “fictional memoir,” which frees the author from the traditional fictional constraint of getting to the point; we are asked instead to re-experience the narrator’s memories as he does, organized not by chronology but rather by subject matter. Yet Aira almost always succeeds in making interesting connections between these anecdotes about the narrator’s family back to the historic experience of Peronism, finding in these stories intersections between the personal and the political.
For example, early on in the book the narrator describes working as a typist in an accountant’s office. The narrator veers from digression to digression (all interesting), now talking about how people used “liquid chalk” to write messages in store windows, now the question of whether one needs the Oxford comma in accounting writing, now whether you put spaces after commas. We hear of insult rhymes that children use. All of this is arguably just the preface to the main part of the episode, when the accountant flew into a rage over some verboten word someone had written on the store window’s surface in the liquid chalk. The narrator thought it said, “FUCK.” In fact, it said, “PERON.” This serves as a segue for Aira to discuss how Juan Peron’s name was banned from use following the 1955 coup against the Peronist government, and I would argue such segues govern the structure of the novel more than any premeditated design. (Though I will allow that perhaps Aira had the end of this episode thought out first and enlarged on the beginning; the narrator’s father meditates on this sort of writing technique in reference to a play by Lorca.)
The novel begins with the anecdote that gives it its title, about a uniquely massive lime tree at the center of Aira’s hometown of Coronel Pringles. The tree “was an aberration, but superb, with all the exotic majesty of the unique and the unrepeatable.” The tree’s flowers have calming properties that cure the narrator’s father’s insomnia, but subsequently the tree “was cut down in an irrational act of political hatred” directed against a “Peronist boy”—and the takeaway here is that the lime tree, “which like all trees was harmless,” is Peronism. (Obviously. Why else would you start a book in which Peronism figures so prominently with a never-again-mentioned story about a tree?)
General Juan Perón, for background, was president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and from 1973 until his death in 1974. He initially came to power following the 1943 coup d’etat against the conservative government of Ramón Castillo following a period known (to some, one can’t judge such things without hearing some alternative points of view) as “the Infamous Decade” of corruption, foreign domination of the economy, and military suppression of dissent. Perón, by contrast, was the rare strongman who increased labor rights, built schools, and gave relief to the poor, and though he was deposed in yet another military coup in 1955, he returned briefly to power in the 1970s and the enduring political movement named after him seems to be a catchall for a sort of aggressive left-wing populism.
Peronism is the book’s leitmotif: no matter what random alleyways the narrator goes down—whether it’s the narrator’s father’s graft-created career as an electrician (which collapses after the end of Peronist government reveals he has no actual qualifications or real knowledge of the technical side of the job) or the narrator’s mother’s endless talk of politics (extremely critical of Peronism) and the unmarried women of the town—Aira eventually steers each of these stories back to Peronism. The humor often turns on historical ironies, as with the electrician story and that of an older woman in the 1960s who “wasn’t interested” in the narrator (and decades later, turned out to be a lesbian) and Peronism is part of such episodes too, because it represented a moment in Argentinian history when hopes were raised and everything seemed possible. The reaction to Peronism was a rebuke of that idealism: you can’t be who you want to be, it’s foolish to go to the advanced rather than the parochial school, where they teach useless subjects like Botany; that lowering of sights and narrowing of ambitions is emblematic of the years after Peron.
When Aira’s writing is called “slippery” and “infuriating”, what is meant is probably that it’s more essayistic than narrative, more reflection than action; this is not an inherent bad thing, but rather something made to seem worse than it is by our ingrained (or rather in-trained) bias against it. A hundred years ago, in a time of different (or maybe not-so-different) pretensions than our own, the revelation (or rather assumption, since how could it be otherwise?) that Aira writes fast could well have been reputation-destroying. (I give you the example of Anthony Trollope, whose reputation has taken a hundred years to recover from his post-humous admission that—horror of horrors—he wrote by minute-quotas.) But as with Trollope, it would be a mistake to associate speed with superficiality (though associating it with disorganization and a randomized sequencing of the plot might be more reasonable.) A mind fertile with ideas and strange thoughts may produce interesting material with great rapidity; there is a fallacy that associates the difficulty or time spent on a labor with the credit it’s due; work is a moral good, therefore it must be an artistic one also—but what this ignores is the life’s work undertaken to become an Aira, to become a writer of apparently endless range and resourcefulness, who can “essay” (verb) any theme you put him to.
I admit, however, that The Lime Tree didn’t make much of an impression on me, in spite of the author’s clear gifts in this line, which are the main reason I would nonetheless venture to read other of his books. (That he chose on this occasion a subject that didn’t interest me is no prediction that he hasn’t or won’t speculate on more interesting ones.) Reviewers are too unforgiving when we say “the whole is less than the sum of its parts,” which defies logic (and the physics of that metaphor) unless we subtract points in revenge against the author for failing to perform the opposite. I would instead say that this book is the sum of its parts, and its parts are mildly interesting, mildly entertaining, but not greater than what they are separately.