It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.
But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:
1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.
This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.
2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.
Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.
All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.
3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.
4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.
So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.
5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.
There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
“I have forced myself to contradict myself, in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes,” said Marcel Duchamp in an interview in 1945, seemingly describing the temperament of César Aira, the Argentinean fiction writer who would be born four years later, and whose fictions swerve with a barely controlled weirdness. Like for Duchamp, contradiction and incongruity are Aira’s bread and butter. He takes hold of, toys with, and throws by the side of the road any number of genres, moods, and plots, all in the space of a hundred pages, a length his 60 or so books almost never exceed.
Aira doesn’t give the impression of trying to be clever, but instead of escaping his own boredom. His prose has a euphoric, blindfolded momentum; the events that take place are at once inevitable and unimaginable. Fate, that otherwise unfashionable narrative antique, has a hand in everything. To read Aira is to hurtle, and it’s not always pleasant. As one of translators, Chris Andrews, has put it, “Once you’re addicted to Aira, you can be disappointed by a swerve […], but somehow you prefer being disappointed by him than satisfied by many other writers.”
Part of the way Aira makes disappointment preferable to satisfaction is by keeping his characters in perpetual motion. In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a German artist hits the road in South America. In The Literary Conference, a mad scientist travels to Venezuela in order to clone Carlos Fuentes. In The Seamstress and the Wind, a mother mistakenly thinks that her son has been kidnapped and orders a taxi driver to take her to Patagonia. Aira’s novels are never without a parade, a chaotic sense of procession that spills over from the form of his writing into its content and back again. This is fiction as a never-ending car chase, and you might just get away if you can only stop your vehicle from turning into a lampshade.
So it is in both the newly-translated Shantytown, in which a kindly middle-class bodybuilder walks daily to the slums of Buenos Aires out of a sense of camaraderie for the people who collect rubbish by hand, and The Hare (first published in the UK in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail, and now reissued by New Directions), the story of an English naturalist traveling in the wilds of Argentina in order to catch sight of the eponymous animal. If half the challenge of reading Aira is just keeping up with him, then to enjoy him is to fight the reflex to make sense of the sometimes beautiful and almost-always hilarious pandemonium as it passes by.
This idea – that things just happen, don’t ask why – is something that the narrator of Shantytown spells out early on. Maxi, the well-to-do bodybuilder, works for the rubbish collectors just because it was, “something he did, that was all. It was spontaneous, like a hobby.” It’s not just his own motivations that Maxi doesn’t interrogate, it’s the world: watching people scavenge in the rubbish, he “didn’t ask himself why they were doing what they did.” Very quickly this refusal to interpret or make sense comes to seem like a metaphor for how Aira writes: not exactly unconsciously, but certainly not self-critically. “If Maxi had stopped to wonder whether or not they’d accept his help, or tried to find the right words,” the narrator tells us, “it would never have happened.” So there you have it: a writer describing how he writes about writing by not thinking about writing – by way of a metaphor about rubbish collection. An odd situation, to be sure.
But none of this is any less than completely deliberate. Aira has a way of writing that doesn’t allow for inaction (but does allow him to commentate his own process). He refers to this method of writing as flight forward, which Andrews has described as, “not going back and rewriting, but attempting to redeem the errors or inadequacies of what he has already written by adding, by writing more, by improvising retrospective explanations.” Just like in life, you can’t undo the past. But you can build elaborate and fanciful justifications that no one believes: “Officer, my friend asked me to carry that stuff for him, he said it was medicine, and I decided to carry it in my sock so it wouldn’t get lost, I swear.” Yeah, right.
In Shantytown, the plot seems to hinge on a drug called proxidine (Aira’s plots never actually hinge on anything other than his own whims), the effect of which, “was to increase the proximity of things, applied above all to the elements of a problem: by bringing them into sudden contiguity, it brought them closer to the solution.” Proxidine isn’t just a made-up drug, but also an analogy for the made-up device with which Aira resolves the puzzle-like plot of the book itself, drawing together its various elements for a final outrageous, overflowing denouement. This is where Aira’s likeness to an artist such as Duchamp dissolves (and there is a puff quote on the cover of The Hare proclaiming Aira to be “the Duchamp of Latin American literature” – so it’s not just me). The games Aira plays with plot and character aren’t cool, high-minded, chess-like things, but more like Twister, only with rules that no one seems to know (it would be too easy, of course, if there were no rules at all).
