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Published May 2010Become a subscriber
The Argentinean novelist César Aira was born in 1949 in the town of Coronel Pringles. In 1967 he moved to Buenos Aires where he has lived ever since, in the western suburb of Flores. The first of his novels to be published was Moreira (Moreira) in 1975. Ema, la cautiva (Ema, the Captive) appeared during the dictatorship, in 1981, but it wasn’t until the early nineties that Aira began to publish at the surprising rhythm of two, three or even four novels a year. There are now 46 of his books that could be called novels. But that figure is somewhat misleading, since all the later novels, with the exception of the recent Las Aventuras de Barbaverde (The Adventures of Greenbeard), are short, mostly around 100 pages. Aira calls them novelitas, a diminutive which is affectionate but also deflating. Novelitas chistosas: funny little novels. His ‘novelettes’ have been distributed through an extraordinary range of publishers, from multinationals like Mondadori and Sudamericana to tiny non-profit operations like the now defunct arts project Belleza y felicidad (Beauty and Happiness) and Eloisa Cartonera, a collective of cartoneros or street recyclers who use texts donated by famous and not-so-famous authors to make small books, by hand, from recycled paper and cardboard. Because many of Aira’s former publishers have shut up shop and many of his books are out of print, collecting his work is something of a treasure hunt, and that is neither entirely accidental nor entirely regrettable. Aira is a cult author in Argentina where he has created a new position in the literary field, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, and his work has become a pole both of attraction and repulsion. As Roberto Bolaño remarked, literary politics in Argentina has a gangster-like symbolic violence, and although Aira rarely intervenes, his fans have set him up against Ricardo Piglia, who, since the death of Juan José Saer in 2005, is probably the nation’s most authoritative literary figure.1
Aira is a libertarian and an experimental writer. Libertarian, not because he promulgates anti-authoritarian ideas in his novels – which have almost no explicit political content (surprisingly, given that he began publishing in 1975) – but because, for him, genuine literature is a space of free play. Experimental, not because his novels display avant-garde credentials – most of them seem at first to be rather demure – but because each one results from an open-ended and highly unpredictable experience of writing.
Aira’s admirers and detractors agree on one thing, at least: his scant respect for conventions. Much unconventional or anti-conventional writing signals its recalcitrance demonstratively in the way it handles form, either by dismantling and breaking down familiar forms, and in the more radical cases pursuing the formless, or by building unfamiliar forms, which, in the work of a writer like Georges Perec, can reach dizzying extremes of elaboration.
Aira’s novels show, with an extraordinary force and clarity, that the two divergent options just indicated – the formless and formalism – do not exhaust the possibilities of experimental writing. Although those options are radical in method, there are other ways to produce the new and the strange, which may even be more surprising in their effects.
Because Aira is a dazzling and tantalising essayist, it is tempting to characterise his fiction by appealing to the categories and concepts he uses in his essays. Granting the essays special explanatory status can limit our understanding of the work as a whole, because they are a part of what is to be explained, the conceptual end of a continuum including novels with substantial essayistic digressions. Nevertheless, reading them warily and testing their claims with common-sense objections can give us a better grip on Aira’s specificity as a writer of fiction.
The essay ‘La nueva escritura’ (‘New Writing’), published in 1998, recommends ‘the procedure’ (el procedimiento) as a way out of the impasse into which the novelist has been led by the professionalisation of literature. The professionalisation of literature could be measured with respect to three criteria: time spent writing (is it a full-time or a spare-time activity?); economic return (does it support the writer and his or her family?); technical mastery (do the writer’s works meet professional standards?). Aira uses the first criterion only and observes that from Balzac to Proust, writing increasingly swallows up the writer’s life:
Once the professional novelist has been constituted, there are two equally melancholy options: to go on writing old novels, updating the scenery; or, by making a titanic effort, to advance a step or two. In the space of a few years, the second possibility turns out to be a blind alley: while Balzac wrote fifty novels and had time left over for living, Flaubert wrote five, bleeding himself dry, Joyce wrote two, and Proust only one. And it was work that invaded life, absorbed it, like an inhuman hyperprofessionalisation.2
For Aira, professionalisation is not a historical achievement to be defended, but a kind of confinement from which it is imperative to escape, because it limits innovation to the updating of settings and contents, forms having reached a degree of perfection that can only be surpassed at the cost of an almost suicidal effort. This little history of the novel can obviously be challenged. By pointing out, for a start, that Proust’s one novel is longer than Flaubert’s five put end to end. And then by taking into account the other criteria of professionalisation mentioned above, and showing that there is no simple, linear progression from Balzac to Proust. But to argue in this way would be to fall into the error of reading ‘New Writing’ as a straightforward contribution to literary history, when it is in fact a highly personal essay, which, like many of Aira’s exercises in the genre, could be subtitled ‘Reasons to Keep Writing.’ Aira uses Proust, whom he admires unreservedly, as the ultimate term in a constructed process of professionalisation. But he does not regard Proust as a nec plus ultra, a terminus, to quote Julien Gracq, who argued, in En Lisant, en écrivant (While Reading, While Writing) for a return to the airy narrative style of Stendhal.3 Instead Aira indicates a third way, a way to go beyond the opposition of the professional to the amateur:
Luckily there is a third option: the avant-garde, which, as I see it, is an attempt to recover the amateur’s gesture at a higher level of historical synthesis. That is, to base oneself in an already autonomous and socially validated field, and to invent, within that field, new practices to bring back the ease of production that art originally had.
