Crimean Rites


It’s February 4, 1937. The poet Osip Mandelstam is in Voronezh, a provincial city deep in the Russian steppe. He has one year left to live. Voronezh is a place of exile, set between “the throaty Ural” and the “heavy-shouldered Volga.” In his exile, Mandelstam dreamt of the South, of “the breaches of round bays, the gravel and the blue/and a slow sail, continued by a cloud.”

It’s a dream of Greece, and of the Black Sea – an old dream for Mandelstam. Twenty years before he began a poem “Insomnia. Homer. Tautly swelling sails.” But it’s also a dream with a degree of specificity. Without a doubt, Mandelstam is thinking of the Crimea. In part, as Joseph Brodsky notes, this is because of “Russian poetry’s traditional regard for the Crimea and the Black Sea as the only available approximation to the Greek world, of which these places – Taurida and Pontus Euxinus – used to be the outskirts.” But in part it’s because of Mandelstam’s particular relationship to the place. He spent part of the Civil War there, and returned to it periodically with his wife Nadezhda. For him, the Crimea became a sanctuary as well as place of myth.

In his second collection, Tristia, he writes:

The thread of golden honey flowed from the bottle
so heavy and slow that our hostess had time to declare:
Here in melancholy Tauris, where fate has brought us,
we are not at all bored – and glanced back over her shoulder.

On all side the rites of Bacchus, as if the world
held only watchmen and dogs, not a soul to be seen –
the days roll peacefully by like heavy barrels:
Away in the hut are voices, you can’t hear or reply.

“On all sides the rites of Bacchus.” Mandelstam was more correct about the Crimea’s past than he could have known. Today the Crimea is talked about as just a territory. In the news it’s an abstraction, a piece of land kicked like football between nations. But in literature and history it lives a life of its own.

Who does the Crimea belong to?

First of all, to the sea that made it. Seven thousand years ago, the Black Sea was much lower than it is today. Then a waterfall tumbled over the Bosporus, and the waters began to rise. The flood cut the Crimea off from the mainland – all the way except for a narrow isthmus called the Perekop. Ever since, it has been a rocky island on the shores of a sea of grass.

The steppes belonged to the nomads. Grass meant horses, and freedom. The steppes stretched north, from the mouth of the Danube to the Siberian Altai. Across the centuries they were home to various nomadic confederations and tribes: Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Pechenegs, Cumans, Mongols, and Kipchak Turks. The legendary Cimmerians predate them all; the Cossacks are still there today.

At times, the nomadic tribes made their home in Crimea too. But the mountainous peninsula was also a refuge. = It drew in emigrants from the South: exiles fleeing persecution and castaways from larger migrations. In the seventh century B.C., Greeks from Miletus and the rest of Ionia settled there in search of land, founding cities all along the coasts. Thracians and Scythians followed, driving the Taurians, the native inhabitants of the peninsula, into the high places.

In the Middle Ages, the Karaites, Jews from Babylonia who rejected the Talmud and any authority beyond the Torah, arrived. With time, they adopted the language of the neighboring Turks. In the 19th century, the Karaites began to claim that they weren’t related to other Jews at all, but that they were instead descendants of the Turkic Khazars.

In the 16th century, a Flemish ambassador to the Ottomans named Ogier de Busbecq was amazed to discover that Goths were living in the Crimea. They were the last descendants of the Germanic tribes from the Dark Ages of the West. They still spoke the language of their forefathers. Apparently they got lost on their way to sacking Rome. Busbecq recorded some of their words: “handa” for hand; “apel” for apple; “reghen” for rain, as well as a song that no one can understand to this day.

For a time in the 15th century, the peninsula was home to a breakaway sliver of the Byzantine Empire. After the Fourth Crusade, the Genoese took control of the old Greek ports, growing rich off the slave trade. It was at one of these ports, Kaffa, that the Black Death entered Europe, when the besieging army catapulted dead bodies over the city walls.

Slavery was long crucial to the life of the Crimea. The Crimean Khanate was home to some of the largest slave markets in Europe. The Khanate was founded in 1449 by Tatars, deserters from the Golden Horde. Its first Sultan, a descendent of Genghis Khan, built his palace at the place to which a snake had fled after being nearly killed by another snake. The Sultan had been beaten in battle; he took this as an omen that he would nonetheless thrive. For generations the Tatars raided the southern steppes in search of captives, going as far as Poland and the mouth of the Danube. In Ukrainian and Russian, “to go to the Crimea” once meant “to be enslaved.”

With time, the power of the Khans declined, and the Cossacks raided their cities. A century of warfare with the Russian Empire followed. Catherine the Great finally annexed the Crimea in 1783. After the annexation, the Crimea took on a new identity. At once Russia’s Riviera and of its many Siberias, it hosted banished poets and aristocratic ladies on vacation. Pushkin spent some of his exile there. At the palace of Khan Girai he found the inspiration for his poem about the sad lovers of Bakhchysarai. Adam Mickiewicz devoted a cycle of sonnets to it, poems in which he is alternately a pilgrim, a poet, and an exile. Chekhov nursed his Tuberculosis in Yalta. Mandelstam sat out the Civil War in Theodosia, ancient Kaffa, in which he set one of the sketches in The Noise of Time. For them, the peninsula was a door to the South and the East. Their works figure it as an alternate Russia, at once Mediterranean and oriental.

