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Shantytown by César Aira

Shantytown (2001)

by César Aira

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1043182,140 (3.96)1
A middle-class, directionless ox of a young man who helps the trash pickers of Buenos Aires's shantytown attracts the attention of a corrupt policeman who would use anyone including innocent kids to break a drug ring he believes is operating in the slum. By the author of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.… (more)



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Shantytown is Argentine author César Aira's 2001 quirky, scintillating novella that begins with kindhearted hulk Maxi helping poor men and women from Buenos Aires' Shantytown scavenge for garbage and ends with a parody of an action-packed, melodramatic Hollywood B movie.

Since César's literary aesthetic isn't so much about plot as it is creating a natural momentum propelling the story to take over and lead him as author into what he terms "the constant flight forward," - no revisions; forever onward to the next page - below are Shantytown quotes which lead me as reviewer into my own constant flight forward.

"These carts didn't have inscriptions or painting or anything like that. They were purely functional, and since they were built from assembled odds and ends, their beauty was, in a sense, automatic or objective, and therefore very modern, too modern for any historian to bother with." ---------- These carts are used by the Shantytown denizens to scavenge garbage. Curiously, I see a likeness between those beautiful carts and the author's vividly cinematic and well crafted writing, writing with assembled asides and digressions, a breaking with traditional forms and a reader's usual expectations. Shantytown has thirteen chapters, thirteen modern carts, too modern and idiosyncratic for any literary historian to bother with. Well, maybe.

"It looked festive: a garland of ten little bulbs, a bunch of half a dozen, a circle of fifteen or twenty, or rows - single, double, triple - or just two bulbs and a third above them, making a triangle . . . Every kind of combination, all jumbled up, in a display of fanciful creativity." ---------- Maxi's circadian rhythm has him awake at daybreak and asleep at sundown - nighttime means sleep and nothing but sleep for Maxi. Yet those lights hold so much wonder, a strange spectacle for the big man. Likewise, for Maxi, the ramshackle shantytown itself - streets and small houses, row after row, a mini magical mystery tour, an exercise in improvisation. Are we as awestruck turning the pages of Shantytown? How does our own circadian rhythm quicken our capacity to open to fiction's magic?

Cabezas would watch from a distance, sometimes parking for a while and sitting in the car, sometimes driving around the block, following the progress of the meathead and the scavengers." ---------- We can ask: how deep are Police Inspector Cabezas' false assumptions? Immediately pigeonholing people via such degrading categories as "meathead" and "scavengers" can speak to a lack of humanity and sense of decency. As we come to appreciate the more we follow Maxi, his lens on the world has an almost opposite focus to that of Cabezas.

"That's what life was always like: minuscule, intangible accidents combining to form an immense emotion bigger than life itself." ---------- César speaks of the writing process as a combination of reason and madness, admitting his own predilection tends toward reason. But when madness pops up, for Aira or any other fiction writer, the intangible accidents are not far behind. Recall the "Intentional Fallacy" argument where the author’s reasoned intention is only a secondary and much less consequential consideration. In other words, emotion, inspiration, madness are central to the literary creative process, both for writer and reader.

If someone added up all the time that individuals have spent achieving nothing, just to keep time ticking over, the sum total of centuries and millennia would be overwhelming." ---------- One of the many peculiar philosophical meditations added in along the way. We usually think of history in terms of action and events but how much time is spent in each person's life before and after such recorded activity, time spent doing nothing? For a pure aesthete such as myself, and perhaps the author, doing nothing in "down time" is anything but empty; rather, it can be full to the brim with beauty and intense, pleasurable sensations.

"This was a strange ambition for a judge: justice is like a zero-sum game; you could say that its mission, the essence of what it does, is to transform a situation without affecting the overall number of elements. Adding something new is more like what art does." ---------- I agree! To be an artist in the modern world is to create something new. If a judge thrives on the new and the glitzy, especially like the novella's Judge Plaza with judicial police officers under her command bound together by "samurai mysticism and a blind obedience" who are thus rewarded by the most sophisticated weapons, watch out! Such justice is better remaining in Hollywood B movies.

"For some reason his face was horribly distorted by the electronic medium, becoming more grotesque with every passing second. It must have been because they were still scrambling to find real photographs and making do with artist's impressions." ---------- César recognizes one of the more disturbing dimensions of modern mass media - the ability to intentionally distort images so as to control the viewer's reaction. Networks such as Fox News have become expert in distortion.

"The sea of error: the world. And he had to keep going, on and on, burdened with all the solipsisms of his sloppy thinking and a mass of information drawn exclusively from television, bits and pieces as random as the sequence of episodes in a dream." ---------- Again, the final chapters conclude in a take off of a B-style movie, César plays with the ways in which television and movies will mold and control not only an audience's expectations of how events should unfold but also how one should take the movies as a model, a standard to weigh one's own life.

"Quite apart from the unusual circumstances, the spectacle was interesting from an intellectual and aesthetic point of view. No one had ever seen the shantytown like that, in its entirety." ---------- Is this really possible? Is our vision so sharp we have the capacity to take in an entire city neighborhood in its entirety? What would César Aira think?

Let me conclude with one of my favorite Shantytown quotes: "People always assume that to improvise is to act without thinking. But if you do something on an impulse, or because you feel like it, or just like that, without knowing why, it's still you doing it, and you have a history that has led to that particular point in your life, so it's not really a thoughtless act, far from it; you couldn't have given it any more thought; you've been thinking it out ever since you were born."

César Aira, born 1949
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Shantytown 🍒🍒🍒🍒🍒
By Cesar Aira


What can I say about Cesar Aira......he is imaginative, and his novels, always very short, say so much and engage your mind to think and then re-think everything you ever thought before. Aira is from Buenos Ares and most of his novels are located there, and always involve the outer fringes or urban areas. His words, and vision....his stories so short but so deep....I love this guy. Read his books. He will keep you thinking.
Shantytown is about a very poor area, where houses are made from cardboard or anything they can find. The houses are in a circular pattern, strings of lights in various colors are the only way through the maze, (see photo of book cover) and few make it to the middle......Max, humble but not bright is followed by 2 girls, who are followed by a cop hell bent on breaking up this area of urban violence....Max wants to get to the middle.....
Highly recommended....You gotta read Aira... ( )
  over.the.edge | Sep 16, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
César Airaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Andrews, ChrisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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