Aira does not suggest giving up accumulated know-how and technique in order to regress to a pure spontaneity; he seeks instead to submit know-how and technique to a new procedure, by which he means a rule or set of rules that would guide artistic production. In the essay, he proposes a short list of procedures, then describes one in detail. This is how the list begins: ‘constructivism, automatic writing, ready-made, the twelve-tone system, cut-up’. Then come two more general terms – ‘chance, indetermination’ – which underline a common feature of at least three of the previously mentioned procedures.
To explain how a procedure works, Aira describes the one that governs John Cage’s ‘Music of Changes’ (1951). Cage’s much more complex instructions for use can be found in his book Silence.4 Cage designed 64-cell charts based on the 64 hexagrams of the Chinese I-Ching (Book of Changes). The charts referred to sounds, tempi, durations, dynamics and superpositions (how many sounds were to be produced at once). Then he used a method of coin-tossing to guide him to cells on the charts. The sequence of cells determined a sequence of sound events that constituted the piece.
For Aira, this is a paradigmatic process: ‘Cage’s tables of elements could be used for any art’. The procedure can even dispense with the artist: ‘The methodical and purely automatic work of determining one note after another makes the piece from beginning to end’. This is an interesting and symptomatic exaggeration. It is true that automatic work finished the making of the piece, but composition began before the first note was written, with the formulation of the procedure. ‘Music of Changes’ could be called conceptual music by analogy with conceptual art.
Aira highlights an apparent paradox: the product of Cage’s aleatory composition procedure does not sound impersonal, atemporal and unplaceable; it is, on the contrary, strongly anchored in the context of its composition. It sounds like the work of a mid-twentieth century North American composer influenced by Schönberg. From this impression, Aira draws the following consequence:
The only thing that Cage did, in 1951, was to decide on the procedure; as soon as the writing began, the date, the personality and the civilisation that enveloped them were excluded. If the date, the personality and the civilisation remain present in the finished product, it means that we have been mistaken in attributing their presence to psychological processes in the act of composition.
This is to assume that Cage’s procedure reveals the nature of all composition by radicalising it. And in fact Aira goes on to suggest that Chopin’s nocturnes might have been composed using a similar procedure with ad hoc charts, and to point out that post-baroque composers like Mozart, Haydn and Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach occasionally used chance in their compositions. This move is similar to a claim sometimes made by the mainly French collective of experimental writers known as the Oulipo: that constraints (precisely pre-formulated writing rules) reveal the rule-bound nature of all writing, and are of the same nature as grammatical and generic conventions.5 Both moves, Aira’s and the Oulipo’s, are misleading if we take them at face value as literary theory, but illuminating if we read them as conceptual support for specific writing projects. Aira downplays Cage’s authorship (‘The only thing that Cage did, in 1951, was to decide on the procedure…’), but deciding on the procedure was decisive: rather than eliminating the psychological processes, it displaced them from the phase of composition to the phase of conception. This redistribution makes a crucial difference, because it suspends quality judgements: instead of asking continually ‘Is this part good enough?’, the composer sets aside questions of quality at least until the whole piece is composed. As Cage puts it, dogmatically, in Silence: ‘Value judgements are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening.’6
On the evidence of his essay ‘New Writing’ Aira could be hastily categorised as an experimental formalist and associated with the Oulipo, since his paradigmatic procedure resembles what the Oulipo calls a constraint. Cage’s procedure is elaborate, largely formal in nature and was precisely pre-formulated. However Cage’s use of coin-tossing is not at all Oulipian. The Oulipo has always been suspicious of aleatoric methods, because it associates them with the movement against which it has constructed itself: Surrealism. And if we remember Aira’s list, including ‘chance’ and ‘indetermination’, it begins to look as if the notion of the procedure recommended in ‘New Writing’ has more to do with the gleeful or desperate improvisation of the literary avant-gardes in the early 1920s than with any kind of formal rules. This impression could be confirmed by a reading of Aira’s lectures on the Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik (published in the same year as ‘New Writing’, 1998). There, Aira presents surrealist automatic writing, rather than Cage’s charts, as the paradigmatic procedure or process.