Of these writers, Mandelstam was especially keen on envisioning a Russia whose culture was rooted in that of classical Greece. To Mandelstam and other like-minded Hellenizers, the Crimea belonged to ancient Greece as much as modern Russia. The soil itself said as much.

In the 19th century, when archaeologists began opening the earthen burial mounds scattered around the peninsula, they discovered that the Scythians and Greeks had deeper ties than chroniclers like Herodotus would have led them to believe. Inside the kurgans they found the treasure the Scythian chieftains had taken with them to the afterlife. Many of these were vessels and implements made of finely wrought gold, most likely made by Greeks who lived in one of the cities of the Bosporan Kingdom. In these gold ornaments, a whole mythology and history unspools wordlessly. Griffins devour stags, warriors string their bows and mend their wounds, heroes ride mythological creatures, horses nurse their foals, lions crouch in bushes, and bards play songs under the shade of celestial trees. On an ornamental quiver given to a boy as a coming-of-age present, a Greek king gives the boy Achilles a barbarian-style compound bow. On top of a comb, rival kings fight on horseback. Some are dressed in the flowing pants of the nomad and some in the battle armor of Greek hoplites.

But even if the goldsmiths of Panticapaeum and the other cities of the Crimea fulfilled their commissions faithfully, that doesn’t mean that relations between north and south were always peaceful. One story told by Herodotus and confirmed – in part – by archaeology captures the fraught relation between Greeks and Scythians, nomads, and town dwellers. It concerns Scyles, king of the Scythians. Scyles’s father was a Scythian, but his mother was a Greek. The Scythians lived in tents and drank fermented mare’s milk. The Greeks lived in cities and drank wine. Scyles grew to prefer he Greek way of life, but, because of his peoples’ prejudices, he had to keep his love of poetry and wine and all things Greek secret.

Most of the time, he ruled as a Scythian, but one month out of every year he would go to Borysthenes, a colony of Miletus on the northern shores of the Black Sea, to live as a Greek. While there, Scyles dressed in Greek clothes and worshipped in the Greek way. He even had a Greek wife. But one day, he decided that this wasn’t enough: he wanted to be initiated into the cult of Dionysus and take part in the Bacchic mysteries. The worshipper of Bacchus ate raw meat like an animal and temporarily went mad. One of the local Borysthenites saw Scyles in his frenzy, and informed his subjects. Scandalized, the Scythians rebelled. Scyles fled, but he was betrayed and beheaded.

So what exactly were the rites that cost King Scyles his life? They celebrated Dionysus not as a god of wine, but as a guide through the underworld. In this, he was aided by his ally, Orpheus, the mythical poet who braved the terrors of Hades to bring back his wife.

The cult of Orpheus was a secret religion. Its adherents were sworn to secrecy, and as a result our knowledge of it is highly fragmentary. Most of what we know about the cult of Orpheus comes from archaeology: a burnt papyrus, an inscription on gold leaves found in an Italian tomb, and a series of bone tablets recovered from the ruins of Borysthenes – modern-day Olbia in southern Ukraine, across a short stretch of sea from the Crimea.

The exact purpose of the bone tablets is unknown, but they seem to have been some kind of membership token for the initiated. Some of their owners used them to write short messages. The name of Dionysus recurs frequently, as do those of other gods. Orpheus is mentioned once. Sometimes the messages are longer, but no less enigmatic. One plaque reads “peace-war; truth-falsehood.” Another has on it “Dionysus” and “body-soul.” On a third, someone has scribbled bios-thanatos-bios, life-death-life, and then, to complete the sequence, aletheia – truth.

These plaques were discovered by Soviet archaeologists in the 1950s. But thirty years before, Russian poets seems to have intuited their existence. Alexander Blok, Mandelstam’s friend and rival, figured the Russians as Scythians, calling to Europe with a “barbaric lyre.” Mandelstam himself imagined a different past, a Greek one, writing of his home in exile: “The vines are alive like ancient battles/ Where curly horsemen are fighting in curving order.” In the time of Herodotus, Scythian and Greek met as equals in the Crimea. Twenty-four hundred years later, it still felt like a place outside the grasp of a single culture or epoch.

Mandelstam’s poem that begins “the golden stream of honey,” ends like this:

Golden fleece, oh where are you now, you golden fleece?
All the journey long the heavy sea waves were loud,
and leaving his ship, his sails worn out by the seas,
full of space and time, Odysseus came home.

(Translations from the Russian by Peter France)

Image via Argenberg/Flickr

Tintin and the Death Drive: Tom McCarthy’s C

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Serge Carrefax, the protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s new novel C, has a problem with perspective.  A Mr. Clair comes to his parents’ country estate to tutor him and his sister in painting, among a number of other subjects, but no matter what he does, he can’t get little Serge to draw in three dimensions: “His perceptual apparatuses refuse point-blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration.  He sees things flat; he paints things flat.”  Now this might mean that the boy is a budding modernist, painting little Léger figures and De Stijl landscapes.  Or, it might mean that Serge, by talent and inclination, is more of a cartoonist than a painter.

