SHANTYTOWN by César Aira


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A tiny slice of Buenos Aires noir from one of Argentina’s most prolific writers.

An improvisational mood propels this novella-length story by Aira (The Hare, 2013, etc.), with crisp translation by Andrews. The book is set amid the trash district of Buenos Aires’ slum settlements and concerns itself with the intersection of a number of characters. The first, Maxi, is a boxy, middle-class adolescent with his own Rolex who passes his days helping scavengers collect cardboard and other detritus for pocket change. He claims to have a curious form of night blindness that more closes resembles a darkness-triggered form of narcolepsy. Maxi’s sister is Vanessa, a generally harmless girl who runs with a bad crowd. She comes under the influence of Inspector Ignacio Cabezas, a corrupt cop who wants to infiltrate the ranks of a drug sales operation known to locals as “the carousel” and gains Vanessa’s trust by pretending to be the father of a girl from her school who was killed in a random shooting. The drug in question is an invention called proxidine, a powerful hallucinogenic that nearly kills a friend of Vanessa’s. What seems to be interesting to Aira is the confluence of events that seems random but isn’t, as he describes the lusty detective: “His mistake was thinking that a battle is fought at a single point in space,” he writes. “That is not the case. A battle always covers a large area, and none of the participants can take it in at a glance, not even retrospectively. Nobody can grasp the whole, because in reality there is no whole to be grasped.” Aira’s work, like the fantasy How I Became a Nun (2007), is usually much more fantastic, so it’s an interesting exercise to see the author playing with mystery conventions in a more realistic, if cinematic, style.

A very literary crime story with South American attitude that is lean, spare and resonant.

Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8112-1911-2
Page count: 128pp
Publisher: New Directions
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2013


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