Automatic writing, says Aira, tries to be a process without a product, or rather a process that already is a product. It obliges the artist to be ‘a perpetual Orpheus’ forbidden to look back at what he or she has made.7 It is an attempt to suppress retrospection and evaluation, which freeze the work and turn it into an object, in favour of creation in a pure present and blind action unconcerned with results, which keep the work in process.8 This characterisation brings out a trait that automatic writing shares with Cage’s charts: both are ways of suspending critical judgement, and thereby opening a space for play. And that is the essence of the procedure for Aira.
Almost all writing requires some suspension of critical judgement, even if it is only momentary. Very few works would be finished if they had to be judged even as they were conceived. Usually there is an alternation of critical and productive activity throughout composition, as in the case of the composer wondering, ‘Is this part good enough?’ Talented writers have certainly been paralysed by the vigilance of their critical faculties. And the opposite is probably also true. What sets Aira apart is the combination of evident and abundant talent with the use of procedures that suspend self-critical judgement indefinitely. He writes as if he had decided to resolve the Kantian conflict between the faculties of taste and genius, not by establishing a harmony between them, but by suppressing taste altogether and thereby (according to Kant) condemning himself to write nonsense.9
But what exactly are Aira’s procedures and how are they reflected in the product? How do they relate to the two options for experimental writing presented at the beginning of this article?
At first glance, most of Aira’s novels appear to be rather conventional. Here are the beginnings of the last two to appear in English:
My story, the story of ‘how I became a nun,’ began very early in my life; I had just turned six. The beginning is marked by a vivid memory, which I can reconstruct down to the last detail. Before, there is nothing, and after, everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.10
On the morning of the 31st of December, the Pagaldays visited the apartment they already owned in the building under construction at 2161 Calle José Bonifacio, along with Bartolo Sacristán Olmedo, the landscape gardener they had hired to arrange plants on the two broad balconies, front and rear.11
Only the claim to be able to remember sleeping hours suggests that the speaker in How I Became a Nun may be an unusual individual or that the story may not be entirely realistic. Typically, in Aira’s novels, pages and pages go by with no obvious hints that the fictional world being set up may not a reliable construction. It is true that on page three of Ghosts we come to the following pair of sentences: ‘A woman in violet was catching her breath on the stairs between the sixth and seventh floors. Others didn’t have to make an effort: they floated up and down, even through the concrete slabs.’ The others are ghosts. But that is not too much of a surprise, given the book’s title: we have already assigned it to the genre of ghost story. The real shocks are still to come and are of another order.
In these early stages there is no foregrounding of unfamiliar forms or dismantling of familiar ones. There is nothing surprising or experimental about the syntax of the sentences. There is virtually no explicit intertextuality. The reader’s attention is not drawn to the linguistic medium or directed laterally towards other texts. It is easy to read these beginnings naïvely, simply imagining the actions and places described, perhaps just a little nonplussed by the narrator’s propensity to generalise and embark on essayistic digressions. (The bold conceptual moves in those digressions may leave the reader wondering: How seriously are we meant to be taking this? And to ask oneself that question is to get the point, not to miss it, the point being to combine a high degree of conceptual sophistication with a wild playfulness).
Typically, then, Aira’s novels begin in a quiet and leisurely fashion. However, in many of them, after an initial expository phase which allows the reader to settle into a fictional world, he or she is brought up short by a major discontinuity, which may belong to one of three broad categories.
