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?
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 on a series of separate adventures in an infinitely wide range of eras and locations. God celebrates His birthday with a tea party to which only apes are invited. A young man encounters two men with inconceivable deformities: “The feet of ‘the one with the feet’ and the hands of ‘the one with the hands’ were as big as the rest of their bodies, or even slightly bigger.” These premises are never more than opening moves. Once established, it is up to the writer to figure out how to extricate himself from their implications; and if we continue to read him, we have no choice but to make Aira’s problem our own.
Aira has imposed his presence not by great literary monoliths but by a profusion of miniatures. The sheer urgency with which he has issued his work is remarkable. He has written plays and literary essays, but above all, beginning with the as-yet-untranslated Moreira (1975), small-scale fictions averaging a hundred pages or so, the precise number of which is difficult to enumerate because he is constantly adding to his body of work. The total, encompassing some very short stories published as separate volumes, hovers around seventy; twenty of these shorter works have now been collected in The Musical Brain and Other Stories, which joins ten other Aira novels already published in translation by New Directions in recent years.
All this quantification has more than a casual relation to Aira’s work, which is often haunted by matters of number and measurement, ratio and velocity. Questions of multiplication and division, of entities that systematically proliferate or expand or subdivide, are often central to his stories—to the extent, that is, that his stories can be said to have centers. In “Athena Magazine,” two aspiring litterateurs advance from the idea of publishing a “double issue” to ever greater multiples with the paradoxical effect of approaching the infinitesimal: “Making an issue composed of ten thousand numbers meant that the ‘single’ issue would be 0.0036 of a page.”
The narrator of “The All That Plows through the Nothing” (one of the most brilliantly confounding of the stories in The Musical Brain) attempts over several pages to compute how many taxis there are in Buenos Aires, how many are ridden by passengers carrying a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash, and how many of those passengers are likely on a given day to leave their briefcase in the taxi. “In the Café” catalogs the increasingly baroque complexity of toys made from a single folded napkin to amuse a child, culminating in an intricately detailed representation of Catherine the Great’s 1786 tour of the Russian provinces.
Aira appears to be particularly fascinated by almost infinitely expansible interior spaces (like the initially humble priest’s house in “Acts of Charity” that gradually allows space for billiard rooms, recording studios, darkrooms, and multiple workshops) that are akin to fairy-tale spaces of beanstalks or the forbidden subterranean destination where the twelve princesses go to dance their shoes to pieces every night.
A more basic arithmetic function—addition—establishes the method of his narratives. One sentence is linked to its predecessor, one day’s page and a half to the next, allowing, according to the author’s interviews, no subtraction of the previous day’s work.1 Thus, if the maniacal policeman in Shantytown (2001) has to keep fleeing forward, it is in obedience to Aira’s own frequently propounded principle of la huida hacia adelante—the need to continually invent ways to extend the story without being crushed by the premises he has perhaps arbitrarily put in place. A child who plays with blocks cannot move the foundational blocks once they are positioned without toppling the whole structure. With Aira one is always conscious of each sentence being laid down with wary precision precisely like a child’s block. The reader marvels at the way the work in progress is thus further transformed while worrying that the addition of each new element means an incrementally greater risk of collapse.
The fundamental tension of his books springs less from the often maddeningly convoluted predicaments of his characters than from the self-evident predicament of the author. Once the process has been set in motion, he must one way or another keep the thing going, and the unease is all the more present when he seems to be idling, playing for time like a hostage trying to keep his captors distracted.
As his stories are unfolding we can never tell whether a densely detailed episode is pivotal or digressive, just as we can never tell whether any of the complications of the plot are actually tending toward anything recognizable as a resolution. The reader is thus enlisted as a surrogate for the writer, sharing his uncertainties and difficulties, as if the reader were himself a writer perusing his own manuscript and looking for a way forward into the next paragraph. In “Cecil Taylor,” the last story in The Musical Brain, the jazz composer is led to contemplate the idea that
the career of the innovative musician was difficult because, as opposed to the conventional musician, who had only to please an audience, the innovator had to create a new one from scratch.