Tom McCarthy’s novels, with their rigorous denial of psychological interiority and surfeit of learned quotation, themselves resemble exceptionally erudite cartoons.  And, since McCarthy has devoted an entire, brilliant work of criticism to the argument that we should treat the Tintin books as classics of world literature (Tintin and the Secret of Literature), it’s tempting to imagine C as recast by Hergé:
We’re on a boat in the middle of the Nile, bound upstream for one of the Necropolises on the west bank.  Time has not been kind to the boy adventurer or his friends.  Tintin is pacing the decks, declaiming from Hölderin in German.  He has augmented his usual plus fours and argyle socks with a leather jacket and aviator goggles, and he has track marks up and down his arms.  Thomson and Thompson are flying about all over the place, positively buzzing from cocaine. Professor Calculus is standing in the prow, staring morosely at a glass jar of his own stool. Snowy is dead.  His taxidermied corpse is with the baggage.  Captain Haddock is at the wheel, as red-faced and world-weary as ever.  He was an alcoholic before all this began, and he is an alcoholic still (Tintin and the Secret of the Death Drive, 250 ₣, Hardcover).
Tintin and Serge Carrefax share a certain basic blankness, but at some point the comparison collapses: it’s hard to imagine any amount of drugs or German poetry replacing Tintin’s ageless optimism with Serge’s relentless pursuit of death.  Outwardly, C resembles a bildungsroman, beginning with its protagonist’s youth and continuing on through his education and young manhood, but it is not about growth, or education.  The span of Serge’s life is bracketed by the transformations that gave rise to the verbal texture of the modern world: his birth in 1898 is accompanied by the sound of some of the first tests of wireless telegraphy (though Serge’s father, a radio enthusiast, gets beaten to the punch by Marconi), and his death in 1922 coincides with the publication of Ulysses and the high-water mark of literary modernism.  In between, Serge has a number of adventures, a great many of which have recognizable analogues in history or literature.  C is not a book which wears its inspirations lightly.  Serge’s father is based on Alexander Graham Bell, and his sexual neuroses come from Freud’s classic case study of the Wolf Man.  At various points, Serge reenacts the car crash from the “Futurist Manifesto,” gets taken around Alexandria by Cavafy, exults at the same lines of poetry as Heidegger, takes a cure at a sanatorium out of Magic Mountain and attends a séance with Madame Sosostris from The Waste Land.

An easy smidge of plot holds these episodes together.  Serge grows up with his sister Sophie on their mother’s country estate.  His sister commits suicide; Serge develops a powerful case of constipation and receives treatment at an Austro-Hungarian spa.  During World War I he becomes an observer with the Royal Flying Corps and enhances his vision with cocaine and heroin.  Back in London, he studies architecture and spends time with dancehall Amazons.  Finally, Serge’s mentor sends him to Egypt.  Once there, he buys some scarabs, visits some tombs, and dies.

The plot is sketchy by design, since its purpose is to serve as a vehicle for the novel’s driving obsessions with crypts, codes, and transmission.  The whole book is crisscrossed with wires.  On the first page, a coil of copper cable accompanies the doctor in the carriage on his way to Serge’s delivery.  Serge and Sophie grow up next to their mother’s silk factory, surrounded by cocoons, threads, and looms.  Serge takes up his father’s hobby from a young age, learning Morse code and listening for broadcasts of naval disasters from the attic.  In the war, he uses the same skills to call in artillery attacks from the air.  His sister Sophie is more partial to codes; Widsun, an enigmatic family friend, trains her in cryptography and code-breaking, to her great delight.   She is also a prodigy in botany and zoology, and eventually she seems to become a receiver for encrypted messages from the natural world, messages like “…when the bodies…and more bodies come, the parts…a bug massacre in Badsack, Juno Archipelago,” which seem to predict the coming war even as they foretell her own death.

The connection between codes, broadcasts, and death is made explicit when, at Sophie’s funeral, Serge’s father installs a transmitter in her coffin and Serge imagines that he can detect signals from the beyond at the furthest end of the dial.  Later, when he is setting up radio towers in Egypt, the pylons are made to rhyme with the pylons of Egyptian myth, the gateways to the underworld.  And the underworld is never far off: Serge’s childhood home features a ‘Crypt Park’ (it’s next to the estate labyrinth), and after Sophie’s suicide, death becomes an obsession.  Taken prisoner by the Germans, Serge is disappointed when the armistice prevents his execution.  Contemplating a roll and slab of butter at the architecture students’ cafeteria, he sees “a burial mound, with gravestone on the side.”

