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The Hare by César Aira

The Hare

by César Aira

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Inventive, manic, scathing satire of colonialist manners in 1800 Argentina with an ending out of a Shakespearian comedy. ( )
  ronhenry | Nov 17, 2015 |
Aira is known for his novellas -- I've read one and have others on my shelves -- so this book, at 266 pages, is a tome for him. Although I hesitate to generalize from the one other Aira I've read, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, I think the shorter length works better for him, as there were definitely sections that dragged a little. And this book was more dependent on plot which, again probably unfairly generalizing, is not necessarily his strong point. Also, I found his depiction of the Indians a little grating, although I realize that they were partly described through the lens of the late 19th century protagonist and partly symbolic in a philosophical way. Nonetheless, Aira shines in his sly humor, his absurdity, his stunning descriptions of nature, his imagination, his light-hearted philosophical digressions, and his love of language.

The story begins with a somewhat extraneous look at the activities of the Restorer of the Laws, i.e., the dictator, of Argentina. He then gives his blessing, and his best horse, to the English naturalist, Clarke, who is mounting an expedition to the pamaps to look for the extremely rare, and perhaps nonexistent, Legibrereian hare (which, it turns out, may not even be living creature). The rest of the novel covers Clarke's travels through the pampas with Carlos, a 15-year-old would-be artist, and Gauna, a taciturn guide who, it develops, is on a quest of his own. In the course of their travels, they encounter three very different groups of Mapuche Indians, get to know several individuals in each group, get caught up in various plots and "wars" (without generally understanding what they're about), reveal aspects of their pasts (including that both Clarke and Carlos were adopted), and ultimately experience several plot revelations, at least one of which was obvious to me about halfway through the book.

But this is only the plot, and the plot is the least important part of the book. As mentioned, Aira loves philosophical digressions, and some of the ideas he explores in this book are simultaneity, identity and twinhood, transformation, continuity and time, and myth and reality. In a way, the book is all about story-telling: the myths groups live by, how these myths differ from "scientific" and "rational" explanations, the imaginary world versus the real world, the stories we tell others about ourselves and the stories other tell us, and, of course, the story that is this novel. (I do think Aira is playing with the reader at times, especially in the way he somewhat ridiculously ties up a lot of loose ends in the final chapter.) Thinking about a story Gauna told him about why he wanted to come to the pamaps, Clarke muses:

"He had to admit it was a very solid and plausible story, but that was entirely due to the fact that it included all (or nearly all) the details of what had happened in reality; by the same token, there must be other stories that did the same, even though they were completely different. Everything that happened, isolated and observed by an interpretive judgment, or even simply by the imagination, became an element that could be combined with any number of others. Personal invention was responsible for creating the overall structure, for seeing to it that these elements formed unities." p.170

As in the previous novel I read by Aira, there is a lot that is absurd in this book, and it can't be read in a literal way. If it weren't so much fun to read him, and if he weren't such a good writer, I might find this irritating. I think this book was a little bloated, but I enjoyed it, and I will read more Aira.
2 vote rebeccanyc | Nov 10, 2013 |
The review below is published in 3:AM Magazine: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/origin-myths-and-incongruous-realities/

In the opening pages of César Aira’s The Hare, Juan Manuel de Rosas, known as The Restorer of the Laws when he ruled the Argentinean confederation in the 19th century, poses the question: “is it possible to penetrate someone else’s incongruity? One’s own or anyone else’s, it made no difference, as he saw it. Even the most outrageous fantasy created at both its extremes, that of excess and of lack, the incongruity on which daily life was based.”

Aira has written an extensive oeuvre, over 70 published books and counting, based on his own forays into the incongruities of daily life. Weaving together myriad influences, from great works of Latin American literature to B-movie monsters, from canonical works of philosophy, history, and science to dime store novels, Aira creates realities in which the fantastic and the mundane are linked. In an Aira novel, you can expect plots to wander and veer off course, because the resulting diversions are more engaging and relevant to Aira than any typical conclusion could ever be.

The Hare, which is the latest English translation of Aira’s fiction released by New Directions, is in some ways not the typical Aira novel. It is twice the length of many of his other novels. As a result, the pacing is not as fast, and the novel sometimes reads as tedious, Aira’s prose as strained. It also has an ending that ties up so many loose threads in such a short time that it is reminiscent of final scenes in B-movie mysteries. In spite of these flaws, The Hare rewards careful reading, both for the insights it provides into Aira’s sense of Argentina’s past, and for Aira’s interest in the power of stories and the continuum of human experiences.

