Cesar Aira is known for his improvisational style, how he just makes it all up as he goes along and never looks back or revises, but in Shantytown he provides this fascinating definition of improvisation: “People always assume that to improvise is to act without thinking. But if you do something on an impulse, or because you feel like it, or just like that, without knowing why, it’s still you doing it, and you have a history that has led to that particular point in your life, so it’s not really a thoughtless act, far from it; you couldn’t have given it any more thought: you’ve been thinking it out ever since you were born.”
Shantytown does seem somewhat more “thought out” than some of the other currently translated Aira books, in the sense that the plot leads on more or less in a straight line, but like the others you’re never quite sure of that, or even where the line begins. At first we are following a young bodybuilder through the streets as he generously assists rag-and-bone collectors. Maxi is all innocence and obscurity. He doesn’t think – or see – very clearly. He’s just going along, doing what he does, a kind of “nice guy” who has no idea what to do with himself, other than random, trivial good deeds. “It was as if someone had made it his job to give up his seat on the bus.” He’s given to fuzzy insights, such as “however early you go out, you always see people who are out already”, but mainly he’s minding his own business and we, the readers, are along for the ride, watching him and wondering “what the hell is this guy up to?”
And just at that point we discover that we’re not the only ones following and watching him. There’s a corrupt cop on the case, and in one of those moments of utter surprise and transformation, the novel completely turns as one person after another becomes involved in a cat-and-mouse intrigue based on a chain of whisper-down-the-lane type misunderstandings. The story becomes quite suspenseful and the tension builds during a tumultuous downpour where limited visibility collides with partial comprehension to form a chaotic cataclysmic climax.
The novel ultimately proves its point, that “that’s what life was always like: miniscule, intangible accidents combining to form an immense emotion bigger than life itself.”
another review here: