Three Novels, César Aira

By Rob Doyle.

The Argentine César Aira, who has published a couple of dozen more volumes than his sixty-four years, acknowledges that he writes not for the casual, but for the boutique reader. Churning out up to four novellas a year (the mid-length form is where he has always felt most comfortable), Aira is published by a host of small, independent publishers in Buenos Aires, the city where he has lived since 1967. Now that Aira is beginning to catch on in the English-speaking world (no doubt partly due to the appetite for new Latin voices among readers scraping the bottom of Roberto Bolaño’s hard-drive), we are offered a boxed-set of three of his novellas, one from the eighties and two from the nineties: Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and The Literary Conference.

Bolaño himself is quoted on the packaging (from an essay included as a preface to An Episode): ‘Once you’ve started reading Aira, you don’t want to stop.’ (No mention is made of another of Bolaño’s essays, in which he states that Aira’s prose is ‘mostly just boring.’) The two authors have a fair amount in common, most significantly their penchant for literary surrealism, which would seem to be still very much a thing over there in the Southern Cone. At its best, the surrealist infusion in post-Boom Latin American prose inspires the kind of fertile pretentiousness and reckless wit that makes Bolaño’s style, in particular, so exhilarating. To Anglophone readers used to a diet predominating in, say, British or American authors, with whom even the more dazzling sentences tend towards the utilitarian, there is a frisson to be enjoyed when Latino mavericks career off the straight-and-narrow of prosaic functionality to drop lines such as these (from an atmospheric Aira story entitled ‘Cecil Taylor’):

‘Jazz, an eternal breeze… It is Egypt, but also a small tribe that lies in wait… two naked blacks wage war in a forest, pursue each other with the most subtle signs, chance, pure mobility.’

Another stylistic quirk shared by Aira and Bolaño is that of the wild generalisation, delivered deadpan and without the faintest attempt at substantiation: ‘All blacks look down on Russians, that’s a fact’; ‘Ghosts are gay, of course’, and so on. Anglophone writers, you suspect, long to let fly with this kind of whimsy from time to time, precision and economy of style be damned. But they dare not, having internalised the utilitarian prejudices overseeing literary production round here. And perhaps this is not entirely a bad thing, lest everyone should fill their pages with the kind of tedious, surrealist bluster that makes the likes of Henry Miller largely so skimmable.

For all the inspiration that Aira finds in surrealism (he has called the proto-surrealist poet, Lautréamont, the ‘writer of my life’), much of the prose in Three Novels is clear and restrained: surrealism makes itself felt primarily in the images that propel the narratives, the whimsical digressions, and, especially, the flights into absurdism (a problematic absurdism, as we will see).

Perhaps the best of the novellas is the one which maintains the closest kinship to realism: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. The novella begins in a biographical tone, sketching out the life and career of the real-life, nineteenth-century German painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, who strove to implement the aesthetic-metaphysical theories of the naturalist Alexander von-Humboldt, by spending many years in South America, painting its fecund landscapes. Soon the narrative zooms in on the lead-up to the titular ‘episode’, which took place during Rugendas’ second journey across South America, when he was accompanied by a younger painter named Robert Krause. The painters’ horseback wanderings across Chile and Argentina provide some enjoyably picturesque passages, which are violently interrupted when Rugendas suffers a badly disfiguring accident during a storm on the Argentine plains. After the accident, hyper-sensitive to sunlight, suffering from migraines, and seemingly a little unhinged, Rugendas dons a black lace mantilla (a kind of veil worn by female churchgoers), and rides into the teeth of a thousand-man Indian raid on the town where he has been convalescing, determined to paint this ‘clash of civilisations’ for the edification of his European audience.