First, there are diegetic discontinuities, which affect the action or the settings of the novels. For example, the moment in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter when the painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, is struck by lightning on the Argentinean pampa. His horse bolts and throws him, but his foot catches in the stirrup, and he is dragged for miles, nearly killed, and permanently disfigured. Rugendas is treated with morphine, which partly explains the hallucinatory passages in the book’s second half, but the narration pivots on the moment of the lightning strike, rather than the beginning of the treatment. That is the moment at which Rugendas’ life is changed utterly: he becomes a monster for all but his faithful friend Krause.12
There is a remarkable diegetic discontinuity in another of Aira’s historical novels, Ema, La Cautiva (Ema, the Captive), which is a peculiar version of the captive white woman story. In the mid nineteenth-century, Ema, a young convict woman, is transported to a frontier town in Patagonia, where she marries an engineer named Gombo. One night, in the middle of a snowstorm, while Ema and Gombo are peacefully smoking and drinking cognac, the wall of their hut is suddenly rent from top to bottom: the local indigenous men are attacking.13 Ema is captured and taken away on horseback: ‘They left. Ema’s perspective changed’, says the narrator laconically.14 Although Ema remains indifferent as ever, she leaves a world of gothic brutality and enters a sphere of oriental refinement and exquisite aesthetic pleasures (curiously influenced by Sei Shonagôn’s Pillow Book). This novel reverses the civilisation/barbarism opposition, which has had a powerful structuring function in Argentinean literature since Sarmiento’s Facundo (1845), which was subtitled precisely Civilisation and Barbarism.
Although these shifts are abrupt, they do not break the causal chain of the narrative. Aira rarely jumps from one spatio-temporal frame or set of characters to another without the connections being if not obvious at least discernible in the short term. So far he has not opted for the strategy of letting those connections remain latent, as Georges Perec did, for example, in W or The Memory of Childhood, a book designed to make the reader wonder almost until the end precisely why memoir and adventure novel have been spliced together between its covers.
As well as the diegetic discontinuities in Aira’s novels there are stylistic discontinuities. For example, in How I Became a Nun, after the entirely coherent narrative of the first chapter, we are suddenly faced with a fragmentary, delirious monologue that makes heavy use of ellipses, like the later fiction of Céline. This is justified by the young narrator’s condition: he or she has been hospitalised after eating ice-cream containing arsenic (he or she, because in the book the narrator consistently refers to herself using feminine forms, whereas the other characters refer to him as a boy, and the ambiguity is never resolved). This kind of discontinuity is rare in Aira’s novels and usually has a diegetic justification of some kind. The unmotivated stylistic discontinuities that have become a regular part of fiction’s technical arsenal since Ulysses, and which were used with great aplomb by Manuel Puig in his early novels, are not a feature of Aira’s work.
With regard to the first two kinds of discontinuity – diegetic and stylistic – Aira might seem a rather conservative writer, declining to foreground narrative artifice in ways that are no longer considered to be the preserve of the avant-garde. However, it is not uncommon for diegetic and stylistic discontinuities to come together in his novels, contributing to a third kind of discontinuity which is altogether more unusual and disturbing: a generic discontinuity. The novel jumps from one genre to another. The neatest example of this is La Prueba (The Proof), which begins with two girls, Mao and Lenin, attempting to pick up a shy and awkward shop assistant called Marcia one evening in Flores. Marcia is clearly frightened by their direct approach, but fascinated too, and so allows them to pursue their efforts. They go to a café. The first two thirds of this short book consists of a three-way conversation interspersed with Marcia’s reflections. Then delicate psychological realism is brutally displaced by violent action, reminiscent of B-grade cinema, but also of Lautréamont in its bloody details: Mao and Lenin hold up a supermarket and set it alight as a ‘proof’ of love. The transition, the passage from thought to action, is signalled by a mysterious event that recurs in many of Aira’s books, ‘the serious smile’, which appears here on Mao’s face.15
Generic discontinuities of this kind raise two large questions, relating to production and reception respectively. Why would a writer do this? And how does it affect the experience of reading?
Aira has said in interviews that endings are his weak point, because before he finishes one book, he has an idea for another, so, impatient to begin something new, he precipitates a catastrophe in the book underway, the sooner to be rid of it. This may be true in some cases, but it would be a mistake to take it as an authoritative statement valid for all his novels, because its function is only partly explanatory; it is also part of a strategy of pre-emptive, disarming self-deprecation, which Aira has consistently deployed in his dealings with the media. And there are at least two other reasons for Aira’s generic discontinuities.