The Hare, too, is possessed by Aira’s restless indifference to realism, the plot unfolding as capriciously as an exquisite corpse, as Clarke, the naturalist, and his traveling companions lurch across the Argentinean countryside from one misunderstanding with the local Indians to another (social conventions and traditions being important to Aira because they can be distorted and deformed). But there’s a slow, darkly syrupy quality to prose that is noticeably different from his other titles available in English. Clarke, visiting a remote part of the country, catches sight of oxen that, “had taken on the appearance of Japanese bulls, with swollen dewlaps and so many folds of white skin dangling from their backs that they appeared to be covered in sheets of marble, like Bernini statues in Rome.” That heaviness and the reference to Baroque art seem immediately at odds to the pragmatic, crash-and-bash prose style of Aira’s other books.
“The impossible,” Aira writes early in The Hare, “is the first thing to become reality.” But does anything ever become reality in an Aira fiction? Things hover near authenticity, threaten to become real, seem for a moment to impersonate truth…and then just don’t. Halfway through The Hare, I suddenly thought: no two Aira characters ever really understand what the other one is saying. The meta-fictional dialogue in his stories is only for that one notable onlooker, the reader. In a very anti-modern way, plot is something that happens to Aira’s characters, rather than something that is determined by their actions.
But what holds everything together is Aira’s refusal to repeat himself, his insistence upon contradicting himself, and his way of keeping proportion and perspective in states of constant flux. The size and the meaning of the world itself change from sentence to sentence according to an unknowable internal logic of ideas – things never in short supply when Aira’s around – about reality, perception, expression, and, above all, writing. Returning to more normal contemporary fiction after reading Aira – or simply to flesh-and-blood life itself – is a little like that odd childhood sensation of dismounting a trampoline, and feeling a heaviness rush back into your legs as you walk across solid ground. You ask yourself: was it always this boring?
César Aira’s novels are the narrative equivalent of the Exquisite Corpse, that Surrealist parlor game in which players add to drawings or stories without knowledge of previous or subsequent additions. Wildly heterogeneous elements are thrown together, and the final result never fails to surprise and amuse. Aira is wacky enough to play the game by himself, but the reader isn’t left out either. Instead, Aira conditions his readers, writing so that devotees — what Aira calls his “deluxe” readers — can recognize the ingenious repetitions that connect his vast and bizarre body of work.
The author of more than 80 books, most of them short novels, Aira tells interviewers that he writes a page and a half each day in neighborhood cafés of Buenos Aires. He also famously denies revising anything he writes. Instead, as he explained to María Moreno in BOMB magazine, he allows real-life distractions and interruptions around him to appear in his narratives and push them along: “If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing — it did happen once — it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.”
This a posteriori technique of “making it relate” is a modified Surrealist technique that Aira sometimes calls his “flight forward.” It’s a creative process favored not only by Aira himself, but also by some of his characters: the title character of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira and the Mad Scientist protagonist of The Literary Conference both mention “flight forward” as an element of their respective modes of invention. “Deluxe” readers with more extended immersion in Aira’s zany brain take delight in the metaphysical fugues that result from this madcap method: it is not uncommon for Aira’s unhinged narratives to devolve into delirious flights of reason capable of overthrowing the entire plot, just when the reader least expects it. As Dr. Aira believes: “Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges…In order to be effective, one had to depart from the purely reasonable, which would always be an abstract way of thinking devoid of any truly practical use.” Here we have César Aira’s philosophy of fiction, thinly disguised as the professional opinion of “Dr. Aira.”
On a narrative level, “a posteriori” narration seems to work in at least two different ways. Sometimes Aira begins a novel by placing ambitious distance between its starting point and putative end: this is the case in How I Became a Nun, which begins with a male child narrator called César describing his first visit to an ice cream parlor with his father. Other novels begin with a highly improbable combination which Aira then relates, a posteriori, as he goes along. This is the case with The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, which tells the story of a blundering middle-aged miracle worker beleaguered by his nemesis Dr. Actyn, a conventional MD bent on ruining Dr. Aira’s reputation by using hidden cameras to expose him as a fraud. Employing hordes of extras and elaborately staged verité snares, Actyn has made Dr. Aira’s life a living hell by subjecting him to the constant suspicion that he’s being duped. Miracle work and hidden-camera reality TV shows are far from peanut butter and jelly, but Aira’s flair for a posteriori plotting is seventy-something novels in the making. He pulls it off.
