I found this entry about an unusual Argentine crime novel in my travel blog.
Hotel Art in Buenos Aires is a short walk from the Santa Fe Ave. shopping district—what better place to look for some reading material. I was leaving the next day to travel through the small towns in the NE of Argentina and there would be time for reading but not for finding bookstores.
I soon found myself in the Athens Grand Splendid bookstore and coffee shop. This store has the largest collection of books in Spanish (or Castellano as they say in BA) that I have ever seen and the books are well organized for browsing.
The newly released Spanish translation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the featured book in the Gran Splendid display windows, and over-hyped Harry displays were blocking many of the aisles. I threaded my way to the Local Authors section and discovered a nice little volume of essays by Ernesto Sabato, Antes del fin (Before the End).
Sabato is well know in the English speaking world for his short novel The Tunnel, which I had read during the overnight flight from San Francisco. Sabato was born in 1911 and his book of essays looks back on his long life and gives advice to us youngsters; it seemed like a good way to find out more about this famous scholar who is native to Buenos Aires.
Another small novel also caught my eye; it was La Abeja, The Bee, by César Aira, a Buenos Aires native. I was unfamiliar with the author but the jacket résumé sounded interesting—A beekeeper in tax trouble kidnaps his accountant’s wife to collect a ransom, but he forgets that he too has a wife and, furthermore, the accountant is a very dangerous man. How could I pass up an inventive story as unlikely as this? With my purchases in hand I left the Grand Splendid a happy camper ready to head out of town.
The protagonist and narrator of The Bee, Lorenzo, is a beekeeper come on hard times for failure to pay business taxes. Lorenzo lives and works in a small orchard that has been abandoned; there he tends to the cultivation of honey bees— they are his life. He can’t stand the thought of going bankrupt and loosing his orchard and his bees. Lorenzo blames his financial woes on his accountant who embezzled Lorenzo’s small savings and encouraged Lorenzo to skirt the business laws. Although Lorenzo cares deeply for his family who live in a nearby town he spends all his time looking after his bees and forgets that any threat towards the accountant could place them in danger.
We are told by the narrator that this desperate financial situation led Lorenzo to kidnap for ransom his accountant’s wife . In the opening scene we find Lorenzo and his victim arguing in the dilapidated farm house on the grounds of the orchard. Lorenzo’s Chinese workers approach the house and enter bringing with them food and drink for a party. The victim is shouting HELP from the bedroom, but the Chinese don’t understand English so the party continues until well into the morning. Clearly we have some black comedy going on in this novel.
The author continues evolving the plot and soon there is the expected retaliation by the accountant who kidnaps the beekeeper’s wife. Strained negotiations and bargaining follow which builds to a fantastic final scene involving the kidnappers, their victims, the army, helicopters and, of course, a queen bee—this is a worthy and exciting solution of the complicated plot. I really enjoyed the book, which unfortunately has not been translated into English.
César Aira is a writer and dramatist who earns his living translating. He was born in the province of Buenos Aires in 1949 and lives in the porteño barrio of Flores. He is known for his ability to create innovative scenarios and unusual situations . He is a prolific writer—he has published more that 60 works. Not very well known in the US, the publisher New Directions is now translating his works into English. How I Became a Nun (Cómo me hice monja), Aira’s strange autobiographical story of his first taste of ice cream at age 6, was published by ND in 2007. In the Spanish title, the word monja may refer not to the religious Nun, but to a flavor of gelato ice cream; the double meaning is lost in the translation. Such problems plague the translator’s world.
For more about New Directions Books visit their website at:
Day 30: La abeja (The Queen Bee) (César Aira) (2008).