One of those reasons is formal and relates to Aira’s writing procedure, which he has explained in numerous interviews. He writes about a page a day, by hand, generally in a public space, often a café in Flores, working into the daily page things seen or heard or experienced that day or the day before. He claims not to rewrite at all, attempting instead to redeem the weaknesses or breaches of verisimilitude in the pages he has written with new developments and retrospective explanations. To describe this procedure he employs a military metaphor: flight forward (‘la huida hacia adelante’). The retrospective explanations preserve a minimal verisimilitude, which requires only that effects have causes, although the causes may be magical or absurd. In his lectures on the Argentinean playwright and novelist Copi, Aira defends ‘chemically pure storytelling’ as an escape from the ‘reign of explanation’ into a ‘pure succession of unconnected spectacles’.16 In his own fiction he does occasionally practise such an escape, notably in transitions from one story to another, or from a story to a conceptual digression. But such passages are rare, and Aira has also said that he doesn’t like the simple accumulation of incongruities, surrealism for surrealism’s sake.17 He leaves his improvisation open to the anomalous, but then obliges himself to find more or less plausible explanations after the fact, thus producing a reasoned succession of incongruities rather than a simple accumulation of them.
For example, in Las Noches de Flores (The Nights of Flores), Aldo and Rosita, an elderly couple who have taken up pizza delivery to supplement their income, come across ‘a strange being, half-bat, half-parrot’, whose name is Nardo Sollozo.18 This strange being is gradually acclimatised in the novel by mentions of the ‘little monster’, the ‘homunculus’, the ‘grotesque, nocturnal being’, the ‘mutant’, but towards the end of the novel we learn that Nardo Sollozo is in fact a dwarf in disguise, wearing a batman costume, working as a police informant.
The flight forward combines an avant-garde procedure (the refusal of rewriting, as in surrealist automatic writing) and a novelistic convention (maintaining a minimal verisimilitude). Not that Aira is particularly attached to verisimilitude in itself, but the obligation to provide retrospective justifications is a stimulus to the imagination and sends the story forward in new directions. Aira puts himself in the position of the liar who is obliged to come up with more and more complicated fabrications in order to keep an initial lie hidden. In Las Noches de Flores, Aldo finds himself in precisely that situation when he puts on a motorbike helmet, which he is minding for one of the delivery boys, in order to frighten some nuns who have ordered a pizza:
When they got over the surprise, since their habit prevented them from imagining that it might have been a gratuitous act, they asked him for explanations.
‘We bought a motorbike, you see,’ said Aldo very seriously.
‘Really? Was it very dear? Aren’t you afraid? Did you already know how to ride one or did you have to learn? What brand is it? Japanese?’
Then, after further reflection:
‘Why didn’t we hear anything?’
‘Well, you see, I got one with a silencer; I was thinking of you.’
The little nuns’ jaws dropped:
‘There are silent motorbikes? They should all be like that! Why don’t they make it obligatory?
‘Well, they’re more dangerous. At least with the noise you can tell where they’re coming from.’19
Like the improvisation of lies, the improvisation of fictional explanations tends to become increasingly complicated and difficult. The various threads of the story wind themselves into a tightening tangle, and in order to recover his freedom of movement, sometimes Aira cuts the knot instead of untying it, even if that means leaving loose ends. For example, in Las noches de Flores, there is a mystery. Jonathan, a pizza delivery boy, has been kidnapped. The night his headless body is discovered, the judge in charge of the case is woken by a telephone call: his own son has had a car accident. This accident, it turns out, is not serious, but it involves a litigious, high-profile pop-star; and it so happens that a second accident, a fatal one, had occurred almost at the same time, on the same stretch of freeway, a coincidence that leads to confusion in the media. It is then revealed that two youths, one of whom was mistakenly identified as Jonathan, somehow stole a police car on that same stretch of freeway around the same time. So there were, it seems, four almost simultaneous events: two accidents, the theft of the police car and the discovery of the body. While struggling with the kidnapping case and his son’s legal problems, the judge is also trying to be a good host to a house guest from Bolivia. In a state of desperate fatigue, he reflects:
It would have been normal to assume that the events were unrelated, and although his anxiety could bind them together in a single knot of tedium and discouragement, his reason was unable to perceive the connections. Nevertheless he knew that it wasn’t necessary for a relation to exist : it could be created, by a poetic act of the will. But that was a slow, laborious task, and could take a very long time. And time was precisely what he didn’t have, because of the very nature of simultaneity.20
