The Lime Tree by César Aira

Review published on March 7, 2018.

I was really curious about Aira; he’s the one major South American writer, translated into English, I hadn’t read before this brief novel. At just 100 pages it’s a couple of hours of enchanting fun but the beguiling prose and lyrical flow reveals a sharp intelligence and some profound musings on life and family relationships. The story, such as it is, is set in the village, Pringles, where Aira grew up. It’s tempting to assume that ‘the parents’ referred to by the narrator in The Lime Tree are actually his own but that remains on open question. Aira is the writer of more than 80 novels, so if you like The Lime Tree, and I really did, there are many more out there to discover.

There are very few customer reviews of his previous novels on the major booksellers web pages, I suspect this is because it’s very difficult to actually pin down the essence of Aira writing. So, here is a thought to kick off:

Aira writes sentences that conjure up memories, fragments of life that creates pictures for the reader. Elegant vignettes that are poetic and evocative. Yet, nearly every sentence is like a thought bomb (sorry for that), that explodes in your mind and sets you to thinking about an issue. So, difficult to categorise but a joy to read, Aira hits you with blinding flashes of intellectual thought and yet his writing can be lyrical and even pastoral. Aira is a detective of family memory.

The Lime Tree is a fictional memoir centred on the narrator’s father, mother and childhood. It opens in Pringles Plaza lined with beautiful lime trees, that image evokes strong memories of childhood for the narrator. The biggest tree is appropriately referred to as ‘The Monster Like Tree’.

“I regarded it with a certain awe, or respect at least, but also with affection, because like all trees it was harmless.”

It a sentence that conveys a pleasant image but in light of what happens to the tree is it a more involved environmental statement? It’s the tree his father collected the fallen flowers blossoms from to make his nightly tea drink. The narrator tells us he believed implicitly in the power of the drug because his father swore by its medicinal efficacy. Instantly we switch to the story of the ‘Peronist boy’ and the savage end of the tree. The Peronist boy has been chased up the tree by men hunting him for his political world view. Aira muses on the idea of adults assuming a boy can have a political identity, how can a boy be a Peronist? The lime tree is destroyed by an “irrational act of political hatred”, cut down to get to the boy. Peron was an Argentinian dictator, husband of Eva, a divisive political figure in twentieth century politics. Aira raises two issues here; the Peronist idea of one day breeding children who were natural Peronists and also, the way people boil down issues into simple bite sized interpretations. History reduces issues, nuance, intricacy to simply notions:

“this suggest the complexity of our political quarrels, which later simplification has tried to reduce to black and white.”

I mentioned this is a short novel, maybe it would be fair to say novella but these issues, these snippets of memory only occupy the first three pages, we move on. It’s a special skill to be able to write with such brevity and convey so much meaning in rich tones and beguiling prose. To be so readable, whimsical and yet sharp, truly idiosyncratic. Aira writes in a fashion he calls the “constant flight forward”, which I take to be a sort of stream of consciousness. The important point is that he has something to say, is capable of intricacy, eccentricity and innovation.

When the narrator ponders his discovery of girls, an innocent passage of intuit understanding that his friends are not the only social context in his life, his thoughts lead to a little explanation of why families at that time might have three girls. The first child is a girl and so they try for a boy, by the third child they give upon getting a boy. It’s not profound but it shows how Aira floats from one thought to another.

The narrator’s father is a Peronist, his loyalty is rewarded but after Peron and the Relovución Libertadora the family lose their position. Middle class to working class again. A loser in the conflict of loyalties between political groups, Peronism and Catholicism. His father may be an adulterer, he’s black but very handsome and strong, his looks make history and prejudice superfluous (his wife is of European descent). He has an institutionally structured mind, prone to accept doctrine and ideology; Peronism, Catholicism. His mother is more complex, as is their relationship, but I leave that for you to discover for yourself.

I have only scratched the surface; Cesar Aira is among the most influential writers in Latin America today, he is the heir to Jorge Luis Borges. He manipulates structure and meanders, has a rare ability to convey weighty themes but is a delight to read. Superbly translated by Chris Andrews.

Paul Burke 5/3

The Lime Tree by César Aira
And Other Stories 9781911508120 pbk Dec 2017

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