César Aira’s Ghosts

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César Aira’s short novella Ghosts (2008), finished on the 13th of February 1987, could just as easily be written about the final day of 2014. The story follows a scorching New Years eve atop an unfinished high rise condominium somewhere in Buenos Aires where a group of migrant workers are employed. We observe their rhythms and routines, the break from the day’s construction to enjoy the pause of the siesta, the alcoholism that moderates the precariousness of migration from their Chilean origins in Santiago, the nephews, cousins, and wives that run errands and care for children, the social necessities of reassigning meaning to gentrified space through their evening New Year celebrations, and finally a young girl’s struggle to stay alive in a world haunted by ghosts. In this sense, the primary narratives revolve around Raul Viña, his wife Elisa Vicuña, and Elisa’s daughter Patrí born from a previous marriage. In the opening scene, the future tenants monitor the progress of their unfinished spaces as the migrant workers begin their siesta. The scene is significant not only for determining the class antagonisms between transient labor and permanent tenant, but also to show that only the workers and their families can see ghosts that haunt the building.

One way to approach the novel is through the angle of migration and globalization. To what extent is the visibility of the Chilean builders compromised by the regime of urban capital accumulation that moves them from city to city? Raul is employed as nightwatchman and oversees this socially intimate team of Chilean construction workers. The workers and their children must move from building to building while, in one sense where the narrator dignifies these characters, carrying the expectations of a rooted existence. Patrí dreams more intensely of this existence, a future husband, a savior, and so on, partly because her mother attempts to reassure her of these “realities,” but also because these possibilities seem so remote. The workers speak about Santiago with intensity and frequency, and the precision of a tour guide we are told, because they squat an unfinished roofless room in a monstrosity of concrete that is anything but home.

These scenes will be familiar to any investigation of migration, neoliberalism, and the everyday labor that build global cities. A scene from the 1996 Thai film Long June comes to mind, as it tells the story of a young man who comes to the Bangkok from the countryside, and in doing so makes the transition from homeless teen to megaproject contractor. While the film is not necessarily critical of the global forces behind its motif of construction—for example, in the presence of the American flag in the offices where key decisions are made, the film’s motif of completing the unfinished (in both protagonist and construction project) haunts the story the film is trying to tell. On one hand, the film shows that in the end the protagonist’s due care for his workers leads the completion of the project according to its appointed deadline. But much earlier in the film, as the protagonist arrives in the city with his childhood friend, the camera’s low angle shows an unfinished Elephant Tower—a building surely meant to symbolize the persistence of the national imaginary within the proliferation of a global skyline. The Elephant Tower opened in 1997, the same year as numerous projects were halted by the Asian Financial Crisis. Across the city, transient urban subjects squat buildings. But neoliberalism dreams of their completion amid haunting circumstances.

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The ghosts of neoliberal development which Aira writes into the story can thus be understood in several ways. First, the ghosts—who are all men—could be perceived to symbolize the body count of workers lost to neoliberal skyscrapers. The workers and barely-functional families are placed in positions of heightened vulnerability so that as we see Elisa’s children playing hide-and-seek along the unfinished edges of the skyscraper we experience the precariousness of globalization. But there is also the idea, which is much more like, say, the building of a condominium with an emphasis on economic rather than cultural or environmental impact. As for the laborers, Aira writes, “They had been living on the site for a year. The owners found all this curiously soothing. Someone had to be living there before they came to live definitely. They could even imagine the happiness of living there, provisionally, balancing on the edge of time” (14). In the non-linear procession modernity—the non-Western lines of flight, all culture becomes provisional and globalization’s transiency is the pinnacle of time’s discontinuity. “[F]or a start they weren’t legal residents; they didn’t have work permits. On the other hand they were paid practically nothing, although it was a lot for them, because of the exchange rate. Apparently they already had somewhere to live afterward, and in fact they’d been asked to stay a few weeks more, because it wasn’t worth hiring another nightwatchman for such a short time” (15).

Unfortunately, the stable voice characterizing the precarity of migrant labor in Ghosts is the global-urban narrator so privileged to visualize these characters through a barrage of national tropes. In the introduction, the readers given simple associations between class and habit: “Naturally Raúl was in the habit of getting drunk with his Chilean relatives, some of who had been employed as laborers on the site.” These tropes reemerge in Raúl’s sister Inés Viña, who is described as such: “She was quite pretty and rather flamboyant, within the demure limits imposed by her family and nationality” (80). To be fair, the author seems to enable the narrator seems to be underscoring an unconstrained freedom of the male migrant worker (sometimes called the “real man” throughout the novella) with the gendered constraints and inhibitions within the migrant family. This explanation seems to account for the story’s final tragic moment.

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