It is at this point that the generic discontinuity occurs in Las noches de Flores. After shifting to a short narrative about a prodigal son, which has only a loose, thematic link with the judge’s preceding reflections on fatherhood, the story of the kidnapping resumes. The complexity of the plot is increased, rather than reduced and resolved, by a cascade of recognitions (X turns out in fact to be Y and so on). The judge never positively identifies Jonathan’s kidnappers and Aira finally renders the mystery irrelevant by transforming the criminals into automata (‘He has become mechanical, as if crime had dehumanised him,’ says the judge observing one of them.) Indeed all the adults in the final scene become ‘underground dolls’ moved by the magnetic force of pure love, manifested on the surface by two pizza-delivery boys (one of whom may be a girl) chasing each other on their motorbikes through the streets of Flores.21
Las noches de Flores illustrates the second reason for Aira’s generic discontinuities: they provide an escape from the cumulative complications produced by the flight forward procedure. There is a third and final reason, which is related to Aira’s taste for asymmetry. In a recent interview, he said ‘I have sometimes thought that all my work could be defined as a search for beautiful, new asymmetries’.22 The notion of the ‘beautiful asymmetry’ has a basis in experimental psychology. Most people find a photograph of a human face more appealing than a composite photograph made up of the face’s left-hand side joined to a laterally inverted image of the same left-hand side (or a composite of two right-hand sides joined in the same way).23 The composite has perfect bilateral symmetry, whereas the natural face does not. But in the experiments that have produced these findings, the asymmetries have been small, whereas Aira seems to have a taste for spectacular asymmetries of the kind that many people would judge to be unappealing or even monstrous if they were transposed to the human face or to architecture. Many of his books have strange excrescences or appendages: stories within the story, which serve no apparent function, or essayistic digressions that bulge like textual hernias.
In Ghosts, the central character is Patri, an adolescent girl who lives with her family in a building under construction. They are Chilean immigrants; Patri’s father is employed on the site as a builder and night watchman. The unfinished building is also inhabited by ghosts, who have chosen to address themselves exclusively to Patri, and to invite her to a party. The novel is set on New Year’s Eve; it is very hot. Patri takes a siesta and begins to dream. Her dream is an extended ethnographic and philosophical fantasia on the concept of the unbuilt (‘lo no-construido’), and it draws heavily on the work Claude Lévi-Strauss. Here is a sample paragraph from the beginning of the dream:
The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realisation requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film doesn’t get made. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all – which technological advances have exacerbated if anything – isn’t actually an essential part of cinema’s charm, since, paradoxically, it gives everyone access to movie-making, in the form of pure daydreaming. It’s the same in the other arts, to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimised, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.24
Now Patri is 15 years old, she comes from a working-class family and has already left school. Attributing this kind of discourse to her, not to mention knowledge of the customs and cosmologies of various African peoples, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines, stretches credibility, but Aira is clearly more interested in pursuing his speculations and trying them out in his novel’s half-built world than in preserving his character’s psychological coherence. Here, as very often in Aira’s work, free indirect style is used to approach and withdraw from the character’s point of view. Patri’s dream is a perplexing and sizeable excrescence, a striking example of what Aira refers to in the interview with Benjamin Johnson quoted above as an ‘unexpected addition’:
I oppose asymmetrical openings and unexpected additions to symmetrical closure. Perhaps it’s a bit of magical thinking, an attempt to keep on creating, to resist the end. The finished work of art always establishes a symmetry; asymmetry keeps it in process.25
The unexpected addition creates an imbalance, an asymmetry, which keeps the work in process because it demands a further, balancing addition, but Aira keeps deferring the achievement of balance to the next book. If balance is ever to be achieved, it will not be in particular books but over the series they compose collectively, which is the fundamental product of his writing. His books are not free-standing, self-sufficient units, but fragmentary instalments, sections excised from a continuum. In Cumpleaños (Birthday), Aira imagines them as marginal documentation for a grand, impossible project, a ‘recreational encyclopedia’, which would be ‘the central battlefield in the war against the aberrant logic of the example’, and in Las curas milagrosas del doctor Aira (Dr Aira’s Miracle Cures), his fictional alter ego publishes collectable weekly ‘fascicles’ which are clearly scaled-down representations, mises-en-abyme, of the novel in which they appear.26
I have suggested three reasons for producing generic discontinuities: they allow the writer to precipitate an ending, to escape from the complications that result from the flight-forward procedure, and to make unexpected, asymmetrical additions. Now I would like to turn to the other large question raised by these discontinuities and ask: How do they affect the experience of reading?
