The publication of a new novel by Cesar Aira in English is now a commonplace event (two this year alone), but his first appearance in the language occurred as recently as 1998 thanks to Serpent’s Tail (and translator Nick Caistor), an imprint that was also introducing UK readers to other South American writers such as Juan Carlos Onetti and Juan Jose Saer. That novel, The Hare, is atypical of what has been published since: at a whopping 248 pages it is much longer than the slim volumes we have come to expect, and it is also much more conventional in its structure, taking the idea of resolution – so often absent from Aira’s work – to comic extremes.
The story, however, will not be unfamiliar to those who have read Portrait of a Landscape Painter as it is also set in the nineteenth century and concerns the journey of a European explorer across the pampas of Argentina. The explorer is an English naturalist, Clarke, who sets off in search of the titular Legibrerian Hare accompanied by a local guide, Gauna, and a young painter, Carlos Prior. They spend some time with the Mapuche tribe but when their chief, Cafulcura, goes missing, they are asked to help discover what has happened to him while still ostensibly searching for the hare. Both of Clarke’s companions are also seeking something: Prior has fallen in love with a Mapuche girl – “Ynuy has run away and I propose to set off in pursuit” – and Gauna is searching for a long lost sister. The hare, therefore, comes to symbolise an elusive goal (or, indeed, a narrative MacGuffin).
This is particularly appropriate as nothing in the Mapuche language can be pinned down to one meaning:
“…he (Clarke) knew that the Mapuche word for ‘law’ could also mean many other things, among which were ‘venture’, ‘suggest’, ‘stranger’, ‘know’, ‘word’ and ‘Mapuche’.”
Aira has great fun with this, particularly when it comes to Clarke’s search for the Legibrerian hare whose defining quality seems to be its ability to fly:
“They say: the hare ‘took off’. In Mapuche that verb can also mean ‘was stolen, ‘was made to vanish’. We have no reason to know of these double meanings so we understand it in its first sense, and they go on with the joke at our expense; even when you ask them if what happened is real or an interpretation, they can permit themselves to lie with the truth, as they always do. And, between you and me, I reckon that ‘hare’ is the name they give to some valuable object.”
Even the landscape around them cannot be relied upon. During the hare hunt (when Cafulcura goes missing) Clarke notices:
“The faint line of the horizon, grown fainter than ever, always kept half the participants hidden from view while, at the same time, each one was at the centre of his own circle…Space itself changed position with each sweep: it seemed as though they were watching it pass by upside down.”
(With nothing being what it seems, it will not surprise you to learn that twins are important in Mapuche mythology).
The hare, then, is little more than an excuse for the trio’s picaresque journey across the pampas. Slowly the three of them bound, perhaps initially united by the extraordinary coincidence that they are all adopted. They share stories; Clarke talks of the only woman he has loved who he lost many years ago in Argentina; Gauna reveals his search for a sister he believes possesses a valuable family heirloom. They encounter other tribes, one of which lives underground, visit the Mapuche’s great enemies, the Voroga, and take part in a mock battle.
Despite being superficially a more conventional novel, Aira’s cavalier attitude to the construction of fiction is evident. In the first chapter he paints an interesting portrait of an Argentinian leader, the Restorer of the Laws, who does not appear again. Characters’ motivations are frequently oblique or opaque. And, as I mentioned earlier, the novel’s conclusion would make Charles Dickens blush. But with this comes Aira’s charm, that sense of the story moving forward, much like the travellers, regardless, never knowing, or caring, what comes next.