Aira’s fiction offers a protracted course on how to become the reader his work is written for.
“When one reads one makes one’s own novel,” he has stated. His own books he sees as “a continuation of the system of reading,” reading that in his own case—beginning with the nineteenth-century jungle tales of the Italian writer Emilio Salgari and the comic book adventures of Little Lulu before moving on to Raymond Roussel, André Breton, and other hermetic explorers—has ranged omnivorously over eras and genres.2 The residue of all that reading feeds a deliberately dissonant mash-up of wildly different narrative expectations. A passage of exquisitely attenuated philosophical reflection is apt to morph without warning into apocalyptic violence or an eruption of surreal slapstick. Chunks of subtlest aphorism bob up amid cartoonlike sequences of dementedly ricocheting, seemingly pointless action. The effect is sometimes of encountering a made-for-TV 1970s disaster picture scripted by Borges, or conversely Henry James’s The Sacred Fount rewritten as a vehicle for Bugs Bunny.
He has been likened to a remarkably wide range of writers—Sebald, Kafka, Bolaño, Calvino, Nabokov, Murakami. Duchamp and De Chirico have likewise been invoked, and Aira himself has mentioned Roussel and Borges with reverence. He doesn’t in fact resemble any of them other than superficially, and by the same token echoes hundreds more, perhaps all the authors he has ever read, including the many he translated in a long career as a translator of every sort of book, technical, pulpy, or high literary. The commercial assignments find an echo in the randomness that haunts his stories. One might imagine a translator rebelling, at last, against being compelled to read each book word by word, with reverential slowness and attention, no matter what the nature of the text.
As for comparisons, why not bring in Georges Perec (although Perec was more a constructor of puzzles and Aira is more a teller of jokes extended preposterously beyond their anticipated punchline), or Lewis Carroll (remembering Aira’s penchant for exploring the terrifying discontinuities of childhood), or, why not, Sterne with his insistence on digressions that lead ever further from the original premise, as in those dreams where the dreamer, trying to get back to a location where he may have had a crucial rendezvous, finds himself tangled in misdirecting byways?
Or, for that matter, why not any of the North Americans—ranging from Philip K. Dick and Stephen King (whose Pet Sematary Aira translated) to Thomas Pynchon and George Saunders—who share his propensity for stirring into their stories every scrap of detritus up to and including, literally, the kitchen sink?
He seems to have internalized every form of elaborately improbable storytelling: dreams, soap operas, serials about space travel, the ongoing story lines of homemade comic books, the sexual fantasies of socially isolated students, the theological systems of recently concocted religions, the conspiracy theories of solitary political fanatics, the patent applications of mad inventors. The stories abound in technological marvels, unprecedented methods of healing, new and staggeringly unlikely cosmological theories: an apparatus of pseudoscientific experimentation evoking in turn a Rube Goldberg drawing, a Scrooge McDuck comic book, or a 1950s movie about extraterrestrial invaders.
His works do not lend themselves to plot summary. They are themselves plot summaries, or more precisely summaries (as compressed as possible) of successive incidents in search of the plot that might ease the bewilderment of his hapless characters, who are apt to find themselves, as in a cartoon, walking unconsciously on air: except that Aira’s characters (or entities, as his cast may include a gust of air or a subatomic particle) do not fall to smithereens but as often as not find a way to keep going by sole grace of verbal improvisation. The sentences are the rope bridge by which, along with writer and reader, they manage to clamber toward some further and extremely tentative haven.
In Conversations (2007), everything hinges on the vain attempt of two friends to agree on the plot of an adventure movie each of them saw on television, an attempt that spins out into every variety of inattention, incomprehension, forgetfulness, and unconscious invention, until the irretrievability of an absurd storyline threatens to undermine the possibility of any stable reality. Yet for all that undermining, there is a certain dreamlike inconsequentiality to any action: somewhat like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Aira’s characters die without dying.