The Literary Conference, written a year later, in 1996, presents us with a writer, César, who double-jobs as a scientist hell-bent on world domination. In the prologue, César gains sudden wealth and glory by solving the centuries-old enigma of the Macuro Line – a vast, triangular rope structure emerging from the sea off the Venezuelan coast, erected by inscrutable pirates. Realising that the Line is a massive slingshot, César catapults a treasure chest out of the sea and into his possession. The next day, his name emblazoning headlines the world over, César flies to a literary conference in the Andean city of Mérida at which he has been invited to speak, though he spends most of the conference idling by the hotel pool, observing his beautiful fellow-guests, indifferent to the event itself. His real reason for being there, we learn, is none other than to clone the great Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes – this, he has reasoned, is the surest way to achieve his tyrannical ambitions. He sends a laboratory-engineered wasp to retrieve a sample of Fuentes’ DNA, then grows sentimental and holds a funeral for the wasp upon its expiration. After setting up his ‘cloning machine’ on a mountaintop overlooking the city, César awaits the descent of his genius-army, meanwhile pondering affairs of the heart and his lost youth, and recalling the beautiful literature student he once had an affair with in the same city. In the denouement, César finds that it is not an army of Fuentes clones that comes pouring down the mountainside, but a throng of enormous, blue silkworms, each ‘approximately one thousand feet long and seventy feet in diameter.’ Momentarily distracted by the reappearance of his old flame, César must get his act together and prevent the worms from crushing the city.

The problem with all this is that, while such antics might be amusing enough in summary, and even allowing for the narrator’s vague suggestion that the giant worms are a ‘metaphor for my private life’, we have to wade through a fair few pages of this absurdism until the plot resolves itself and we can all go home. It’s not really science-fiction – too deliberately ludicrous. It’s not even really magical realism – too ludicrous! So what are we supposed to do with it? Are there really readers left out there, boutique or otherwise, who look to novels for the kind of entertainment that Aira is offering here? An Xbox would provide a better medium for giant-worm onslaughts than a novel whose author comes bearing avant-garde renown: most readers, I imagine, want something more from the fictions they give their time to. As the massive blue worms came slamming down, I was left wishing more had been made of César’s love affair with a much younger woman – the most engaging element in the story, and done with all too soon.

The conceit in Ghosts, the longest and earliest of the three novellas, is that, while the under-construction apartment block in Argentina where the story is set is haunted in a conventional enough manner (even if the ghosts tend to be naked, exclusively male, covered in white powder and waving their penises around), the ghosts are not only visible to, but more or less ignored by the temporary occupants of the block – an immigrant construction worker, his colleagues and family. Over the course of a sweaty New Year’s Eve, we observe the hard-drinking Chilean workers and their soap-opera-loving wives and daughters, while the ghosts unobtrusively linger in the background. After various discussions concerning ‘real men’, virility, marriage, and childbirth, Patri, the adolescent daughter of the chief builder, becomes fixated on the ghosts, who stare silently at her in one of the novel’s eerier sequences. As midnight approaches and the town rings in the new year, Patri yearns to join the ghosts, possibly in some form of psychosexual fulfilment or sacrifice.

While all three of the books are engaging and even insightful in parts, with subject matter colourful and varied enough to kindle a desire to see more from Aira, there is a sense of overall inconsequentiality here that provokes again the question of what exactly we are supposed to make of his work. In an interview, Aira has positioned himself against the ‘autobiographical turn’ in Argentine fiction, pointing out that, for authors who rely on the material of their own lives to fuel their work, there is always the danger that they will run out of ideas – whereas for Aira, whose stories rely on invention, the material is limitless. Both parts of the assertion are true. However, this very limitlessness accounts for the partial unsatisfactoriness of reading Aira: when everything is possible, nothing is of consequence, and nothing is at stake. There are readers and writers alike – Aira being one of them – for whom narrative is an end in itself; what matters is simply telling a story, with minimal regard for its depth, relative seriousness, or implications. Then there are those for whom narrative is not an end in itself; there must be something more to a novel than capricious invention, some existential jolt or illumination, for it to be worth reading. Unconcerned about infusing his stories with any great existential urgency, happy to spin out book after book of whimsy, Aira strikes me as an embodiment of a pure yet decadent conception of the storyteller. The question for the individual reader encountering his work will be: is mere storytelling enough?


Rob Doyle‘s fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in the Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, The Moth, The Penny Dreadful and elsewhere, and he is the non-fiction editor of the webzine, Colony. Rob’s first novel, Here are the Young Men, will be published by the Lilliput Press in 2014. Find him on Twitter @RobDoyle1.