C’s intellectual preoccupations can be fascinating, but they don’t always sit well together.  The links it draws between radio, codes, and secrets suggest a new theory of literary modernism, calling to mind a literature that is party autonomic and partly scavenged, carried along subterranean avenues and fugitive broadcasts.  His insistence on the omnipresence of hidden patterns enables McCarthy’s best prose, a kind of concentrated physical description which combines amoral detachment with the ecstatic possibilities of pure geometry.  Here he is describing the mining of a trench as seen from the air:
Then, as though summoned upwards by this incantation, the earth rises towards him.  At first it looks like a set of welts bubbling up across its surface; the welts grow into large domes with smooth convex roofs; the roofs, still rising upwards and expanding, start to crack, then break open completely; and through their ruptured crusts shoot long, straight jets of earth: huge, rushing geysers that look as though they’re being propelled upwards by nothing but their own force and volume, the dull brown matter defying both height and gravity through sheer self-will.
McCarthy steps on woozier ground when the question turns to sex and death.  C assumes that the connection between the two is innate and absolute.  Serge has sex for the first time with a crippled spa attendant who smells of sulfur and mold; in the act, she buries herself in the wet earth while Serge hears “a scream, or the echo of a scream, erupts from neither him nor Tania but, it seems, the night itself.”  Later in Egypt, after many intervening sessions of coitus a tergo (the only kind the Wolf Man could bear), he hooks up with a lovely archaeologist in an underground tomb.  During the act, which takes place in a chamber filled with bones, bitumen, mummy wrappings, and the discarded excreta of “a thousand couplings, a thousand deaths,” something bites Serge and a few days later, kills him.

All of this – the idea of a woman’s body as a tomb or instrument of anti-transcendence, the sex in tombs and on top of bones – struck me as dated and kitsch.  The same goes for the death-lust that drives so much of the novel – Serge ejaculating into the sky after strafing Germans or contemplating the aesthetic delights of men being burnt alive.  These moments read as avant-garde cliché, mannered quotations from the long history of literary bourgeois-baiting.  For all his research, McCarthy writes as if the past century simply hadn’t happened, dropping the scandalous tropes of ninety years ago directly into his prim blocks of Neo-Victorian prose where they can no longer offend or surprise.

At its best, C feels like the continuation of an ongoing conversation with the literary past, in which the murmur of the previous fin-de-siècle comes through like static on the radio.  But too often, McCarthy gets bogged down in the paradoxes of writing a historicist avant-garde novel.  McCarthy has long been fascinated by repetition.  This, with C’s themes of death and transmission, might be read as a way of dealing with an inability to overcome his artistic predecessors.  If you can’t outdo, restage.  C is at once an ingenious commentary on the work of his masters and a grim attempt to turn their innovations into a comfortably reproducible genre.

In the end, C is a strangely conservative book.   Its vision of the early 20th Century is of a dark Arcadia, where all the boys are feckless and depressed, sex is a terrifying mystery, and even the menus come with coded messages.  It may not be great literature, but it’d make a great comic book.

Snake Meat and Reefer: Horacio Castellanos Moya

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This is what meeting one of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s narrators is like: you’re in a squalid cantina in Guatemala City, in an alley by the archbishop’s palace. Or maybe it’s a chic place in San Salvador, across from the mall, where the waiters are gorgeous and they serve fancy cold cuts with the rioja. They come late, and when they arrive they seem a little off – a little strung out, a little jumpy. Right away, they want to tell you everything, all at once: about the article in today’s paper by some has-been calling them a hack, Kati’s dress and how fat she looks in it, a conspiracy between drug dealers and the military police, the best place to get oysters, and isn’t marimba music terrible, the worst, and how they’d like to sleep with the Spanish girl from the human rights office, and did you hear about Olga?, of course she’d already fucked him before she died. It’s a torrent. You can’t get a word in edgewise so you just sip your beer or your wine and wonder if it’s the cocaine talking or something they got from their psychiatrist. But you are enjoying yourself, because however one-sided it is, they’re supplying everything a good conversation needs – sex, secrets, politics, and death, and because they’re funny, really funny, even as they’re being morbid or petty or paranoid. And they are paranoid – persecution-complex, Nixon-level paranoid. But as Kurt Cobain said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. Besides, you think, in this country, who knows what’s true and what isn’t, so you relax and settle into a rhythm and take in every story as it comes. And that’s when the real mayhem starts.

Even at the rare moments when they aren’t narrated in first-person, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novels feel like monologues. Like the best monologues, they float on a wave of relentless interiority, a steady stream of talk which feels like it is being pumped directly out of someone’s skull and which, however insane, carries the electricity of live thought (Moya has been lucky to have translators – Katherine Silver and Lee Paula Springer – who have been able to render this whoosh in English).

In an interview at The Quarterly Conversation, Moya claimed to be influenced by Elias Canetti’s conception of the writer as “a custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has the ability “to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are.” Moya is a gifted mimic, and “weak, miserable or dark” isn’t a bad description for his protagonists, who are often limited and usually more than a little crazy. Thomas Bernhard is another major influence (the subtitle of Moya’s most notorious novel El Asco translates as”Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador”), and Bernhard’s almost boundless capacity for revulsion runs like a chain through his work. But Moya’s novels go beyond simple ventriloquism or scorn. They read like gonzo thrillers or amphetamine-fuelled nightmares, and owe at least as much to the pulp violence of Richard Stark or Mickey Spillane. Which is to say that it’s possible to draw up a perfectly respectable late-Modernist pedigree for Moya, reaching back past Bernhard and Canetti to Notes from the Underground and on through Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, with pitstops at Simenon and Gombrowicz. But to get at the mood of comedy and dread that saturates his work you need to think of Ralph Meeker’s deadpan sadism in Kiss Me Deadly or Lee Marvin disappearing into the shadows at the end of Point Blank.

