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 to promote the feeling of having each day created a “written drawing.” The daily drawing is performed at a variety of cafés in his Buenos Aires neighborhood of Las Flores. After the day’s work is finished, the story must move ahead, never backward, what Aira calls “la fuga hacia adelante,” the flight or escape forward. This isn’t automatic writing or “first thought, best thought,” as other experimentalists have engaged in: composition is slow, deliberate, rarely more than a page a day. Once Aira has knocked off work, however, revisions are strictly prohibited. The story must build on what was written the day before, forcing him to come up with ever-new ideas and plot twists.
The rule has the odd effect of lending an unpredictability to his writing but also a sameness. Left to itself, imagination describes its own pattern and reveals its limitations: the story is guaranteed to move off in uncanny directions. Sometimes this leads to moments of startling originality; at other times the reader feels as if he is watching a person stuck under a fence trying to squeeze his way through to the other side.
The narrator of The Literary Conference, the most recent of Aira’s novels to be translated into English, is a playwright and “Mad Scientist” who sets out to clone the novelist Carlos Fuentes by sending out a special wasp he has bred to alight on Fuentes and obtain a cell with his DNA. What the wasp brings back, however, is a speck of Fuentes’s tie. The Mad Scientist/writer puts the cell in his cloning machine and turns the knob to its point of highest intensity: “‘genius’ mode.” As a result, a plague of “colossal blue” silkworms descends from the mountain peaks above the Venezuelan city of Mérida where the action takes place:
I calculated the size of the worms: they were approximately one thousand feet long and seventy feet in diameter…. The landslides they were provoking were cataclysmic; the entire valley shook as stones the size of houses tumbled down the slopes, and there was probably already vast destruction on the outskirts. A simple projected calculation revealed that the city was doomed.
The story is obviously meant to be preposterous. “It rises out of a feverish imagination, in this case mine, and returns to it as a metaphor for my private life,” says the narrator. Elsewhere, he warns us that “in the hyperkinetic microscope of my psyche, everything is instead of something else.” Aira’s polymorphous literary borrowing amounts to a species of cloning in its own right: he is constantly injecting DNA from various writers and genres into his work. The cloning machine is the procedure that demands that the narrative escape forward in its headlong way at each work session. Who knows what will come of these flights—a cataclysmic landslide of unreadable prose or a work of accidental brilliance? The main thing is to let the chips fall where they may.
Aira’s happy use of random events that occur while he is writing puts one in mind of Merce Cunningham’s reliance on “chance operations” for the creation of his dance pieces. In his quest for new combinations that would break away from the expected relationship of dance to music, Cunningham and his musical collaborator John Cage would throw the I Ching. Aira is more passive; he lets chance come to him. In 2009, he told an interviewer that if a little bird enters the café where he is writing, as happened once, it also enters into what he is writing:
It could be a mechanical bird designed by an engineer who was the woman’s first husband, whom her present husband thought was dead, but the engineer faked his own death to escape justice—he had invented killer mechanical pigeons. He continues to live under a false identity, and she’s discovered him and is blackmailing him…. It could be this or anything else…. I always think of something. And what I think of also changes the course of the plot. Since the next day something different will happen at the café….
Aira seems aware of the paradox inherent in having a procedure at all: in order to break conventions he has devised another convention, and one that, if practiced faithfully, he can barely control. In The Literary Conference, the narrator watches the performance of a play he wrote in which Adam is prevented from living out his love for Eve because he is already married:
I must confess, I didn’t know how to resolve the difficult problem this plot line presented. Because if Adam and Eve were, respectively, the only man and the only woman on the planet, then Adam’s wife…couldn’t be anybody other than Eve herself. The idea (very characteristic of me, to the point that I believe it to be how I conceive of literature) had been to create something equivalent to those figures that was both realistic and impossible…. I was able to sustain it in this play only through the strength of ambiguities and funny repartees. And only for a short time, because very soon things started to happen.
To deal with the rush of events that he himself has created, the playwright resorts “to nonsense, to the frivolity of invention for invention’s sake.” His evaluation of the play sounds like the confession of a metafiction addict:
My mania—to be constantly adding things, episodes, characters, paragraphs, to be constantly veering off course, branching out—is fatal. It must be due to insecurity, fear that the basics are not enough, so I have to keep adding more and more adornment….
Aira is far more interested in ideas than plot, and his stories seem designed mainly to supply the structure he requires to examine the relation between the impossible and the realistic, between what is imagined and what is. He shares with the Dadaists the belief that the process by which work is created is as important as the end result. The procedure is always present as an element in his fiction, a guiding principle. In An Episode in the Life of Landscape Painter, Aira’s most dazzling novel to be published in English thus far, it’s the central subject.
The novel imagines the working trip to Argentina of the nineteenth-century German documentary painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, for whom “travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope.” Following the ideas of the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Rugendas’s aim was “the pictorial presentation of the physiognomy of nature.” Humboldt’s belief in the unity of nature and all scientific pursuit led him to design a procedure of observation that would serve, in Aira’s words, as “a universal knowledge machine.” For Rugendas, this translated into an attempt to arrive at “a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape.” By having the artist observe nature as a scientist would, the viewer would be able to grasp, through the picture, “climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds”—in short, the interrelated totality of the world.
Having documented the tropical regions of Brazil to great acclaim in Europe, Rugendas turns to the “flat immensity” of the Argentine Pampas where, after a while, space becomes “small and intimate, almost mental.” Aira grew up in the small city of Coronel Pringles, three hundred miles south of Buenos Aires, and he has a palpable feel for a landscape where carob wood carts large enough to be drawn by ten teams of oxen can still be seen on the horizon seven days after they have set off.
After an accident with a horse causes the severe disfigurement of Rugendas’s face, his relation to his work undergoes a fundamental change. The laceration of his facial nerves has made it so that his expressions have ceased to reflect even faintly what he is experiencing or feeling. He is, in effect, living disproof of the theory of painting he practices, where surface visibility is supposed to reveal everything. What would the pictorial reconstruction of a face that expresses what it does not intend to express tell us about the nature of that person? Aira doesn’t delve into this question overtly, but the tricky relation between what we see and how it came to be is circled around throughout the novel.
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.
January 13, 2011