IN A SMALL Catalan city during the Middle Ages, a cloistered monk with “the fame of being a saint” feels that death is near, and hence decides to return to his native Italy. But pilgrims from all over the Christian world are still hoping to be saved by the monk, who has performed over 80 miracles. This influx of people, as everyone in the city is well aware, powers the region’s economy. So the local authorities, with help from the monastery, put a hit on the saint. They hire a ghostly figure, more death incarnate than man — a famous assassin favored above unemployed knights — to stealthily enter the abbey while the protagonist sleeps.
The conspirators are also planning to build a shrine. The saint’s body will be a relic. An eternal source of revenue, available 24/7. After all, the narrative says, a body doesn’t need to pray, nap, or take breaks; the monk’s spirit will be closer to God, hence miracles could, in theory, be performed faster; and a gift shop with a variety of trinkets will sustain local artisans.
César Aira’s recent novel, El Santo (The Saint), as yet untranslated into English, begins in such a world, one that’s not atypical in the author’s extensive oeuvre. In over 80 books (most hovering around a hundred pages), Aira meshes the fantastical, the bizarre, and the real in jungles, gyms, literary conferences, and construction sites just as easily as in the cities and kingdoms of this medieval tale.
The story doesn’t linger in Catalonia for long, as the protagonist escapes the abbey. And even though irony, fantasy, and the surreal continue to shape the book, the narrative is really a quest. A flurry of unpredictable adventures follow the monk’s departure: he sails on a Greek ship, where the crew accepts him as a member because of his ability to tie knots; he’s captured by Turkish pirates, who, once in Africa (where the bulk of the novel is set), sell him into slavery; he traverses exotic landscapes as part of his master’s bidding, searching for new markets to sell a toy rattle.
As is common with Aira, events and new worlds also go hand in hand with philosophical or essayistic digressions that twist and leap from here to there to everywhere — an explosion of storytelling that’s fast and dense. Although the uninitiated reader may feel they’re in the hands of an unhinged writer, narrative playfulness and randomness are touchstones of the Argentine author’s energetic style. He even pokes fun at himself, as the monk calls his journey “something so accidental and zigzagging that he never thought someone would be able to follow him.” Even so, the author’s deftness and irreverence helps the novel explore a deluge of ideas, including: the limits of language in bridging large cultural divides, how narratives (e.g. economic, personal, political) and perceptions are maintained and unlearned, the need for protection as the underlying mechanism of religious fanaticism and tainted love, and the pleasure of experiences — not extracting something from them — as vital to enjoying literature and life. The book also subtly blurs its reality-fiction boundaries by forcing readers to adapt quickly to the fast-paced, zigzagging story, touching upon our openness to new realities as essential to inner transformation — as is the case with the saint.
This seems evident when the 64-year-old protagonist, who had been devoid of worldly experience before leaving the monastery, is suddenly thrust into a lifetime’s worth of sensations and thoughts, “like those legends of a primitive Christianity, where events occurred at full speed, as fast as it took to narrate them,” and the monk feels energized. Halfway through the book, as if taking a breather, Aira writes (my translation):
Aquí hay que decir que su organismo había resistido con gallardía el traqueteo reciente, frenético en comparación con la descansada rutina del monasterio … Aún para otro que hubiera llevado una vida más activa, tantos traslados y sobresaltos habrían resultado desgastantes. A él no le habían hecho mella. Al contrario, sentía que se despertaban fuerzas dormidas, sus sentidos se agudizaban (veía mejor, él que siempre se había creído miope) … Su edad, después de todo, no era tan avanzada.
Here it must be said that his being had bravely resisted the recent jolts, frenetic in comparison to his relaxed routine at the monastery … Even for someone with a more active lifestyle, so much movement and shock would’ve been exhausting. The saint did not feel a thing. On the contrary, he felt a dormant strength awakening, a sharpening of his senses (his eyesight had improved even though he’d always considered himself nearsighted) … His age, after all, was not that advanced.
The book’s narrative intensity is somewhat balanced by Aira’s direct prose and his measured, at times lyrical deployment of thought and imagery. Readers can see this even in a description of a violent storm in the middle of the ocean:
Gritó el aire, asfixiado, pidiendo más aire. La lluvia se desplomó sobre el mar, y parecía llover dentro de la lluvia, tan densa era. Los relámpagos producían una ceguera terriblemente visible … Montañas negras de líquido saltaban rugiendo del piélago … Testigo paralizado como un monolito en medio del desencadenamiento de excesos naturales, el viejo santo lo sintió menos como el fin del mundo que como el comienzo del viaje … La tormenta estaba abriendo las puertas del mundo; no empleaba más violencia que la necesaria.
The wind screamed, asphyxiated, asking for more air. The rain collapsed onto the sea, and it seemed to rain within the rain; it was that dense. Lightning created a terribly visible blindness … Dark liquid mountains leapt from the deep ocean, roaring … A witness paralyzed like a monolith in the middle of natural excesses being unleashed, the old saint felt this less as the end of the world than the beginning of the voyage … The storm was opening the doors of the world, and it only employed necessary violence.
