César Aira’s astonishing and playful novels (Published in The Caravan, 1 April 2013)
THERE ARE NO WRITERS TODAY more inventive and frenetic than the Argentine novelist César Aira. In The Seamstress and the Wind (1994), a man commandeers the carapace of a giant prehistoric armadillo and turns it into a vehicle to chase after his wife, who has been unceremoniously tossed about the wilderness of Patagonia by the love-lorn wind. The narrator of Varamo (2002), a low-level state functionary in Panama, is so flustered when he finds that his salary has been paid in counterfeit money that he ends up composing the most important work of Latin American poetry. In Ghosts (1990), the Chilean construction workers of a high-rise in Argentina imbibe wine that has passed through the vaporous excretory systems of ghosts, a process that makes cheap booze divine. Philosophy, science fiction, irreverent humour, and scholarly erudition steep together in Aira’s writing. This playfulness isn’t afraid of producing cataclysms. The mad scientist narrator of The Literary Conference (1999) nearly destroys the world in a bid to make a passable clone of the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. (And in La Silla Del Aguila [‘The Seat of Power’, 2002], one of his last novels before his death, Fuentes returned the compliment and imagined a future when Aira wins the Nobel Prize in 2020.)
However absurd, the surrealism of his work has not prevented Aira from being taken very seriously. His adventurous intelligence has earned him comparisons to his countryman Jorge Luis Borges. A notorious literary scrooge, the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño—a writer credited with single-handedly reinventing the image of Latin American literature around the world—grudgingly described him as “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today” and as the only contemporary novelist “who defies classification”.
FOR A WRITER ALREADY WELL INTO HIS 60S, this adulation comes after decades in the shade of other Latin American literary giants. Aira began his life away from the centre of things. He was raised in Coronel Pringles, a small provincial town south of the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. Pringles often appears in his novels as a humble place, conscious of its own obscurity. As a young man, Aira made the inevitable move to Buenos Aires. There, he won the mentorship of the avant-gardist Osvaldo Lamborghini, who told him encouragingly that he was already a “great writer” and that he had more in common with Thomas Mann and Borges than his contemporaries. Thus inspired, Aira set about forging his own path on the Argentine literary landscape. He supported his writing initially through work as an editor and omnivorous translator of French and English. From the late 1980s onwards, he began to establish himself as a fixture in the world of Argentine letters, but even through the 1990s, he was dwarfed by better known figures in Argentina like Ricardo Piglia and the late Juan Jose Saer. Only in the last decade or so in Spanish—and in the last five years in English—has Aira begun to cement his place as one of the foremost novelists of Latin America and the most talked-about writer from Argentina.
The most obvious feature of Aira’s work besides its mercurial quality is its sheer, relentless quantity. He has published over 70 books since the late 1970s, at a steady rate of almost two per year. Scattered in the custody of a range of often obscure publishing houses, his catalogue suggests a writer striving simultaneously for ubiquity and obscurity. Only eight novels—a mere fraction of his industry—have so far been translated into English, most in the last seven years by the New York-based press New Directions (which has also posthumously published a great deal of Bolaño). Thanks to its efforts, Aira’s reputation has begun to grow in North America. He continues to churn out new novels, so it seems unlikely that English-speaking readers will have full access to his work any time soon; the speed of translation can hardly match his speed of creation.
What is the source of his energy? That Aira can sustain such a blistering pace of publication is a testament to his temperament, which comes through palpably in his writing: restless, curious, often impatient. It is also a measure of the consistent brevity of his novels, which rarely stray over 100 pages. For Aira, this commitment to concision is both a conceptual and an eminently practical choice. As he told the Argentine writer Maria Moreno in an interview in BOMB magazine in 2009, “with books, the thicker they are the less literature they have”. What he believes about literature often finds its way into his novels through the proxy of his narrators. The bureaucrat-cum-inventor protagonist ofVaramo espouses the same philosophy: “To be convincing, experiments must be brief; once the initial hypothesis has been demonstrated, there’s no point going on. Not to mention the risk of boring the reader.”