No matter what they are describing—the pursuit of a city-dweller by the dog whom he obscurely mistreated, the sodomizing of a pope by an animate drop of paint—the stories retain a mood of deep equanimity, a steady rhythm bordering on monotony. There is no cause for alarm, no reason to fly into a panic. Even if (in the title story “The Musical Brain”) a fugitive circus dwarf is giving birth to a giant dragonfly before your eyes, the event is narrated as if it were as commonplace as the blank days of childhood:
Nothing ever happened in the street: a car went by every half hour. We had vast amounts of free time: we went to school in the mornings, and the afternoons lasted entire lifetimes.
This is from a story in which two children invent a game involving the evocation of ever higher numbers, culminating in their discovery of “infinity” as the number that trumps all others: “The game was very simple and austere, and that’s why it was inexhaustible.”
His sense of the commonplace marks Aria as a profoundly local writer, many of whose nuances undoubtedly go astray in translation. Even the most fantastic events are more often than not rooted in existing places—various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, his native town Coronel Pringles, the pampas—a gymnasium, a supermarket, a café, a city bus, a truckstop hotel, an ice cream stand—whose reality is not undermined but rather curiously reinforced by the absurd events that unfold in their vicinity. Worked into the seams of his stories is an inventory of a world: shopping carts, dumpsters, exercise bikes, and, yes, napkin dispensers.
The titular phantoms of his novel Ghosts (the finest and most insidiously affecting of his work thus far translated) become visible because they haunt a busy construction site whose dust adheres to them. Aira rescues an exotic wonderland, where happiness lies in the pleasure of nothing ever happening, from the heart of tedium and deprivation. It is something like the hidden side of a life spent sitting every day in a café as Aira claims to do while he writes his stories, watching time pass, registering tiny intrusions and minor kerfuffles the better to drop them into the mix.
That uneventful place out of which he writes is often the world of childhood, to which he returns again and again like a base that must be tagged at each round of a children’s game. He goes back to early moviegoing (“we played at cinema, ‘acting out’ whole movies, reinventing them, using them as material for the creation of games”), secret spy rituals, until he approaches the place where language is born:
Small children lack linguistic or cultural frames to put around their perceptions. Reality enters them torrentially, without passing through the schematizing filters of words and concepts…. The immediate absorption of reality, which mystics and poets strive for in vain, is what children do every day.
In the light of such passages Aira’s stories begin to resemble the monologues (populous monologues crammed with boisterous intrusive voices) of a solitary child precociously eavesdropping on the adult world and turning it into material for fantasies intended for the sole delectation of the child himself.
Reading Aira there is often the temptation to ask why you should care about a story so transparently concocted from one moment to the next. Or perhaps the question should be whether you do care, and if not why do you keep reading? Surely not merely to ponder the author’s curious interest in taxidermy, or dwarves, or any of the other suggestive elements that pop up in a way whose very unpredictability comes to seem predictable. Aira’s characteristic zigzag—the intrusion of an altogether different and unforeshadowed theme in the midst of an already complicated story—is designed to subvert even further the already tenuous links of causality. As complications spread out, the story becomes a meditation on the place where the disparate threads will somehow come together: a place that cannot exist, like that point of rendezvous the dreamer is continually obstructed from getting back to. In place of resolution, in the midst of a story always visibly collapsing, there are antigravitational moments when objects and people and whole situations fly impossibly (and often literally) beyond logic, beyond sequence, as if in protest against necessity.
These stories in their barest form would look like arbitrary strings of beads. Their frenetic actions involve movement and mutation on the most hyperbolic scale, but we are continually made aware of the isolated, frozen quality of the words that describe those actions:
At bottom, it was a question of language. There weren’t any things in reality, only words, words that cut the world into pieces, which people end up taking for things.
