The Novelist Who Can’t Be Stopped

The Literary Conference

by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
New Directions, 90 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Ghosts

by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
New Directions, 139 pp., $12.95 (paper)
Greenberg_1.jpg
Ricardo Ceppi/Corbis
César Aira, Buenos Aires, October 2010

Since 1975, the Argentine writer César Aira has published about seventy novels—it is difficult to arrive at an accurate count, and the number continues to grow at the rate of two per year. They are usually no longer than one hundred pages: dense, unpredictable confections delivered in a plain, stealthily lyrical style capable of accommodating Aira’s fondness for mixing metaphysics, realism, pulp fiction, and Dadaist incongruities. The sheer quantity of books has engendered a mini-industry in Buenos Aires, involving start-up presses as well as more established publishers that share the job of putting Aira’s work between covers. “Publish first, write later” was a dictum of Aira’s literary mentor, the late Argentine poet Osvaldo Lamborghini.1 This is just the sort of joke that Aira has embraced as a kind of aesthetic ethos. It was from Lamborghini that he seems to have developed his idea of an avant-garde literature that could combine the impossible with the real, a literature in which every statement of fact suggests its opposite and even casual observations and plot twists are turned upside down.

Aira’s work first came to North American readers in 2006, with a letter of introduction from his most celebrated contemporary, the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño. In a short preface to An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Bolaño called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” Coming from a writer known for his brutal literary assessments, this amounts to high praise. Bolaño’s importance rests, in part, on the fact that he was able to shift the axis of Latin American literature from the magic realism of the tropics, which had exhausted itself by the 1980s, to the more cerebral, European tradition of the Southern Cone.

Aira has benefited from this shift. During recent years his reputation in the United States and Europe as a bold experimentalist has been steadily growing, and in Argentina he is the most argued-about living writer, both widely imitated and reviled. He is very different from Bolaño, with none of his anxiety of influence or mad-poet outrage. Aira has described himself as “a man of letters” who has “the good fortune of liking it all.” And in the four novels that have been published thus far in the United States2 a reader can detect echoes of Edgar Allen Poe, W.H. Hudson, W.G. Sebald, B-movie science fiction, and even Gabriel García Márquez. His impulse isn’t to overthrow established literary figures but to grind them through the machinery of his “procedure” and thus make them his own.

The procedure, as Aira calls it, is the most fascinating, and troubling, aspect of his work. It involves adhering to an unvarying ritual: from the special writing paper that Aira procures from the company that makes bills for the Argentine mint to the fine ink for the Mont Blanc and Vuitton pens he employs …

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  1. 1

    Lamborghini, who died in 1985, was a force behind the avant-garde Buenos Aires–based literary magazine of the 1970s Literal

  2. 2

    I do not consider the fourth, How I Became a Nun. His American publisher, New Directions, plans to bring out at least eight more.