Fake News and Fake Fate in César Aira’s ‘La Villa’

Stephen Hart

In this essay I focus on the relationship between fake news and fake fate in César Aira’s novella, La Villa (2001). This novella features in Topic 1 (La Argentina del siglo 21) of the 2019-2021 Pre-U syllabus, and as a Text in the 2022-24 syllabus. 

Fake news relates to Post-Truth, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.[1]Though it emerged in the ‘Trump Era’,[2]the word Post-Truth was first coined in 1992 to indicate the public’s apathy towards politicians’ lies.[3]

More recently Matthew d’Ancona has argued that, for the general public, ‘reality is now so elusive and [their] perspectives as individuals and groups so divergent that it is no longer meaningful to speak of, or seek, the truth’.[4]There is a similar sensitivity to the problems associated with the notion of truth expressed in Aira’s novella, as we shall see. 

As for fake fate, this is interpreted to mean – in literature – the postmodern or self-aware use of exaggerated twists of fate, defined by Collins as follows: ‘If something happens by a twist of fate, it happens by chance, and it is strange, interesting, or unfortunate in some way’.[5]  

Aira is not the first to use this technique. In his Poetics, Aristotle, for example, referred to how the reversal of fortune – the peripeteia – is made all the more striking when it surprises us: 

The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.[6]

Aristotle underscores the impact of the coincidence of events in literature.[7]  It is precisely this ambiguity about the coincidence of events of everyday life that lies at the heart of César Aira’s La Villa. However, Aira extends the reach of this device, underwriting it with a Post-Truth dimension. This is suggested when one of the characters (Jessica) thinks: ‘No puedo soportar una sola complicación más de la intriga’.[8]

Aira’s novel opens with a seemingly down-to-earth delineation of Maxi, a twenty-year-old young man, the son of a wealthy businessman, who goes to the gym every day and uses his physical fitness to help out the cartoneros from a shanty-town, La Villa, who extract a living from the rubbish deposited daily on Buenos Aires’ streets. As Micah McKay suggests, the depiction of a villa miseria in Buenos Aires ‘represents a subversion of the attempts made from places of officially sanctioned power to impose coherence on the city’.[9]

The unsuspecting reader might thus be forgiven for expecting Aira’s novel to develop into a sociological study of cartoneros similar to Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s documentary, Cartoneros (2006).[10]But La Villa does not follow this formula; instead, it articulates ‘an interplay between the mundane and the unexpected, between surface meanings and hidden depths suddenly revealed’.[11]The characters in the novel are hermeneutically blind to each other for, as one critic suggests, ‘no logran ver la red de relaciones que los une’.[12]  This has important implications for the plot in La Villa. Whereas in Aristotle’s version the ‘peripeteia’ (reversal of fortune) leads to a discovery that synthesizes and harmonises the meaning of the sequence of events, in Aira’s version the plot is progressively overwhelmed by a sequence of twists of (fake) fate that become more and more non-verisimilar as the narrative develops.

If we were to plot the development of these twists of fate and the interplay between the mundane and the unexpected, we might begin with the scene in which the detective, Ignacio Cabezas, confronts Vanessa, Maxi’s younger sister, claiming that he is the father of the fifteen-year-old girl, Cynthia Cabezas, who had been murdered near the shanty-town, and asking her to find out who was involved: ‘Quiero que me averigües cómo hacen negocios ahí en la villa’ (La Villa, p. 45). This panics Vanessa and leads her to attempt to extract information from Adelita, who works as a maid in a third-floor apartment in the block opposite to where Vanessa lives (‘Vos debés saber, por eso te llamo’; La Villa, p. 50), but their conversation ends before any information is exchanged, and Vanessa breaks down as a result. 

This break-down in communication is echoed by a subsequent break-down in interpretation when Jessica – Vanessa’s friend, though they have recently fallen out – sees Vanessa crying hysterically after her phone-call with Adelita. We know that Vanessa is horrified by the conversation she has just had with Adelita because she fears that some horrible ‘truth’ will emerge about the mysterious death of Cynthia Cabezas which will have a horrific impact on her own life. But Jessica does not know what we – as readers – know. Jessica ‘believes’ that Vanessa must be looking at the disembodied ghost of the murder victim: 

Y sabía a quien le hacía acordar, irresistiblemente: a Cynthia, la chica que había muerto, Cynthia Cabezas ¡Pobre Vanessa! La había visto desde su casa y había entrado en pánico. ¿Pero una muerta puede estar ahí, en el tercer piso, haciendo las camas? (La Villa, p. 66) 

Both Vanessa and Jessica are caught in a labyrinth of deceptive, self-reflecting mirrors.  

Most readers might have liked to see some of the misunderstandings enunciated at this juncture in the novel clarified via a resolution created by subsequent events in the plot. But this is not what happens. 