On the first page of Dance With Snakes, a beat-up yellow Chevrolet materializes on the curb next to a San Salvador housing project. The car is home to a ragged, bearded drunk who roams the neighborhood scavenging for trash. Eduardo Sosa, an unemployed sociologist who lives across the street, tries to befriend him. He joins him on his rounds and learns that his name is Jacinto Bustillo and that he was once a factory accountant. Outside a filthy bar called Prosperity, a toothless dwarf named Coco performs oral sex on Don Jacinto. They brawl; Jacinto kills the dwarf with a broken bottle. Eduardo slits the older man’s throat.  At this point, the novel finally leaves the world of the mundane.

Eduardo returns to Jacinto’s car and climbs inside. He feels as if he hadn’t just killed a man, but cut a hole in the fabric of reality, “As if I were Don Jacinto, as if the pocketknife with the bone colored handle were a kind of scalpel I’d used to make an enormous incision that allowed me to penetrate the world in which I wanted to live.” The car is home to four poisonous snakes – lady snakes – with names: Beti, Loli, Valentina, Carmela – and the ability to communicate. Eduardo explains to them that he is the new Bustillo, and together they set out on a two-day orgy of unspeakable violence.

Moya narrates the spree alternately through Eduardo’s eyes and over the shoulders of dogged cop Lito Handal and tenacious girl-reporter Rita Mena. In between explosions, stabbings, mass snake-bites, and stampedes, an image of San Salvador and Salvadoran society at large starts to come together in flashes, like the picture in a zoetrope. Politicians serve the wealthy; both are in bed with the drug cartels, and the cartels use the drug enforcements squads meant to pursue them for protection. Corruption is everywhere; the gulf between rich and poor is immense. Or, as Eduardo puts it:
We went downtown, to the buildings destroyed by the earthquake, the sidewalks packed with the street vendors selling piles of used clothing from the United States, the sound of hundreds of stereos playing at the same time, and the crazed crowds of people pouring out onto the streets. The yellow Chevrolet moved at a snail’s pace through the sea of bodies. It was hard to believe that what had once been the historic city centre had now been plunged into chaos, only as a result of the government’s indolence. I wanted to do my good deed for the day and help clean up the neighborhood. I stopped the car where the crowds were thickest and told the ladies to go out for a stroll.
Senselessness is written from inside a whirl of complexes: narcissism, sex-addiction, megalomania, paranoia, and a gnawing sense of inferiority – as a Central American among Europeans, as a writer, as an amateur among professionals. The narrator (unnamed, though clearly meant to be Moya’s stand-in) is a coward, a would-be womanizer and, from the sounds of it, a hack writer.

At one point he gets an idea for a novel.  He has been hired to copy-edit a 1,100 page report detailing human rights abuses perpetrated by the military against Mayan villagers. Some of their testimony sounds like poetry to him. He copies certain sentences in his notebook, like “I am not complete in the mind” or “At first I wished to have been a poisonous snake, but now what I ask for is their repenting,” and repeats them to everyone he meets; they remind him of César Vallejo. The novel is going to be about a dead man he dug up in his mound of documents, a murdered civil registrar from the town of Totonicapán, who would tell his story as a semi-decapitated, fingerless ghost, “always with the fingerless palms of his hands pressing together the two halves of his head to keep his brains in place, for I am not a total stranger to magical realism.” He comes up with this plan in bed. After, he gets up and takes a shower, heads over to a bar to meet a girl, and forgets about the whole thing.

When Senselessness came out, John Leonard faulted Moya for “aestheticizing…traumatic utterance.” He went on to sniff that the only thing clear at its end was that “the victims of genocide have not yet found a witness worthy of them.” In fact, Senselessness doesn’t spend much time on witnessing or utterance because it is miles apart from the naïve surrealism and moist hand-wringing which its novel-in-a-novel mocks. Moya knows how to treat his subjects obliquely. Here, the aftermath of a decades-long massacre becomes the occasion for a sex farce, an office comedy, and a paranoid thriller. The last lines turn the whole thing into a black joke.

Laura Rivera, the narrator of The She-Devil in the Mirror (2009), is Moya’s finest monster, less out-and-out destructive than Eduardo Sosa but at least as deluded (to the point that it starts to seem like clairvoyance), and with all the frenzy of Moya’s stand-in in Senselessness but with none of his hang-ups. A rich girl, her father owns coffee plantations outside of town and bought her a BMW for her eighteenth birthday. She was married and divorced; now she’s forever on the prowl – for gossip, for men, for distraction.

When She-Devil starts, Laura’s best friend Olga María has just been gunned down in her living room in front of her children. Laura is shocked, incredulous, and suspicious – and never shuts up about it. The book comes in nine chapters, and each one is a soliloquy delivered in a different place: at Olga’s wake, in Church, at a restaurant, on the run. We never hear what her interlocutor has to say; after a while we wonder if she’s even there.

