So Charles Darwin’s brother-in-law, Tom Clarke, travels to Argentina in search of the ‘Legibrerian Hare’, which apparently flies (or might be a priceless diamond, or a metaphysical quandary). He sets off for the pampas with a guide, a teenage painter, and an extraordinary horse gifted to him by the country’s dictator and instantly becomes embroiled in the local indigenous people’s politics. The denouement of which involves an enormous amount of coincidences that go far beyond unrealistic into a sort of nostalgic absurdity that reminds me of children’s books where every detail and character mentioned in the story must be tied together in the end.
The story is meandering, the lead is inconsistent, the secondary characters one dimensional, and the novel is most probably racist*. Events don’t make much sense with some regularity. The prose is sparse. Usually. Complex events will be summed up in a paragraph, but characters will also chatter on about nothing, exchanging pleasantries. Or ponder philosophy. Aira apparently has some wacky writing methods involving lack of revision, constantly pushing forward, and proclaiming a philosophic and literary bent to the former. Wikipedia tells me:
He frequently refuses to conform to generic expectations for how a novel ought to end, leaving many of his fictions quite open-ended.
Open ended conclusions. How avant-garde.
He also appears to disdain long form novels. If it’s not clear yet, I am finding César Aira insufferable.
That said, there is something compelling about his writing, about this odd, likely racist* book. The writing and setting is unique in a way I find difficult to describe. The carefully articulated absurdity and irrationality the characters espouse. The random nonsense that appears without explanation (see — man-sized ducks ritually birthing giant eggs to slide into the ocean). The nonsensical actions the characters take, or the impossible fluctuations of time and space.
And either Aira, or his translator, Nick Caistor, has a stellar vocabulary. This book was the impetus for me to start a google doc of new words I’ve learned. Now I am trying to use circumlocution in common speech and am sort of amazed usufruct is a word.
*I know next to nothing about the Mapuche people, but it does not take much e-research to see that they have a problematic and troubled relationship with their European-descended colonizers like everyone else in the Americas… or anywhere. The Hare portrays them with much of the bloodthirst, absence of hygiene v. the white cast visible typical to media portraying native Americans. They are philosophers of the irrational and the silliness of the book only slightly takes the edge off. One groups lives underground in caves and sleeps most hours of the day. There’s a sequence where Clarke and friends strip naked and grease up and go native.
Okay, the above is the most probably racist element of this novel. Here’s the unquestionably racist part: There is a character present in Clarke’s backstory, a black Chilean (there’s some quote along the lines of ‘never trust a black Chilean’). He covets Clarke’s white lover and kidnaps her. He’s compared to a hulking ape. There is repeated emphasis on his blackness. There is a mandingo joke.
“The novel is not without its flaws — I’m sad to report that both its major villains are “black as an African,” and its overt equation of the Indian with the irrational makes my conscience queasy. But if you can set such quandaries aside, you’ll find there are few adventures more outrageous, and more unsettling, than this cowboy chase through the pampas in search of the white rabbit.”
I can’t set such quandaries aside. This isn’t some stupid aside, or hiccup. It’s the setting of the entire novel.