The words are locked in a struggle with the limits of words, as if in dread that somewhere down the road might be a place where language would become terminally cataleptic, locked into a gesture that could never be altered: a paralyzed sculpture that would constitute the literature of the dead. “Only the unrepeatable is truly alive,” declares the narrator of “The All That Plows through the Nothing” just as he attempts to describe the unique experience that will permit him to “become literature” or, as it turns out, die in the act of trying.
As César Aira interrogates the purpose of what he is doing in the story he is writing—or, as the imaginary version of César Aira pretends to be interrogating the absurd purpose of the story that he pretends to be writing—the story seems to become an allegory of the act of writing whose limits and underwiring it exposes at every turn. The framework is laid bare as in a building without walls, like the luxury condos under construction in Ghosts. Does writing exist to provide a medium for transmitting stories or do stories exist to give writing something to be about beyond its own internal dynamics and geography? As Aira narrates he comments on what he is narrating, until plot developments become background and commentary the foreground. Without the commentary, in fact, the story might seem the most vapid of diagrams, a log of someone else’s dream transcriptions or a compendium of frames from a comic strip full of incomprehensible local allusions.
What keeps us reading is not to know what will happen next but to know what he will think next—something that he too wants to know, as if the whole business of being a writer in Aira’s systematic, process-bound fashion amounted to a prolonged experiment conducted for the curiosity of finding what will come out of it, the author knowing as little as any possible reader what that upshot might be. Aira’s embedded interpretive flights have the odd effect of dislodging the reader from the story, almost forcing him to become lost in his own commentary, his own memories and childhood games, the banal locations of his own neighborhood. Pursuing such parallel lines of interpretation and comparison, the reader becomes an adjunct character in the book, a creature inhabiting the marginalia, neither in the story nor yet free from it.
Finally one sticks around because of the tantalizing possibility that Aira may yet get to the bottom of something that seems to have no bottom. He is the master of a method whose application and ultimate purpose remain in perpetual doubt. He might be a rationalist demonstrating the irrationality of what is; a naturalist of the impossible; a maker of allegories, or of parodistic pastiches of allegories, of parables whose precise lessons deliberately elude clarification. He is just as likely demonstrating that such forms as allegory and parable are no more than imperfect attempts to capture a reality more elusive—“real reality, so distinct from the pale fantasies of reason” (The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, 2002). Aira seeks to improve on such earlier, approximate methods by means of his mad-scientist investigation into the neurology of story-making.
The act of storytelling is nowadays conventionally prized for its universal, ageless, benevolent associations. It is our shared heritage of magic; it is a defining human trait. With Aira we are just as aware of the essential cruelty of storytelling—or rather its cosmic indifference, an indifference only partly disguised in the oldest myths and legends and fairy tales. Finally there is nothing to cling to. Emotions are free-floating, personhood itself is free-floating—a state of affairs only thinly masked by the reassuring “thereness” of the voice-over commentary. The stories here do have a life of their own, and it is a life offering much surprise, much humor, much brilliance of observation and invention, but little in the way of even momentary consolation. They summon up a genie who can do everything but fulfill our wishes.
The reader feels at moments as if he has washed up in some successor state of literature, in which outward forms, characteristic tropes and techniques, are carefully maintained, but where former purposes have given way to some new and not yet decipherable intent. Yet in such a situation the old forms are perhaps more potent than ever: they regain the mystery of the incomprehensible that stories are always promising, in vain, to explicate. One of the stories in The Musical Brain begins: “Circumstances had reduced me to begging in the street”: a perfect narrative set-up for The Arabian Nights, that most wonderful, as well as supremely cruel, work. Aira’s reconceiving of such a compendium of all possible stories might be called an Arabian Nights of the corner drugstore; but then it is fair to say that The Arabian Nights itself was an Arabian Nights of the corner drugstore.