Laura Rivera can’t stop talking about Olga’s murder, but she also can’t stop talking about herself. Her self-absorption, snobbery, and racism come out in waves, but for all her obliviousness, the death of her friend turns Laura into a kind of detective. She starts thinking about everyone she knows, starting with her ex-husband and the men Olga slept with. Like that, the little world of San Salvador society comes into focus: affairs, holding companies, coke habits, political rivalries, abandoned warehouses, embezzlement, and assassinations, all with no more legwork than a trip to the beach. In the background, Police Commissioner Lito Handal and reporter Rita Mena, last seen in Dance With Snakes, go about their jobs. So does Robocop, a former soldier, a killer with a shaved head on the run from one of Moya’s un-translated novels.

Politics in Moya’s novels is mostly an issue of making things visible. His characters move through societies unhinged by civil war and narcotics smuggling, and their manias channel wider pathologies. In the same way that the ticking time-bomb in Petersburg throws a moving spot-light on a city lurching toward revolution, violence in Moya’s books illuminates the collusion and corruption of power. Even Laura Rivera ends up sounding disillusioned: “It’s awful my dear… the same thing will happen that happens with all the crimes committed in this country: the authorities will never find out anything and people will simply forget about it.” Part of the fun of Dance with Snakes is that, by the end, Eduardo’s spree feels like more of an overreaction than outright madness.

But at the same time, Moya, who lived through the beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War and was twice exiled because of its repercussions, mostly keeps the recent past in the background. Even in Senselessness, which takes the aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War as its immediate topic, it comes to the surface most forcefully in the corners – in old stories, rumors, and dark suspicions. In the two Salvadoran novels, the war is almost all substrate, history for people living violently in the present.

In the end though, Moya’s addled protagonists are capable of keeping his books aloft on their own steam. His novels are as much about the compulsive pleasures of speech as they are about anything else. As records of a time and place they lack any trace of didacticism or cant. As fictions they carry a sense of giddy possibility, of literature as a game without rules. So when you find yourself with Eduardo Sosa sitting down to a dinner of soup made from his dead snake lover and a pile of stolen marijuana, a soup which carries in itself the distilled essence of the snake’s lustful spirit and which propels Eduardo into a four-way inter-species orgy, you feel compelled to agree with his verdict: delicious.

The Aira Effect

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About mid-way through César Aira’s novel An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, its protagonist, the German master of documentary painting Johann Moritz Rugendas and his assistant are crossing the Argentinean Pampas somewhere between Mendoza and San Luis.  They ride over a vast, featureless plain.  Soon they come to an even more desolate landscape.

On the third day they came to expanses resonant with emptiness.  The sinister nature of the surroundings made an impression on the Germans, and, to their surprise, on the Gauchos too.  The old man and the boy talked in whispers, and the man dismounted on a number of occasions to feel the soil.  They noticed that there was no grass, not the least blade, and the thistles had no leaves: they looked like coral.

It takes them some time to realize that this “lunar ocean” is the work of locusts who had swept through the land, leaving nothing behind.  Rugendas sets out in search of water and fodder.  Soon clouds gather:

The storm broke suddenly with a spectacular lightning bolt that raced a zig-zag arc clear across the sky.  It came so close that Rugendas’ upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light.  He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin, and his pupils contracted to pin-points.  The thunder crashing down impossibly enveloped him in millions of vibrations.  The horse began to turn beneath him.  It was still turning when a lightning bolt struck it on the head.  Like a nickel statue, man and beast were lit up with electricity.  For one horrific moment, regrettably to be repeated, Rugendas witnessed the spectacle of his body shining.  The horse’s mane was standing on end, like the dorsal fin of a swordfish.

That’s what reading Aira is like: you don’t know where you are or what you are looking at, but the air is full of electricity.

César Aira was born in Argentina in 1949, in the wonderfully named town of Colonel Pringles, the Wikipedia page of which promises visitors an Arbor of Historical Trees that was one visited by Jorge Luis Borges.  Since 1967 he has lived in Buenos Aires.  He is a writer of immense productivity, having written over sixty novels in addition to translations and works of criticism.  Only four of his works are currently in print in English, which makes it difficult to evaluate the totality of his output except on the principle of the iceberg: there’s a lot more under the water than what we can see.

Roberto Bolaño called him the “one contemporary writer who defies classification,” but Anglophone readers will naturally tend to group him in the loose circle of writers who seem to move in Bolanño’s general orbit.  Besides Aira, this informal Bolaño-kreis would include the Salvadorean writer Horacio Castellanos Moya and the Catalan Enrique Vila-Matas.  But while the links between these two and Bolaño are reasonably clear – Moya shares his fascination with urban violence and the sinister underside of Latin American politics, and Vila-Matas his interest in creating a fully recursive literature – the connection to Aira is harder to specify.