Aira seems as committed to not boring himself as his readers. His mode of writing, what he calls his “flight forward”, allegedly precludes serious editing and demands that he simply pick up where he left off from one day to the next, without looking back. Aira is fond of discussing this process and its vagaries—the cafés he frequents, the type of paper he uses, the necessary quality of ink in his fountain pen—to the point where all these writerly trappings seem suspiciously the stuff of PR branding. But the sense of forward momentum is inescapable in his prose, in its confidence and unpredictability.
Occasionally, as in The Seamstress and the Wind, his methodology erupts into the very narrative; as the book reaches its denouement, the reader is abruptly pulled from the fantastical wilds of Patagonia to a café in Paris, where Aira the writer struggles to summon his waiter. Elsewhere and more frequently, the imperative to move forward takes on philosophical proportions in the actions and thoughts of his protagonists. The mad scientist in The Literary Conference summarises the Aira doctrine:
In my case, nothing returns, everything races forward, savagely being pushed through that accursed valve… since turning back is off limits: Forward! To the bitter end! Running, flying, gliding, using up all the possibilities, the conquest of tranquility through the din of the battlefield. The vehicle is language. What else?
Aira’s language is often dubbed “transparent”, his sentences unadorned and straightforward, in the tradition of cerebral, high modernist literature. That description is fair, if inadequate. His voice can reach a range of literary registers, just as his accumulation of sentences can prove occasionally inscrutable and dense. In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000), Aira conjures cosmic and artful descriptions of the landscape of the Andes as regarded by his protagonist, a 19th-century German painter.
“There were too many sides; the cube had extra faces. The company of volcanoes gave the sky interiors. Dawn and dusk were vast optical explosions, drawn out by the silence. Slingshots and gunshots of sunlight rebounded into every recess. Grey expanses hung out to dry forever in colossal silence; airshafts as voluminous as oceans.”
As vivid and powerful as this language is, Aira tends to use it sparingly. He is a writer less interested in producing images than generating ideas or, at the very least, small revelations that buttress his philosophy of writing. More characteristic of his style are speculative, reasoning passages like this section from The Seamstress and the Wind, when he discusses the mechanics of losing dreams.
“The kind of forgetting that erases dreams is very special, and very fitting for my purposes, because it’s based on doubt as to whether the thing we should be remembering actually exists; I suppose that in a majority of cases, if not in all of them, we only believe we’ve forgotten things when actually they had never happened. We haven’t forgotten anything. Forgetting is simply a sensation.”
The skill lies in the subtle simplicity of his prose, how he can extract so much from so little. Aira can make the obvious seem remarkable. A man very close to death in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira(2007),“had already shed all his attributes and had become purely human”. In The Seamstress and the Wind, after describing Patagonia’s windswept remove from civilisation, he cuts against the romantic impulse with a perfect sentence, reminding the reader of an indisputable fact: “But the end of the world is still the world.”
BETWEEN GLIMMERING DESCRIPTIVE ILLUMINATION and meandering reflection, Aira does string together stories. No clear logic of realism or fantasy governs these narratives, and Aira seems disinterested in developing ‘realistic’ psychology in his characters. There is a general Kafkaesque quality to the inexplicable movement of events, though certain novels, particularly Ghostsand An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Artist, tend to proceed in more traditional ways. In How I Became a Nun, a boy called César Aira must deal with the aftermath of his father smothering and killing an ice cream vendor in a vat of strawberry ice cream. The boy also happens to be convinced that he is not a boy, but a girl. In the hands of another writer, this gender-bending would need to be parsed and elaborated and dramatised. In an Aira novel, it simply exists as a conceit, a platform from which to launch into a particular world of his making.
