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The Novelist Who Can’t Be Stopped

Rugendas comes to realize that the chasm between reality and the reconstruction of reality is unbreachable. But rather than abandon Humboldt’s procedure as a result of this realization, he continues with growing intensity to follow it in his painting. To relieve the piercing headaches that are one of the aftereffects of his accident, he takes regular doses of morphine. This gives Rugendas an advantage in his work that is similar to that of Aira’s: he is always starting anew, never going backward. While others exist in a continuum toward exhaustion, Rugendas’s morphine offers him a constant series of beginnings—a useful explanation for the psychological appeal of drug addiction.

In an attempt to elucidate the process of reconstruction, Rugendas offers the analogy of a police detective explaining to the husband of a murdered woman exactly how the murder was committed, based on what he has been able to piece together from his investigations. The detective’s reconstruction of the crime is precisely detailed. The only thing missing is the identity of the murderer:

And his interlocutor, the widower, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with what the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that [the] widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife.

Finally Rugendas is rewarded with an Indian raid near Mendoza, an event he has been waiting for months to witness. Aira is at his best when striking a balance between action and abstraction, theory and deed, and his simultaneous description of the raid and Rugendas’s view of it is thrillingly fluid. In order to transfer the scene to paper Rugendas must maintain a certain distance. This allows him to include everything—the path, the cart tracks, the soldiers, the valley—though in order to do so he has to “shrink everything down to a dot, and be ready to reduce it further still.” This kind of concentrated exactitude prefigures Surrealism: the faithful rendering of reality turns reality into a dream of itself. One suspects that, for Aira, these transformations are the point of the procedure.

Mastery is obtained when the procedure breaks away from itself, even as it is being strictly followed. Method becomes unconscious, like muscle memory. Rugendas’s rendering of the Indian raid is mediated through Humboldt’s technique of physiognomic representation. But Rugendas has built it up to the point where it has become something else, a world of its own, through which it is “possible to apprehend the world itself, in its primal nakedness.” In the last scene of the novel, Rugendas has followed the Indians to their campsite and is drawing them by the light of their campfire and the moon “as if it were simply another reflex.” Now that the procedure is “operating through him,” he has reached his apotheosis as an artist.

Reality can’t be reproduced in art, but the concentrated act of making art reproduces some of reality’s dynamics, turning art into an essential action. This, at any rate, seems to be Aira’s wager, the ideal he has set for himself, attainable through his procedure. Reality simply occurs without prior invention or, put another way, it is a perpetual state of invention. It doesn’t stop to analyze itself, it continuously unspools. At a certain point in the novel, Rugendas concludes that “were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost” since

the purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead, a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action.

In this scenario history is reconfigured, relived through art as present-tense existence. Storytelling becomes a form of action painting—a way not only of explaining reality but of living in reality. It’s not a matter of naturalism, which is impossible anyway, but of the relation between imagination and the objective world. In the novel Ghosts, Aira reflects on the practice of Australian aborigines who dream their landscape instead of building upon it, until they have collectively constructed a kind of architecture of stories. He notes that the process is not as exotic as it seems:

It happens every day in the western world: it’s the same as the ‘mental city,’ Joyce’s Dublin, for instance. Which leads one to wonder whether unbuilt architecture might not, in fact, be literature.

Ghosts demonstrates Aira’s range within the confines of his procedure. It is a keenly observed portrait of an itinerant Chilean family that temporarily inhabits, as caretakers, an upscale Buenos Aires apartment building while it is under construction. The time frame is one sweltering midsummer day: New Year’s Eve. Aside from the Chileans and the other laborers who spend their days there, the building is haunted by a band of carefree ghosts, all of them male, and naked. The Chileans have the ability, not given to all, to see the ghosts, whom they treat as a gang of loitering eccentrics, more nuisance than novelty. The Chileans, too, are like ghosts, of so little social significance that they move invisibly through the neighborhood. When fourteen-year-old Patri and her aunt pass on the street “a typical Argentinean beauty” replete with “weight-lifter’s shoulders, pumped-up breasts, narrow hips,” they slip by her unnoticed, “like two ants beside an elephant.”