Aira considers himself an experimental novelist.  His working method relies on internal momentum, using what he calls the “continuum” or the “constant flight forward.  This procedure allows him to overcome self-censorship and the burdens of traditional form.  He writes a page or two a day, without revising or going backward until the book assumes its desired shape.  This technique results in strange, brief novels which oscillate between the mundane and the fantastic multiple times over their short spans.  The four available in English are works of compression, detail and mystery in which tightly controlled surfaces of prose are deployed in the service of haphazard curlicues of plot.  In fact, it might be easier to treat the novels like ballads and summarize them along the lines of Harry Smith’s liner notes to the Anthology of American Folk Music:

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter – Savage Indians and facial trauma await an artist in the pampas.

How I Became a Nun – Poisoned ice cream and illiteracy complicate a girl/boy’s first year of school.

Ghosts – Nudist specters urge a teenage girl to join them for a New Year’s Eve feast.

The Literary Conference – Pirate treasure helps poor writer clone an army out of Carlos Fuentes.

Of course, this doesn’t really do justice either to the books’ intricacy or to their wildness.  But that’s all right, because plot is always a secondary concern in Aira.  His novels are always about something in addition to themselves.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira’s masterpiece, is on the surface just what its title says it is: the story of a brief episode which marked a turning point in the career of the real-life German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas.  Rugendas’ specialty was a now-forgotten branch of landscape painting propagated by Alexander von Humboldt and called the “physiognomy of nature,” which aimed to document the infinite forms of nature and resolve these into a discrete number of primary types.  Following Humboldt’s advice, Rugendas comes to the New World in order to find landscapes worthy of his brush.  The novel picks up in the middle of his travels across the continent, narrating a trip from Santiago to Buenos Aires which has to be cut short by a gruesome accident.

Over the course of its eighty-seven pages, Episode exposes readers to a Baedeker’s-worth of scenic spectacle and local color: hallucinatory vegetation, snow-capped peaks, lightning storms, Indian raids and endless plains.  The effect of all this detail and incident on such a small canvas is vertiginous, like reading an epic poem etched on a grain of sand.

I’m making the novel sounds like something by a Latin American Larry McMurtry, but Aira’s method is closer to that of a miniaturist than a painter of history.  Telling the story through Rugendas’ eyes, Aira’s prose acquires a rare intensity of vision.  Here he is describing one of the immense carts used for hauling loads across the pampas:

Because they had only two wheels (that was their peculiarity), they tipped back when unloaded and their shafts pointed up at the sky, at an angle of forty-five degrees.  The ends of the shafts seemed to disappear among the clouds; their length can be deduced from the fact that they could be used to hitch ten teams of oxen.  The sturdy planks were reinforced to bear immense loads; whole houses, on occasion, complete with furniture and inhabitants.  The wheels were like fairground Ferris wheels, made entirely of carob wood, with spokes as thick as roof-beams and bronze hubs at the center, laden with pints of grease.

I love those upturned shafts, which turn the humble cart into a Jacob’s ladder bridging earth and heaven, while the carob-wood wheels and bronze hubs call to mind something between a lumberyard appliance and a Viking trousseau.  Looking at the cart, Rugendas feels compelled to follow it across the plains: “He felt it would be like traveling in time: proceeding rapidly on horseback along the same route, they would catch up with carts that had set off in other geological eras, perhaps even before the inconceivable beginning of the universe.”

As the novel moves forward, Rugendas, and Aira through him, comes closer and closer to an ideal of art as unmediated vision.  The cost is considerable.  Rugendas’ accident leaves him with a grotesquely deformed face and prone to terrible migraines, which he treats with tinctures of opium.  It also intensifies his ability to see: “He had never seen better in his life.  In the depths of that mantled night the pinpricks of his pupils woke him to the bright day’s panorama.  And powdered poppy extract, a concentrated form of the analgesic, provided sleep enough for ten reawakenings per second.”  By the end Rugendas is something not quite human, a “waking nightmare,” the star of a horror film whose monster is the Emersonian eyeball.

Ghosts shares Episode’s preoccupation with the visible world, if in a less frenzied key.  The entire action takes place over the course of a single day, New Year’s Eve, in and around a Buenos Aires construction site.  The night watchman, a Chilean immigrant, and his family live in the unfinished building as squatters.  The father, Raúl, is a good worker, but a bit of a drunkard.  His wife, Elisa, is a levelheaded housewife, “that anomaly, not nearly as rare as is often supposed: a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd.”  Their daughter, Patri, quiet but philosophically “frivolous,” spends the day wandering through the empty structure.  All of them see the ghosts which haunt it: portly naked men covered in fine cement dust whose members stretch like accordions.  The ghosts float between floors and sit on the satellite dishes “on which no bird would have dared to perch.”  Raúl uses them to refrigerate his wine; inserting a bottle into the ghosts’ thorax not only cools the wine, but also transmutes it into an “exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon.”  Elisa does her best to ignore them.  But Patri is drawn to them by a strange attraction, and they to her, swarming around her head in a “luminous helix.”  Toward evening, they invite her to their midnight feast, though without mentioning the price of admission.

