To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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The Hare - César Aira, Nick Caistor The review below is published in 3:AM Magazine:

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.

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