MARCH 22, 2019
THERE’S A CERTAIN BRAND of criticism reserved for overstuffed, bizarre stories — it consists of the critic throwing up her hands in despair and saying: “Sure, whatever, why not?” It usually has to do with a lack of narrative cohesion or consistency — but mostly it’s about the element of surprise. Whodunits rely on surprise by flouting expectation: when the audience least expects something, swerve. Poke the bear after insisting it’s harmless, then reveal it is the murderer. Avant-garde works rely on surprise by flouting tradition: baffle, provoke. Poke the bear, make it dance and tell you a campfire tale about a murderer with a heart of gold. Two men called Vladimir and Estragon wait, forever, by a tree, and it’s probably much ado about nothing? Charles Kinbote pretends to care about a long poem, but really he cares only about himself, and some country named Zembla? Sure, whatever, why not?
The Argentinian writer César Aira — I bought all 16 of his English-translated books, including his most recent, Birthday — is precisely the sort of writer to elicit that reaction. Take a centuries-old epiphany about a pirate treasure by a translator who appears at the exact location, and is immediately made rich. Or a headless dog who, without any semblance of a brain or any kind of nervous system, survives to adulthood. These are Aira stories, and if I’m being totally honest, they don’t strike me as particularly avant-garde. Most things that actually happen in an Aira story, in the sense of a plot, happen pretty quickly. The rest is digression, mostly Aira straight-up messing with the reader. On the basis of sheer experimentalism, there’s no Pale Fire–like flouting of formalism here. The prose is candid. There’s always some narrative. On the basis of grand metaphor, again, no dice. If you’re waiting to understand something, you won’t.
But that’s not true. Aira isn’t without tradition or precedent — he’s just hard to pin down. The provocations are too capricious; the subversion is undercut instantly with a cruel reminder of reality or lack thereof. The closest tradition is probably Dadaism in its insistence on nonsense verse. Then again — at least according to a profile in The Nation — Aira’s destabilizing of reality is supposed to be deeply political, the works of a man who was “a young militant leftist, with the notion of writing big realist novels.” But at least from the translated works that precede Birthday, there is little narrative coherence to his radicalism. If there is, it’s like an editor returning a draft with the sentence, “TK TK capitalism TK TK.”
Who says that’s a bad thing? There’s a big show of laziness, too, which is very much a conventionally bad thing (Aira claims to improvise entirely and never rewrite). In Varamo, the titular character contemplates the disbursement of his salary in counterfeit money:
After all, Panama was a young nation, and situations of this kind require a minimum of history. It was complicated enough to establish the laws that govern the legal printing of money, an operation which, in its early stages, is bound to resemble counterfeiting. So if he were caught trying to use fake money — as he was sure he would be — the case would set a precedent; the sentence and the legal concept would have to be invented, made up from scratch, given a comprehensible form and surrounded with discourse to make them plausible. All of which would involve intellectual and imaginative work, but that didn’t make the prospect any brighter for him.
Is this also what Aira the writer is doing? In the very first paragraph, the narrator promises us a book about how Varamo wrote a celebrated masterpiece of Central American poetry in one night. We never get that book, so it doesn’t matter.
Or actually, maybe it does matter, because on the night in question — before the writing begins — Varamo meets two spinsters who smuggle golf clubs and pontificates that for them, “the national was a categorical imperative,” the same as for printing money, even counterfeit money. A little detective work: Varamo the character, a hapless bureaucrat, writes his masterpiece in 1923 when Argentina was still one of the richest countries in the world (soon to change in the wake of a military junta taking power in 1930). It makes some narrative sense that the novel seems so very anxious about the black market and counterfeit money (in 1920s Argentina, an abundance of counterfeit money was quite real). In which case the plot is the digression, and everything else is vital.
So I suppose it is political after all: the idea that the bizarre is also real, from the writer who once chastised other Argentinian writers for being too unconcerned with the country’s “social and economic problems.”