Between hauntings, Ghosts is filled with Aira’s beautifully precise observation of the texture of everyday life.  Most of the novel is occupied with the description of a workday, the preparations for a lunch, the problem of getting change in a grocery store, the difference between Chilean and Argentinean hair styles, laundry.  Elisa uses an inordinate amount of bleach in her washing, with the result that her family’s clothes “were so faded and had that threadbare look, humble and worn, yet beautifully so.  Even if an article of clothing was new, or brightly colored when she bought it, for the very first wash (a night-long soak in bleach) it took on the whitish, delicate and somehow aristocratic appearance that distinguished the clothes of the Viñas family.”  Viewed from this close, ordinary existence opens out to other dimensions.  Aira is a master at pivoting between the mundane and metaphysical.  In the middle of Ghosts, Patri takes a nap during the siesta and dreams of her unfinished building.  Her dream turns into a disquisition on the problem of the unbuilt in the arts, on the philosophical underpinnings of architecture in different cultures, and finally, a blueprint for Aira’s brand of literature, “an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts.”

How I Became a Nun begins with a cone of poisoned ice cream, part of a wave of lethal contaminations which was “sweeping Argentina and the neighboring countries that year.”  Despite appearances, it is another attempt by Aira to create a literature of unmediated experience. This is a quest which runs through all of his work.  Near the end of Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Rugendas experiences something like it with regard to the visible world while in the grip of an opium trance:  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.  Mutatis mutandis, the same thing happens with a painter and the visible world…. What the world was saying was the world….Reality was becoming immediate, like a novel.”  Aira’s strange framing conceits work like the inverse of Barthes’ reality effect. Grounding his novels in the extraordinary gives him the space to tunnel into the everyday world, Francis Ponge by way of Kobo Abe.

How I Became a Nun is a novel about childhood.  It also contains one of the best sentences and the worst pun in recent literature.  The sentence is an unprovable conjecture about semantic limits of sign language: “In the language of gestures, the dwarf must be unsayable.”  For the pun, you’ll have to read the book to the end.  After the poisoning, it settles into an episodic narrative about a year in the life of a child, a girl named César Aira, whom the world seems to regard as a boy.  Very little is made of this ambiguity.  Even less is made of the vampire plague which pops up in the background.

For the most part, little César’s childhood is fairly normal.  After the second chapter, César’s father is in jail and her mother struggles to provide for the family, but otherwise he/she undergoes the usual adventures of being a seven-year old: learning to read, making a friend, listening to the radio, playing make believe.  Aira has a gift for inhabiting the particular logic of children, with its excess of thought without sense to guide it.  César alternately under- and overreacts to events, throws fits, tells strange, pointless lies, misunderstands wholes sets of concepts.  She arrives in school after a three month absence and doesn’t know how to read.  The process appears to her as an “abstract mimicry,” a “recondite algebra in which the teachers specialized for reasons that were none of my concern.”  Visiting her father in prison she hides for a day and a night, fantasizing about the search provoked by her disappearance.  Asked by a doctor about her symptoms while recuperating in the hospital, César launches into a typically elaborate dishonesty:

An urge, a whim or a manic obsession that not even I could explain impelled me to sabotage the doctor’s work, to trick him.  I pretended to be stupid…I must have thought the opportunity was too good to waste.  I could be as stupid as I liked, with impunity.  But it wasn’t simply a matter of passive resistance.  Doing nothing at all was too haphazard, because sometimes nothing can be the right response, and I was determined not to let chance determine my fate.  So even though I could have left his questions unanswered, I took the trouble to answer them.  I lied.  I said the opposite of the truth, or the opposite of what seemed truest to me.

This passage gives me a pang of recognition.  César’s convoluted rationales recall the dimly remembered reasons behind various childhood decisions, like building a fort and then destroying it to keep it from being destroyed, or hiding for hours among the women’s wear racks in a Value City in hopes of raising an alarm.  In its own way, it’s a triumph of psychological realism.  Certainly it’s a tremendous relief after years of American fiction in which are children are confined to the axis of angel, savant and thug.

In The Literary Conference, the most recent and most antic of his novels to appear in English, Aira is once again his own protagonist.  This time he is an adult, and male, an author of middling renown and a struggling translator.  He is also a master of genetics and genius at solving nautical puzzles, a skill which he uses in the prologue to raise an ancient treasure from the Venezuelan seafloor.  Still, César is afflicted by the same mental hyperactivity that plagued him in How I Became a Nun: “Everything is a metaphor in the hyperkinetic microscope of my psyche, everything is instead of something else.”

This torrent makes it hard for him to unwind.  In between the raising of the treasure and the fulfillment of his diabolical plan for world domination (or Latin American literary respectability), he takes a brief vacation at a literary conference, but he can’t relax, distracted by the “thousands of tiny incidents, all full of meaning” that happen “while nothing was happening.”  At one point he tries to measure the velocity of his thoughts:

I am trying a method of my own invention: I shoot a perfectly empty thought through all the others, and because it has no content of its own, it reveals the furtive outlines – which are stable to the empty one – of the contents of the others.  That retrograde cloned mini-man, the Speedometer, is my companion on solitary walks and the only one who knows all my secrets.

He could be talking about his own work as a writer.  Everything in Aira has that Mad Scientist feel to it.  His novels are eccentric clones of reality, where the lights are brighter, the picture is sharper and everything happens at the speed of thought.