There isn’t much else to the plot. Even if I revealed whether or not Dr. Actyn succeeds, I wouldn’t haven’t spoiled anything. Like most of Aira’s novels, the plot of The Miracle Cures is scaffolding. The book is mostly an erratic hodgepodge of digressive interior monologue, and the tale of the persecuted miracle worker playfully flirts at being nothing more than a metaphor for Aira’s flighty methods of literary creation. For instance, when Dr. Aira gets talked into granting another Miracle Cure after swearing them off, the narrator observes:
Dr. Aira could have gotten out of it by telling them that there had been a mistake, a misunderstanding; he was a theoretician, one could almost say a “writer,” and the only thing that linked him to the Miracle Cures was a kind of metaphor…
Such blunt meta-referentiality may appear tedious, but it’s actually hilarious. The joke will be half-lost on novice, non-deluxe readers, so those new to Aira ought to begin by reading a few of the other novels available in translation. This kind of readerly “training” will reveal that enjoyment of Aira’s novels has much less to do with what happens than with the digressive commentary on and acrobatic connections between what few plot elements there are. As he told María Moreno,
In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion…That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot.
To extend the sewing metaphor: Aira is like Penelope at the loom, but a sort of Penelope on speed. Instead of unraveling his creations in order to avoid completing them, Aira hurtles forward, churning out finished texts that seem to unravel themselves as they’re read.
Over the last twenty years, Aira has made a trademark of writing at a rate that seems intended to prevent readers from ever catching up with him, a superproductivity that has also earned him criticism as a dilettante obsessed with lowbrow genre-fiction. Even for native Spanish readers in Latin America, access to Aira’s total catalog is difficult. He does this on purpose, requiring readers to search him out by favoring what he calls “those independent, almost clandestine publishers” that produce artisanal editions of his novels. This includes the cartonera presses in Latin America, which publish handmade books on recycled cardboard and paper collected by underemployed urbanites. Some of his novels, snatched up by collectors and foreign libraries, are hard to find. This means that Aira’s own method for reading — “when I start on an author I read him completely” — is unavailable to his own readers.
Catching up with Aira in English translation will take even longer. Although he has been publishing steadily since the early 1980s — several novels annually in nearly every year since 1991 — English translations have lagged. The Miracle Cures is only the seventh of Aira’s books to be translated to English. This might have less to do with Aira than with vagaries of the North American publishing industry. New Directions is of course responsible for Anglophone readers’ access to Aira’s work, having published six of the seven available translations. For this we must be grateful. But they also appear to have delayed a more ambitious translation schedule for Aira until they have squeezed every last story and novel out of the desk stuffed with manuscripts that Roberto Bolaño seems to have left behind when he died in 2003. In any case, readers smitten with Aira’s whimsical philosophizing and swerving narratives need not fear further delay: Aira’s star is now on the rise among the Anglophone literati. Varamo, the most recent Aira translation, received praise from The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the ever-hip Patti Smith.
Bolaño nevertheless remains a looming presence — he is often mentioned when likenesses to Aira are sought. The comparison is perplexing, though, as the two writers have little in common from a stylistic standpoint. Descriptions of Aira as a 21st-century Borges are also inevitable; comparisons of the two Argentines are instructive, but remain inadequate. A closer resemblance might be Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose work remains untranslated but for his novel Beauty Salon and the three others collected in Chinese Checkers. Like Aira, he publishes at a frenetic rate (more than 15 books since 2001), having abandoned the modernist prerogative of the masterpiece novel in favor of larger, complex novel-systems composed of dozens of short novels that intersect and recycle characters and plot elements. Both writers also indulge in a habit of styling their protagonists after themselves, with many a “César” and “Mario” — and the occasional “Dr. Aira” — between them.
These personalized novelistic universes have exploded with a Big Bang in Latin America, where writers struggled for decades to emerge from the long shadow of “Boom” generation writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez. Now that the reverberations are finally getting across the language barrier — and getting hyped by Patti Smith — we can anticipate an accelerated explosion of César Aira’s universe in English.
The shortlist for a still fairly new, but very worthwhile award has been announced. The Best Translated Book Award highlights work in translation (of course), a corner of the literary world that gets far less attention in the U.S. than it deserves.
“The Best Translated Book Awards launched in 2007 as a way of bringing attention to great works of international literature. Original translations (no reprints or retranslations) published between December 2009 and November 2010 are eligible for this year’s award. Quality of the original book and the artistry of the English translation are the criteria used in determining the winning titles.
Thanks to the support of Amazon.com, each winning author and translator will receive a $5,000 cash prize.”
The shortlist comprises ten books, and six languages are represented:
The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland
A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns
Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
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.