This is probably what Bolaño meant when he claimed that Aira defied classification. You read Aira novels not necessarily to discover ‘what happens’ but rather what is imagined. The strength of his writing is that it manages to make the reader care less for the exigencies of story and plot and succumb to the pleasures of the narration. That does not mean that his novels lack suspense. They often brim with it. (Will the clone of Carlos Fuentes in The Literary Confluence really emerge from its embryonic techno-magic gestation? Will Dr Aira in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira be proven a charlatan? and so forth.) But the reader is swept on by Aira’s tireless energy, the continuous forward motion of his imagination. Paradoxically for someone so ostensibly committed to this headlong movement, Aira knows how to conclude his novels. His endings are often masterful, wringing surprising emotional power from narratives so saturated with absurdity and idiosyncrasy. Nowhere is the journey more successful than in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Artist—his best book to appear in English so far—when in a vivid scene brimming with meanings, the disfigured painter Rugendas makes first contact with the Indians of the pampas, whom he begins to sketch.
But Aira’s vocation is certainly not in conventional narratives. He made his position clear as early as 1988 when in a lecture at the University of Buenos Aires, he argued for the purity of narrative uncluttered by “explanation”. “The real story, which we have grown unaccustomed to … is chemically free of explanation. The story is always about something unexplainable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.” This may sound rather bold and recklessly modern, but it actually marks a nostalgic turn. Curiously for a writer so often associated with the avant-garde, Aira strives to retrieve the vanished ideal of the storyteller and recover the folkloric depths of the story.
One can read the contest at the heart of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (the most recently translated novel, published in English in October 2012) as a parable of his literary ideology. The eponymous protagonist is a miracle worker bedeviled by his nemesis Dr Actyn, who seeks to disprove his rival’s magical powers. Dr Actyn’s tactics consist of secretly staging reality TV spectacles in a bid to entrap Dr Aira and show him to be a fraud. The protagonist must contend with the ever-present threat of cameras and microphones, of his life and work being reduced to communicable information. Modern society lusts for meaningless information and becomes saturated with narratives and explanations that limit the imaginative realm of the possible. Marvels and mysteries wither away. Much like Aira the storyteller, Dr Aira in the book is a man out of time, belonging to a previous era when “miracles were accepted as a matter of course, because the precise boundary between what was and was not a miracle had not yet been established”.
Of course, rich metaphors don’t always make for the best stories. When Aira’s novels work less well, the fault lies invariably in his solipsistic preoccupation with his own process. The protagonists of the two most recently translated novels Varamo and The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira are both creators: the former is convinced to turn his foliage of notes on various experiments in taxidermy into literature; the latter also seeks to write a book—a hardcover of at most eight pages—to explain (or perhaps actually obscure) his miraculous powers of healing. In both cases, the novels become meditations on writing novels. One imagines Aira in his café, searching for inspiration and finding it only in himself. These inward turns do not suffer from a lack of insight or wit or neat turns of phrase, but they can be rather numbingly repetitive. Readers will find themselves staring at the glittering bare bones of literary procedure. Inevitably, they will crave a little more flesh.
Nevertheless, Aira’s commitment to his process remains a strength. One of the great virtues of his style and method is its fundamental modesty. His writing makes no claims beyond its own bounds. It never gestures towards cheap sentimentality, it does not need to play with the emotions of the reader. His characters do not cry out for empathy and recognition. If you think you can learn from his writing about Argentina or Venezuela or Panama or any of the other numerous settings of his novels, you do so at your own peril. Aira may be scholarly and supremely well-read, but he is as slippery as he is learned. Rarely can a writer muster so much knowledge and wisdom in the noble service of untruth.
This is rather refreshing; when so many contemporary writers feel compelled to be true to their own lives or to their understandings of authenticity in the world, Aira simply shares the private joy of invention. As he explained to Maria Moreno, “If you’re going to express what you have inside, your opinions, what happened to you in your life, your family relationship[s], you’ll run out of that stimulus. In that sense I have no trouble, because in my work everything is invented, and I can go on inventing indefinitely.” May the tap never run dry.