Aira’s discontinuities are certainly disconcerting and potentially disappointing. Disconcerting because a genre establishes a pact with the reader; it draws a horizon of expectation, allowing the reader to wonder in a structured way about how the story will unfold. When the pact is broken, the horizon vanishes and the reader is temporarily disoriented, not even knowing at first what kind of event to expect. Then he or she must reassign the narrative to a new genre. Given all the genre-bending and -busting moves that postmodern fiction likes to make, it might seem that Aira’s discontinuities are not all that eccentric, but they have an unusually high impact on the reader, for two reasons. First, he limits their number. In La Prueba and Las Noches de Flores, there is just one major discontinuity, about two thirds of the way through, when the reader has had ample time to settle into the novel’s world. The impact of discontinuities seems to be inversely proportional to their frequency, a principle that may help to explain the paradoxically smooth texture of some experimental writing (much of John Ashbery’s poetry, for example, has a smoothness that results from very frequent register shifts). The second reason why Aira’s generic discontinuities are genuinely shocking is that the genres involved are often very dissimilar. He doesn’t simply jump from one kind of novel to another but, often, from a literary kind to a literary version of narrative in another medium. In La Prueba the shift is from delicate psychological realism to what reads like the description of a violent action film. In La Mendiga (The Beggar) there is a five-page scene that mimics video-game combat: Rosa, the beggar of the title, uses reflected moonbeams to incinerate dwarf-gargoyles that have come to life.27 As Reinaldo Laddaga has commented, nothing in the book’s imaginary world explains this spectacle, which remains a foreign body in the narrative, comparable to Patri’s ethnographic dream in Los Fantasmas, but without the pretext of dreaming to provide even a nominal justification.28
Generic conventions do not have binding force – no one can make an author respect them – but they do have considerable social weight, and infringing them entails a risk of disappointing the reader. Shifting abruptly from one genre to another in the course of a book is very likely to disappoint readers simply because most readers have marked and durable preferences for certain genres and little interest in others. Even readers with a general preference for genre fiction have particular preferences too, for the vampire novel, say, over the inspirational quest. And readers who look for the literary fiction shelves in bookshops are likely to be disappointed by the kind of discontinuity that occurs in La Prueba or Las Noches de Flores – that is, by a shift from contemplative realism to violent or fantastic action – feeling that violence and fantasy cannot compensate for what has been lost: psychological complexity and atmosphere. Because after all Aira can and does construct intriguing characters and vivid atmospheres, although the commentary on his work has rarely insisted on those traditional skills.
Aldo and Rosita, for example, in the first part of Las Noches de Flores, are an intriguing pair: when the financial crisis in Argentina cuts their retirement income, they decide to supplement it by delivering pizzas at night, on foot. The opportunity arises because the pizzerias have stopped maintaining fleets of motorbikes and rely on the delivery boys using their own. But under the new system, the boys only work when they need the money and keep moving from one employer to another. So the proprietor of Pizza Show saves the shorter deliveries for Aldo and Rosita, who are punctual and reliable, and have a good influence on their adolescent colleagues. For the retired pair, this work, which could have seemed humiliating, is a way of getting some exercise, but also of rediscovering the night: ‘Like so many couples their age, they had tended to stay in more and more, spending the evenings in front of the television, going to bed earlier and earlier. When the night opened to them, it renewed an experience of youth’.29
Although Aira’s characters often launch into speculations that slide back and forth on the slippery continuum of the free indirect style from their position to the narrator’s, they are rarely simple mouthpieces, and their propensity to theorise can be seen as a utopian or radically democratic trait of Aira’s fictional world. Conceptual discourse is not reserved for intellectuals; anyone can have access to it. This trait is related to Aira’s conviction that impressions of cultural inferiority are always the result of bad or incomplete translation.30
Atmosphere is also an underrated feature of Aira’s fiction. The first part of Las Noches de Flores, for example, provides a thick description of the nocturnal world that Aldo and Rosita discover: the labyrinthine streets of Flores, the frightening motorbike races between delivery boys, their tribal rivalry, their sinuous, laconic conversations, the sequences of automatic movements they make as they get onto their bikes and start them up. El Sueño (The Dream) revolves around a newspaper kiosk in the same suburb. The first part of the book is full of closely observed detail concerning the work of selling papers and magazines, as well as atmospheric descriptions of the streets of Flores in the early hours of a ‘perfect morning’. This leisurely attention to circumstances suddenly vanishes when Mario, the protagonist of El Sueño, ventures into a convent to rescue his beloved from what turns out to be an evil order of cyber-nuns.
