Staggering Local Wonderlands

La Tercera
César Aira, Santiago, Chile, 2011

He had to keep fleeing forward, but to where? What would become of him? Was he destined to be an eternal fugitive, eternally forbidden to look back?

Shantytown, 2001

The Argentinian writer César Aira’s stories tend to begin with a flat assertion. At its flattest this can be a statement of the most unthreatening ordinariness:

I was in a bus, sitting by the window, looking out at the street.

As a kid, in Pringles, I went to the movies a lot.

Sentences like this make up the primary layer of his writing, sentences that with minor variations might form part of any reader’s own autobiography. The straightforward unemphatic clarity establishes right away a tone, reasonable and unexcited, that will remain consistent no matter what follows. There is no lyrical evocation, conjuring up; atmosphere in the form of poetic word-painting is absent. Anything that looks like heartfelt emotional shading can be read just as easily as good-natured parody or harmless role-playing. Perhaps it’s all a joke. (But that’s what uncomprehending listeners say to the composer Cecil Taylor in a story, included in this new collection, that makes him its hero: “You weren’t playing some kind of joke, were you?”)

Aira deals out one such sentence after another in the manner of someone absorbed in an unimaginably complex game of solitaire. The game would collapse, would not exist at all, without the mechanics of syntax, shored up by the stylistic commitment to sentences that remain under all circumstances cleanly carpentered and staunchly logical. Logical, that is, within the terms of their premises. The reader quickly learns that Aira’s sentences can be categorized as describing (1) things that have happened to the reader as well, and probably to almost everyone; (2) things that may have happened to Aira but not to the reader or anyone the reader knows; or (3) things that could not possibly have happened to anyone anywhere.

After a while we lose faith in our ability to tell which category a given sentence belongs to. The text becomes an apparently lucid and meticulous map of lurking instability. The most humdrum observation becomes suspect: “A well-stocked napkin dispenser sits on every café table in Buenos Aires.” This might well be true; the author is certainly well equipped to make such a judgment; but with Aira there is always the sense that what seems most plausible may be an utter fabrication. He is never more poker-faced and matter-of-fact than when stating what is not only impossible but ridiculously impossible: “It all began when the genie came out of the Magic Milk bottle and asked me what I would prefer: to have a Picasso or to be Picasso.” A malevolent shopping cart moves about without being pushed. The drops of paint constituting the Mona Lisa liberate themselves from the canvas and embark…

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