How does one tell the difference? Conversations is easy. The post–Cold War United States manipulated the lives of people in ex-Soviet states, causing reality itself to having a strange in-between-y status. Others are harder. In The Literary Conference, giant silkworms engulf and destroy a whole city, by way of a cloning machine. In The Little Buddhist Monk, a suicidal Chinese pony imported to Korea jumps off a pagoda, because it has no knowledge of the toxic Korean herbs it would have otherwise required. In The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, Dr. Aira tries to cure cancer using “screens” that include or exclude everything in the universe: “[H]is right hand […] divided up the joys and sorrows of Muslims; his left was pulling a little on another screen that excluded too many apples.” In The Seamstress and the Wind, a woman drives a car “as light as a yawn” which can contain “only one not very fat person […] and only if they were tightly-folded up.” It’s going somewhere, or nowhere. It’s a mystery or, a soda bubble, or a magnet car. It may or may not occupy space. “The proverb says mystery does not occupy space,” Aira writes. “All right, fine; but it crosses it.”
If that isn’t the writer’s version of throwing his hands in the air and saying, “Sure, whatever, why not,” I don’t know what is.
But there’s a pretty major problem with all that I’ve said thus far, though it’s the consensus view — and that is the idea that Aira is somehow colossally enigmatic. Alena Graedon in The New Yorker calls Aira’s novels “difficult to classify.” K. Reed Petty in Electric Literature insists that the reader not “try to understand.” Aura Estrada, for the Boston Review, wrote that Aira’s work showed that “the literary enterprise […] [is] pregnant with possibilities.”
The problem is that those pregnant possibilities do indeed mean very real things: both for Aira and fellow Latin American absurdist writers with whom he shares a tradition. The literary scholar Ericka Beckman reminds us that what people find colorfully absurd about Latin American fiction is often very real. A Latin American dictator in Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch sells the entire Caribbean Sea to the United States; the body of water is subsequently moved to the Arizona desert. But it’s the actual privatization of ordinary things in Latin American countries that lend the story its gravitas. “In 1999,” Beckman writes, “the Bolivian government signed a $2.5 billion contract to privatize the city of Cochabamba’s water supply.” Under the proposed agreement, a San Francisco–based consortium “was to own all of the city’s water resources, even the rain that fell from the sky.” The tradition also extends to Borges and Bolaño, the latter of whom called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” But whereas Bolaño is considered to have written some of the most innovative critiques of globalization and fascism, Aira is merely “not meant to be understood.” If that’s all Aira means to us, then we’ve lost something of immense value.
Indeed, much of Aira can be construed as a new articulation: not an idiosyncratic style from an exotic backwater, but something creatively new, a giant middle finger to the Western literary enterprise. In The Proof, for instance, a teenage lesbian couple (“Mao” and “Lenin”) try to seduce a shy girl and subsequently commit a violent act in a supermarket as a “proof of love.” According to Latin American literary scholar Héctor Hoyos, The Proof is about “destabiliz[ing] sexual orientation” and the inherent violence of ordinary commerce in the supermarket. That’s reasonable, and strikes me as a far better way to understand Aira than claiming he’s not meant to be understood.
How to explain the gonzo story that is How I Became a Nun? The story is narrated by a six-year-old child (boy or girl?), and begins when the father treats the child to ice cream for the very first time, only to become incensed when the child despises it, tries it himself, finds it revolting, and violently kills the ice cream vendor. Soon after, the child reports that “my body began to dissolve … literally … My organs deliquesced … turning to green and blue bags of slime hanging from stony necroses … bundles of ganglia.” Turns out there is a wave of lethal food poisoning, by way of cyanide contamination, across Argentina and neighboring countries.
The boy/girl is, as are many of Aira’s characters, named César Aira, and the child’s affliction affects not just the body but the telling of stories. It’s all very paradoxical; insistent that language is “anti-mimetic” and bears no resemblance to reality. In Conversations, a story-within-other-stories, the narrator immediately digresses: “[A]n aside: a memory can be identical to what is being remembered; at the same time it is different, without ceasing to be the same.” This is all the stuff of Barthes and Derrida, the idea being that nothing in the novel is real (or even helpfully un-real). If Aira really is Barthes and Derrida in plot form — poststructuralist children’s books, imagine that! — then thank goodness that these stories are so fun. With a lesser writer the hand-wringing would never end.