The Hare’s protagonist is Clarke, an English naturalist and brother-in-law of Charles Darwin. Clarke has travelled to the Argentine pampas in search of the legendary Legibrerian Hare, which is rumored to fly as well as hop. He is accompanied by Gauna, a gaucho of few words who acts as his scout, and Carlos Alzaga Prior, a young, romantic artist, as well as by Repetido, a horse of almost supernatural abilities. It soon emerges that each member of this small group (yes, even the horse) has his own personal reasons for travelling into the interior, despite some concerns over hostile Indians and unforgiving terrain. Each is on a personal quest, each is, in a way, searching for his own origin myth.

This small band first travels to Salinas Grande, the pastoral home of the chieftain Cafulcurá and his tribe of Huilliches. In a smoke-filled tent, Clarke listens as Cafulcurá introduces him to Huilliche metaphysics:

“I myself have sought to convey similar ideas [as Darwin], but — and look what a strange case of transformation this is — I always did it by means of poetry. In matters like these, it’s important to win people’s belief. But in this particular case, it so happens that we Mapuche have no need to believe in anything, because we’ve always known that changes of this kind occur. It is sufficient for a breeze to blow a thousand leagues away for one species to be transformed into another. You may ask me how. . . . it’s simply a matter of seeing everything that is visible, without exception. And then if, as is obvious, everything is connected to everything else, how could the homogeneous and the heterogeneous not also be linked?”

This theme of continuity runs throughout The Hare . Aira explores it through the myths and philosophies of the Indians whom Clarke meets on his travels. It also emerges through Clarke’s own speculations based on his observations of the physical world:

“Clarke wondered if he was at the far end of the Indians’ bathing area. As he thought about it, he became curious to see what lay beyond. Considered as a line of water that dissected the plain, the stream was a homogeneous whole, whose attractions were interchangeable, but moving along it, it changed without changing, in direct proportion to the distance traveled.

“Clarke stood up and, just as he was, without shoes or trousers, walked on about a hundred yards. A different aspect of the stream and its banks presented itself to him, novel despite being vaguely predictable. It was a kind of reworking of the same elements: water, the riverbanks, trees, grass. Fascinated, he walked on further, in the midst of complete silence. All the charm of the place lay in its linear aspect, the way each of its segments was hidden from the previous one: the very opposite of what happened out on the open plain. As he had thought, there was no one around. Even the distant sounds of voices and noises he had heard from time to time on the little beach no longer reached him. The river was a series of secret chambers, following on from each other as in an Italian palace. As he crossed a number of “thresholds,” the mechanism of increasing distance led Clarke to feel he was entering a world of mystery, a self-contained nothingness that invoked the infinite.”

In this world, surprises and mysteries await along a continuum. Aira has envisioned interconnected worlds, almost like panels in a comic strip. They are connected, a person can travel from one to the other, and they allow for swings between the imaginary and mythic, and the physical and rational. Aira uses this construct to explore Argentina’s past, split between the mythic world of the Indians and the rational world of the white settlers. He conceives of the pampas as a blank canvas, described by Cafulcurá’s son Alvarito Reymacurá as a place of discontinuities, which the Mapuche Indians filled with continuities that they created themselves through the stories they told.

Clarke soon discovers from the shaman Mallén that Cafulcurá governs the Huilliche through stories and myths. Indeed, Cafulcurá’s power stems from his own origin myth, fantastic events that led to his being rescued after being kidnapped during his 35th birthday celebrations.

“Bear in mind that this incoherent old man, high on grass, who gave you all the rigmarole about the continuum, has for the past fifty years borne on his shoulders all the responsibility of governing an empire made up of a million souls scattered throughout the south of the continent, and has done, and will continue to do, a pretty good job. From his youth onward, Cafulcurá has worshipped simplicity and spontaneity. But one can’t help thinking, and as soon as one does, all simplicity goes to the devil….

“Which explains,” Mallén went on, “his consumption of hallucinogenic grasses, although I must admit it’s gone a bit far of late. He uses them to create images, which interact with words to create hieroglyphs, and consequently new meanings. Given the prismatic nature of our language, there is no better way of bringing out meaning, in other words, of governing. And also, given that his own personal standing is based on his position as a man-myth, how could he think in any other fashion? He’s looking for speed, speed at any cost, and so he turns to the imaginary, which is pure speed, oscillating acceleration, as against the fixed rhythm of language.”