The novel’s many twists, its idea-heavy narrative, and its unrelenting momentum (the “constant flight forward,” as the author says of his own process) will likely dizzy some readers, or at least test their patience, particularly when the story is unanchored to its characters for prolonged periods, or when both are tenuously connected by extended musings. The abstractions and theoretical digressions, no matter how eloquent or aesthetically cohesive, also create a sense of dislocation in time and space. This dislocation, however, expands the novel’s eight-day action into the territory of myth, evoking the “legends of a primitive Christianity” the author is playing with, as well as the once-cloistered monk’s emotional and physical displacement.
Seasoned Aira readers will recognize these craft choices. They will also recognize the author’s deliberate refusal to delve into his characters’ psychology. As he said in an interview:
I was never interested in the psychology of characters. It also doesn’t interest me in real life, delving into people’s psyche. In my novels, characters are only functional to the plot. If they work to move the story forward, then great. I don’t try to give them psychological density, a roundness, something to make people believe that these people exist in the world when they’re really like figurines, puppets that I manipulate.
If you’ve ever been in a writing workshop, you know that saying such a thing will likely get you excommunicated. There will be a violent pause in the discussion, and then the silently convicted member will leave the room.
Nabokov, often lauded for his complex characters, called his creations “galley slaves.” He strongly disliked the field of psychology, though most of his animosity was directed at Freud, whose theories and techniques, at least in their purest form, are rarely used by modern psychologists. Despite Nabokov’s antipathy, a few sentences with Humbert Humbert, for example, will reveal the protagonist’s mind — at least the parts a manipulator like Humbert wants you to see.
In El Santo, Aira is less successful in his anti-psychology quest, given his insightful rendering of the African queen, Poliana, and how her relationship with the monk leads to an evolution of his character, however ironic some of the revelations may be. Poliana, who carries the last third of the book, is the novel’s most interesting and complex character, full of quirks and fears, with a mercurial temper; a loathing of her sheltered life; an inability to abandon its luxuries; and a deep, seemingly warranted distrust of most of the people around her: politicians, court members, and her mother. Toward the end of the book, the cracks in the monk’s sainthood begin to make themselves more visible, precipitated by his very perceptive assessments of Poliana, including the following:
No tenía ningún motivo para cambiar, ningún estímulo, ya que no reconocía sus defectos y de todos los males que sufría culpaba a los demás … Seguiría siendo veleidosa, desconfiada, mandona, inútil para todo lo que no fuera quejarse, sin una vocación, sin poder aprovechar el tiempo ni gozar realmente de su juventud. Y ansiosa por descargar responsabilidades en otro que se hiciera cargo, buscando la salvación en la buena voluntad del improbable hombre no equivocado que se dedicara a ella. Su belleza estaba desperdiciada en el resentimiento. Su voluntad, una enferma incurable.
She had no motivation to change, no incentive, because she did not recognize her defects and blamed all her troubles on others … She would continue being fickle, distrustful, bossy, unfit for anything but complaints, without a vocation, unable to enjoy her time or her youth. And she would unload her responsibilities on another person willing to take charge, seeking salvation in the goodwill of the unrealistic right man who would dedicate himself to her. Her beauty was wasted in resentment. Her will, an incurable disease.
A reader can’t help but notice the psychological depth of Poliana’s emotional ills, and their resemblance to real-world disorders. Given Aira’s penchant for irony, it’s possible that Poliana was initially intended as a plot device to precipitate certain changes in the monk, but the queen’s flaws became too compelling to not untangle them. Or maybe deeply exploring her was a spontaneous necessity, as it was for the monk, who, we are told, hadn’t analyzed her psychologically but had spent enough time with Poliana to get used to her behavior — or so he thought — and he mistakenly lowered his guard. Whatever the reason, readers will benefit from the development of this fraught character and the ways she complicates the narrative of El Santo.
Aira has said that he thinks of his books “less as reflections or representations and more like instruments or tools with which to operate on reality.” The avant-garde Ultraist Movement, of which Borges was a member, echoed something similar in its 1921 manifesto, which began as follows:
Two aesthetics exist: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms. Guided by the former, art turns into a copy of the environment’s objectivity or the individual’s psychic history. Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument, and forges — beyond spatial and temporal prisons — a personal vision.
I’m not suggesting that Aira writes in this tradition, but it’s clear that the way he refracts reality and fiction to create his own literary brew is confidently singular, one that resists interpretation and is nearly impossible to categorize. His work is so versatile and nimble, his imagination so gleefully madcap, that perhaps it’s best to think of his work less as novels (or novellas) and more as prismatic inventions that could be fables, essays, literary studies, ironic allegories, historical fantasies, surrealist paintings, and/or absurdist scientific experiments — playful hybrids borne out of a love for storytelling and the mechanics of artistic creation. Despite this mix, Aira’s books do have a traditional narrative wholeness that joins these forces, if unevenly; the author says he wants things to work like in the novels of Balzac. Perhaps, then, it’s also best to think of his work as expanding the territory of the novel.
It’s difficult, maybe even mistaken, to talk about an Aira book without talking about his avant-garde process. This almost seems inevitable given that the end result is less important to him than his “constant flight forward,” where whim and fantasy are his guides, where he writes slowly, doesn’t edit his work, and allows his imagination to justify previous bizarre twists, usually with more aberrations, creating the many fictions in his prismatic work. Like the saint’s 80-plus “small miracles” that “demanded of him a great expenditure of inventive energy,” Aira’s 80-plus books “turned the screws of nature’s laws.”