So, let me contradict myself again. Once you get the hang of it, Aira’s politics aren’t particularly difficult to suss out. Most of the time, when Aira says something, you should probably just believe him. One of his major themes is: People get these ideas, and it doesn’t really matter if they are true. A second major theme is of Authorial “exclusion”: a litany of unreliable narrators wax lyrical about closed loops or circles in narratives (Barthes would be proud). A third: If we wrap something simple into something indirect and symbolic, people are drawn in, even though we’re cheating. Boy/girl César decides to deceive a doctor: “The aim of my ruse was to make her think I had something ‘difficult’ to express.”
Let’s do Aira a favor and dispose of Barthes and Derrida because, simply put, we don’t need them. I’m not scoffing at literary theory. I simply think it makes more sense to privilege Aira’s own words. Here’s a stronger case. Every so often, you find something that has to be Aira the writer speaking directly to the reader. In Conversations, the narrator laments the plot weren’t more outlandish: “That […] would have resulted in a much more interesting story, right?” In How I Became a Nun, Aira is baffled by a singer, broadcast on television, who cannot sing: “[To] the Tone Deaf Singer herself … perhaps she is still alive, and remembers, and if she is reading this … My number is in the telephone book.”
I’m fairly certain that Tone Deaf Singer is really out there somewhere. I hope she got in touch with César Aira, and that they talked.
So much is made of Aira’s oddities, plot twists, and diversions, but I want to convince you that it’s the emotional effect that should make you stick around. I read Ghosts last of all, and I was entirely unprepared for it. Shorn of quick swerves, Ghosts is perhaps his most poignant. Set at a construction site for a bourgeois condominium, the world-building is exquisite; no other translated work of his is as detailed or as tremulous. There aren’t surprises in the manner we’ve become accustomed to: the eccentricities feel familiar; the philosophizing logical.
Set over the course of a New Year’s Eve, Ghosts is only somewhat about ghosts — the ones that the workers and the immigrant family squatting at the site see, but the families soon to move in don’t. It’s a book preoccupied with the juxtaposition of the rich and the poor, while also fixated on the sadness and peril in the lives of an enormous cast of characters, slowly spiraling down to focus on the oldest daughter of the central squatter family.
It is uncommonly gentle and empathetic for Aira. But then it was with Ghosts that I realized that although Aira ensures the ludicrous to keep the pages turning, almost every one of his works also contains within it much sincerity and earthiness. The Proof reminds me of the wonderful film Tangerine in its spiky, breakneck earnestness. The Linden Tree proudly wears its heart on its sleeve: at turns nostalgic and charmingly silly. In almost every one of the others, something makes me go weak in the knees. It may even be called a “realist” oeuvre. Birthday — the most recent translation, released in February — makes this case best of all. A beautiful memoir inspired by Aira’s 50th birthday, Birthday is worthy of serious philosophical attention: lengthy digressions tell one explicitly how Aira perceives the past, the present, and the future, but what clarifies all his work is how he how he wrangles strangeness out of the quotidian. The phases of the Moon are a source of self-deprecation; the first encounter with electricity, fraught with worry; politics, a consequence of some remaining static as others charge ahead through life; death, as a proxy for history and how much we miss every day, “like Rip Van Winkle.” Everything in life is ultimately pretty strange, a cheeky rejection of the idea that “avant-garde” even exists.
So, ultimately three very simple things about César Aira: 1) He is exactly the sort of writer to elicit the response, “Sure, whatever, why not?” 2) He gets people all in a tizzy about his “tradition.” Okay, sure — though he’s already said a whole bunch about Borges. 3) He is most certainly meant to be understood. Of course he is. Don’t be daft! Just listen.
Kamil Ahsan is a biologist and historian with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Dissent, The Millions, The American Prospect, The A.V. Club, and Jacobin, among others.