Patri strikes up a relationship with the ghosts. “What a destiny: unwittingly, unwillingly thrust into the midst of a nudist colony,” she thinks. Enchanted by their supernatural dazzle, their exclusivity, their bodies of “such depth and strength!,” she develops an innocent passion for them that coincides with her sexual awakening. During New Year’s Eve dinner with her family, she is invited by the ghosts to their party, at midnight, an invitation that would require her to become a ghost herself. Patri ponders whether to accept the invitation and leave her family forever, though she doesn’t think of it as death, much less suicide, but as the start of another phase of existence.

Here, as elsewhere in his fiction, Aira is interested in working his ideas whole cloth through his characters, no matter their gender, age, nationality, or social class. He doesn’t concern himself with creating a plausible language for Patri or differentiating her from himself. Here she is, a working-class girl of fourteen, pondering her options in light of the ghosts’s proposal that she join them:

As well as the vertical stratification of life into layers or doors through which one could “enter” or “exit,” there was a “horizontal” or temporal axis, which measured the duration of a life.

A few pages later, Aira uncharacteristically tries to explain this incongruity:

It might seem odd that this relatively uneducated young woman, who hadn’t even finished secondary school, should entertain such elaborate thoughts. But it’s not as strange as it seems. A person might never have thought at all, might have lived as a quivering bundle of futile, momentary passions, and yet at any moment, just like that, ideas as subtle as any that have ever occurred to the greatest philosophers might dawn on him or her. This seems utterly paradoxical, but in fact it happens every day. Thought is absorbed from others, who don’t think either, but find their thoughts ready-made, and so on.

Some readers will be unconvinced by this explanation, especially those familiar with Aira’s assertion, to an interviewer, that “verisimilitude is sacred to me…. You become a novelist out of love for verisimilitude.” He has few of the novelistic tools at his disposal that would make verisimilitude possible. Dialogue, for example, is embedded in his narratives in such a way that the reader almost never experiences the breath of a spoken word. Setting and circumstance may change but the procedure repeats itself. The brevity of the novels keeps the monotone from becoming oppressive. Aira’s “flight forward” technique promotes a certain velocity, which has the effect of making the reader feel precariously perched between the credible and the outlandish, with the latter usually holding sway.

Despite the above-mentioned detour in Ghosts to deal with Patri’s improbable sophistication, as a general rule Aira does not explain what occurs in his novels, because to explain is to recapitulate, to restate. Explanation pulls us backward; it is the means by which thought tries to catch up with an event that has already happened. “‘Another’ idea is always more efficient than ‘an’ idea, by the mere virtue of being an-other,” he writes in The Literary Conference. “And an idea does not get enriched through expansion or multiplication (clones) but rather by passing through another brain.”

In Aira’s universe ideas possess organic weight. Each thought is the progenitor of its own ecosystem, giving rise to a new thought/organism that in turn increases the possibilities of the world. For this reason, each new thought is superior to the one before it, even if it seems less interesting on the surface. The masters of popular culture “and those who had accumulated enormous fortunes through financial manipulation…were ineffectual shams,” he writes. “Real power…resided in a different kind of person whose central and defining acquisition was high culture.”

What this leads to is a bracing belief in the primacy of philosophy and art, no matter the size of the artist’s audience. Once an idea exists, it travels along its own pathway. Aira’s novels may best be described as thought experiments. In The Literary Conference the narrator attributes the particular blue hue of his colossal cloned silkworms to “the depth of [their] materiality, the fact that each cell was composed of reality and unreality.” Aira’s effort to combine two aesthetic poles—the anti-novel with the realist novel, the simple with the rococo, minimalism with metafiction, chance with calculation—provides much of the tension in his work. His experiment may be as impossible as Humboldt’s, but his ambition possesses a certain magnificence.

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