A later sequence illustrates this. When Maxi sees – by chance – Adelita and invites her to meet him at nine o’clock in the evening at 1800 Bonorino Street (La Villa, p. 85), and when he stumbles on el linyerita who has been sleeping rough for a number of months under the motorway and asks him to meet him at the same place at the same time (La Villa, p. 92), these events are not motivated or explained to the reader, and only make sense later on when the couple in the restaurant are revealed to be Adelita and her long-lost boyfriend (La Villa, p. 154). But we do not know how Maxi knew that this was a good thing to do, since he only spoke to el linyerita (whose real name is Alfredo) on the day that he asked him to go to meet Adelita. The strange discovery by Maxi of two people, Saturno and Jessica, unconscious on the gym floor later that morning (La Villa,pp. 95-110), is only explained much later (chemically impure drugs; La Villa, p. 120), and Maxi’s kiss with Jessica (La Villa, pp. 109-110) does not lead to anything, as it might have done in more traditional fiction. Some events are set up – such as Ignacio Cabezas’ mission to kill Maxi, as hinted at by Adelita (La Villa, p. 156) – only not to occur. Unlike in telenovelas, where chance happenings or coincidences or predictions or omens invariably turn out to be true forewarnings of future occurrences, Aira’s use of these techniques is rooted in unpredictability. 

The final sequence reveals the unpredictable logic underpinning Aira’s novel, as layer upon layer of Truth are pulled away to reveal the core of Post-Truth at its centre. By shooting El Pastor, Ignacio Cabezas ‘reveals’ the latter’s criminal credentials (he was a drug dealer), which then leads to a second ‘discovery’ (he was the unacknowledged son of Jueza Plaza), which then leads to the third layer of ‘Truth’ (he was an undercover agent), and the penultimate level of ‘Truth’: Jueza Plaza set the whole thing up in order to get her revenge on Ignacio Cabezas (La Villa, p. 140). The true identity of El Pastor is never confirmed, nor, indeed, do we ever find out who actually killed Cynthia Cabezas. 

The final twist is provided by the media, whose agents create headlines out of the visual rubbish of everyday life: ‘Cosas como quedarse impávido bajo un aguacero, sólo se hacen en las películas. La historia se daba una nueva vuelta de tuerca’ (La Villa, p. 142). In this process, Truth is swallowed by the Ouroboros of Post-Truth.[13]As Cabezas wonders, when he is in the restaurant watching his own story unfold before his eyes on the TV:  ‘Empezó a preguntarse hasta dónde podía llegar. ¿Podía llegar a dar toda la vuelta, hasta morderse la cola de verdad que iba dejando cada vez más atrás?’(La Villa, p. 145). 

His words are insightful, for this is precisely what happens when Cabezas is shot dead by the police and Jueza Plaza broadcasts the following message to the nation as she stands over his dead body:

Aquí ha terminado la carrera de uno de lo criminales más peligrosos que hayan amenazado la seguridad de la Nación durante los últimos tiempos. Debe servirnos de advertencia, pues el problema de la proxidina, lejos de haber terminado con él, apenas si ha empezado. El inspector Cabezas era un hombre de gran inteligencia, quizás el mejor cerebro de Argentina: pudo emplearlo para el bien, y habría hecho cosas muy grandes, pero tomó el camino de la contigüidad inducida. (La Villa, p. 169)

In truly Orwellian fashion Jueza Plaza’s language becomes the truth of Cabezas’s life and Reality is finally revealed to be a palimpsestuous Ouroboros coiled around a core of Post-Truth. 

[1]Consequently, ‘it has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics’; Oxford University Press,Word of the Year 2016 (2016); https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016; (last accessed 1 December 2020).

[2]‘The Trump Era’, World Politics Review, 28 December 2020; https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/series/12/the-trump-era (last accessed 5 January 2021).

[3]Steve Tesich, ‘A Government of Lies’, The Nation, January 1992. 

[4]Matthew d’Ancona, Post-Truth and How to Fight Back (London: Ebury press, 2017),  p. 11.

[5]https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/twist-of-fate (consulted on 21 /01/2021)

[6]  The Poetics, Part IX;  http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html; (consulted on 21/01/2021).

[7]Germain Poirier, Corneille et la vertu de prudence (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1984), p. 4

[8]César Aira, La Villa (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2001), p. 154. All references are to this edition.

[9]‘The Littered City: Trash and Neoliberal Urban Space in “El aire, Bariloche”, and “La Villa”’, Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, 41.3 (2017), 597-620 (p. 607).

[10]For a description of the ‘cartoneros’ of Buenos Aires, see Eduardo Anguita’s study Cartoneros, recuperadores de desechos y causas perdidas as well as Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s documentary, Cartoneros (2006), 60 mins. 

[11]Richard Young, ‘Buenos Aires and the narration of urban spaces and practices’, in Contemporary Latin American Cultural Studies, edited by Stephen Hart and Richard Young (London: Arnold, 2003), pp. 300-311  (p. 301). 

[12]Dánisa Bonacic, ‘Espacio urbano, crisis y convivencia en La Villa de Cesar Aira’, Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, 79 (2014), 359-376 (p. 372).

[13]Ouroboros is the ‘emblematic serpent of ancient Egypt and Greece represented with its tail in its mouth continually devouring itself and becoming reborn from itself. A Gnostic and alchemical symbol, Ouroboros expresses the unity of all things, material and spiritual, which never disappear but perpetually change form in an eternal cycle of destruction and re-creation’; The New Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 9, 15thedition (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1995), p. 13. Aira gives a postmodern twist to this Gnostic symbol in his novel.