When Cafulcurá suddenly disappears, a victim of an apparent kidnapping foretold by Huilliche myth, Clarke and his companions agree to travel in search of him. Clarke encounters two other groups of Indians who pose a stark contrast with the Huilliche: the European-influenced Vorogas, ruled by the chieftain Coliqueo, and a group of Indians living underground, ruled by the chieftain Pillán. In these passages, Aira echoes medieval and early modern European travel literature, where exotic peoples served as symbols for certain values. Each settlement represents a different way to live: the orderly lives of the Huilliche are supported by stories and myths; the Vorogas’ chaotic lives, driven by sex and greed, show the influence of the white settlers with whom they sometimes lived; and the underground tribe of Vorogas replace a violent life with one of indolence. In one scene, Clarke compares Coliqueo’s Vorogas with the Huilliches of Salinas Grande:

“The Vorogas looked exactly the same as the Huilliches, except that they spoke a different language; once out of earshot, this distinguishing feature naturally disappeared. And yet it was still there. Since in reality nothing is imperceptible, thought Clarke, the difference was absolute, and involved their entire appearance. And the difference could be summed up by saying that in Salinas Grandes the Indians lived outside life, whereas here they were inside it. He had landed directly in the realm of fable, which he had taken to be real; now he had to get used to the idea that this fable was merely an island in the ocean of normal life. Plebeian and westernized, the Vorogas were a reminder of the ordinary things in society. To be completely ordinary, all that was needed was for them to work. Of course, there was no danger of them making that sacrifice, not even for aesthetic reasons.”

Clarke’s speculations about the differences among the tribes resonate with 19th-century European preoccupations with classifying people as well as flora and fauna. However, where the Indians fall on the continuum of civilized to savage is different than many of Clarke’s peers might expect. Coliqueo’s Vorogas are the most corrupt because of their contact with white settlers. Myths and stories and superstitions form a stable basis for the lives of the Huilliches, who live in a clean, quiet, pastoral setting. In the end, Clarke learns the importance of cultural relativism, an anachronistic touch in a book set in the 19th century:

“He had to admit [Gauna’s tale] was a very solid and plausible story, but that was entirely due to the fact that it included all (or nearly all) the details of what had happened in reality; by the same token, there must be other stories which did the same, even though they were completely different. Everything that happened, isolated and observed by an interpretative judgment, or even simply by the imagination, became an element that could then be combined with any number of others. Personal invention was responsible for creating the overall structure, for seeing to it that these elements formed unities. Of course, Clarke was not going to put himself to so much trouble . . . but he could swear, a priori, that apart from Gauna’s version, there must be an endless number of other possible stories. Moreover, between one story and another, even one that was really told and another that remained virtual, hidden and unborn in an indolent fantasy, there was not a gap but a continuum. And the existence of such a continuum, which at that moment appeared to Clarke as an undeniable truth, created a natural multiplicity, of which Gauna’s story was shown to be merely one more example. But Clarke had no intention of telling Gauna this, because that would be to run the risk of no longer counting on his company. To Gauna, his story was not simply one among many, but the only one.”

Throughout his journeys, Clarke learns to value the power of origin myths – ones explaining the beginnings of an individual, a tribe, a nation, or, in the case of Darwin, a species. Aira incorporates elements from all these examples of origin myths, as well as from captivity narratives, family histories, and other stories told around campfires, read in published volumes, watched on a movie screen. The Hare is not a tightly constructed novel. Aira’s influences from myths and history swirl around the narrative, occasionally bumping into a scene from a Hollywood Western or a surreal hallucination. Aira, true to form, follows his diversions gleefully. However sloppy and – at times – tedious The Hare is, it is worth reading for Aira’s idiosyncratic explorations into the continuum of human existence. ( )
1 vote KrisR | Jul 30, 2013 |
I’ve found that as I browse my library’s Spanish language collection, I encounter more and more books that arouse my interest. At first I thought that their collection was entirely mediocre (I still do), but I’ve come to realize that it’s also quite valuable to a reader like me. It has a great deal of contemporary novels that I wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, and it gives me a chance to read books by new authors without having to spend a lot of money on new books. I’ve read a lot about César Aira, and as I read La liebre (The Hare), I kept on trying to remember an essay on Argentine literature by Roberto Bolaño that I recently read. I think that he claimed that Aira represented a stream of “heavy” literature that he traces back to Roberto Arlt. This stream was locked in a struggle with two other trends in post-Borgesian Argentine literature, represented by Osvaldo Soriano and Osvaldo Lamborghini. As I recall, he concluded that the throne would eventually belong to Soriano, not because he was the best of the bunch (in fact, in some ways Bolaño found him to be the lesser of the three writers), but because the other two writers and the literary paths that they represented were destined to destroy themselves as a result of their own seriousness. I thought it was an interesting essay, although I’m not sure how faithfully I’ve represented Bolaño’s words here. It made me want to read some César Aira (some Lamborghini as well, but I’m struggling to find anything by him at a price that I can afford), and I was pretty pumped to find La liebre at the library a few weeks ago.

I wonder if this book is representative of the Aira to whom Bolaño refers in his essay. It looks like it’s one of his earlier novels, so I’m thinking that it perhaps introduces some of his preferred themes and motivations. The indigenous people who interact with the protagonist, the Englishman Clarke, speak a lot about a “continuum” of reality, or, as Clarke finally concludes, of happiness. Life is relatable to the continuum, and reality is not easily understandable. Clarke is a naturalist who has come to Argentina to search for a hare (la liebre legiberiana). The first 25 pages of the book recount Clarke’s meeting with Juan Manuel de Rosas (the 19th century dictator), who gifts him a horse named Repetido and gives him permission to explore the pampas in search of whatever he’s looking for. He then sets off with a guide and a young orphan painter who wants to accompany him on his journey, and spends the rest of the book wandering around Mapuche and Voroga territory, where he becomes a part of a complicated situation involving the chieftan Cafulcurá and a variety of other leaders who want to take his place when he mysteriously vanishes. Clarke takes a greater and greater role in the events that are slowly unfolding across the Mapuche territory, and his search for the hare recedes into the background.

I really enjoyed Aira’s depiction of the indigenous people of Argentina. The interactions between Clarke and the men and women he meets show an interesting sort of mutual respect and frustration at each other’s strange and sometimes difficult-to-understand ways. The book is certainly not grounded in reality, and I think he does a great job of creating a world that is the Argentine pampas, but is also inhabited by mysterious creatures and tribes, where things aren’t what they seem and even the most normal situations are hard to understand. Clarke’s wanderings through indigenous Argentine society as an English outsider rang true with me and made me reminisce of my time as an American observer in rural Mongolia. I think I would have gotten a kick out of this book if I’d read it while I was there.

As to whether Aira is a latter-day Arlt, I don’t think one book has given me enough information to understand Bolaño’s essay. Based on biographic information I found on Aira on the internet, it seems that he employs a wide variety of genres and styles in his books. What I saw in La liebre was an Argentine Tom Robbins novel, pure and simple. True, I’ve only read two of Robbins’ books, and I really didn’t like them, but he’s the author that I thought of over and over again as I read this book. I wonder if Aira is familiar with Tom Robbins, and whether he was inspired by his books at all as he wrote this story. When I finished this book I got to thinking: why did I dislike Tom Robbins’ books so much? Would I hate this book if I were Argentine? Would I like Tom Robbins if I were Argentine, since I, the American, liked this Argentine book which reminded me so much of Tom Robbins, whom I haven’t enjoyed at all in the past? And, when will my library get another César Aira book so that I can check it out and read it? This was a fun book, and my first impression of Aira is a positive one. I’m interested in reading more of his books. ( )
  msjohns615 | Jul 13, 2010 |
Aira is a superstar in the literary world in South America. People from Chile and Argentina to Colombia and Mexico read him; by contrast in the U.S. he seems to be read only by a small number of people, and mostly in universities. (I wrote that sentence in 2008, but it remains mainly true.)

This is not Aira's best book. 'How I Became a Nun' is as wild and wonderful as novels ever get, and 'An Epidose in the Life of a Landscape Painter' is just as good. This is a wide-screen, panoramic epic odyssey, and Aira has filled it with all sorts of set pieces: battle scenes, allegorical journeys, 'Pilgrim's Progress' episodes, a visit to the underworld, digressions into politics, and so forth. A lot of this is the familiar machinery of nineteenth-century novels, borrowed from the familiar machinery of epics and earlier travel accounts. It's still wonderful, but Aira is one of the best writers in any language, and no one could guess that from most of this book. ( )
1 vote JimElkins | Jul 23, 2009 |
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Clarke, a nineteenth-century English naturalist, roams the pampas in search of that most elusive and rare animal: the Legibrerian hare, whose defining quality seems to be its ability to fly. The local Indians, pointing skyward, report recent sightings of the hare but then ask Clarke to help them search for their missing chief as well. On further investigation Clarke finds more than meets the eye:in the Mapuche and Voroga languages every word has at least two meanings.Witty, very ironic, and with all the usual Airian digressive magic, The Hare offers subtle reflections on love, Victorian-era colonialism, and the many ambiguities of language.… (more)

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