Similarly in Las Noches de Flores, the reader’s sense of Flores by night as a place at once dangerous and magical evaporates after the generic discontinuity: the narrative accelerates, and the cascading revelations and recognitions leave room for little more than a bare account of the action. While Nardo Sollozo, the anomalous half-bat half-parrot of the book’s first part, turns out to be a dwarf in disguise, Aldo and Rosita, the endearing retirees, are revealed as the novel’s true monsters. Aldo is in fact a criminal, nicknamed Cloroformo (‘Chloroform’) because he used that substance to kidnap minors and sell them into sexual slavery. Rosita is not his wife, and not a woman, but one of Cloroformo’s partners in crime, ironically named Resplandor (Splendour). The monstrosity of Rosita-Resplandor is underlined very heavily in the final pages of the novel where he appears caressing Jonathan’s severed head while subjecting his absent body to obscene imaginary acts. Aldo and Rosita are voided of their psychological substance and become supports for grotesque action. Not only do they commit atrocities, they also become fictional monsters in a more abstract or general sense: asymmetrical composites of heterogeneous materials.
In Las Noches de Flores, El Sueño, and several of Aira’s other books, the generic discontinuity coincides with the appearance of moral or physical monsters. Aira’s work swarms with misshapen, sinister creatures, and it is tempting to see them as emblems of the novels themselves, which are also deformed, disturbing and numerous.
Mutation and ‘genrification’
Given the potential for disappointment that is generated by the discontinuities in some of Aira’s novels, it is reasonable to ask if there are readers who are interested equally in what comes before and after these abrupt shifts. Even if there are no such readers now, they could come into existence if the discontinuities begin to constitute a pattern with some degree of predictability. Aira’s fan readers might then begin to anticipate and appreciate the discontinuity, as readers of sonnets take ‘the turn’ in their stride. The mini-monster-novel made up of asymmetrical and heterogeneous parts could become a subgenre if the pattern were copied by other writers. And that may be happening already. Dalia Rosetti’s Me Encantaría que me gustes de mi (I’d Love You to Fancy Me) which jumps from contemporary lesbian surfing romance to futuristic dystopia, explicitly signals its debt to Aira, a debt that is amply repaid by Yo era una chica moderna (I Was a Modern Girl), in which Aira, borrowing the voice and the insolent energy of Rosetti’s narrators, ventures into clubland, in search of the world’s smallest discothèque.
Mariano García, one of Aira’s most acute and appreciative critics, argues that his work participates in a process of degeneration, and that his generic hybrids are a stage on the way to the dissolution of genres announced by Blanchot in Le Livre à venir (The Book to Come).31 The novelist Guillermo Martínez, on the other hand, regards Aira’s work as simply degenerate, and sees the enthusiasm for it as a sign of cultural decline and self-indulgence.32 It’s true that Aira’s work has clastic or fragmenting force: it breaks genres up and down and open. But as Ruth Lorand has remarked, a new aesthetic order can emerge from the conflict between two or more old orders.33 Aira’s particular genre combinations are new and the discontinuities between the parts of his novels are especially surprising, but similar combinatory processes (inclusion, mixture, hybridisation) have been reorganizing the system of genres since medieval times at least, as Alastair Fowler shows with a wealth of examples in chapter 10 of Kinds of Literature.34 Aira’s avant-gardism pursues the new by twisting time-honoured means.
Emerging genres may seem deformed or ugly, but, to surrender to the attraction of biological metaphors for a moment, mutants are the motor of evolution, and monsters, if they can reproduce, may initiate a new genealogical branch. It is not easy, and perhaps not even possible in advance, to distinguish degeneration from regeneration. And in the literary domain, Aira’s monstrosities may turn out to be causes of the second process as well as results of the first. That is, they may be taken up by what Rick Altman calls ‘genrification’.35 Monstrosities may serve as models, and the monstrous may eventually become a source of pleasure.36
Or not. In any case it is highly unlikely that Aira’s books will capitalise on such a development, should it occur, because to do so would be to renege on the aesthetic project that has consistently guided his production so far. It is an avant-garde project of privileging the new over quality. ‘In my most lucid moments,’ he writes in Cumpleaños (Birthday), ‘What I wanted was not so much to write something good as something new.’37 Why the disjunction? From Aira’s point of view, the genuinely new will always be judged ‘bad’, because the agreed-upon standards of judgement are necessarily derived from old works that have come to be widely accepted as good. This simple argument is not itself new; it radicalises the modernist position of Proust’s narrator in Combray, thinking of Bergotte:
We are very slow in recognising in the peculiar physiognomy of a new writer the type which is labelled ‘great talent’ in our museum of general ideas. Simply because that physiognomy is new and strange, we can find in it no resemblance to what we are accustomed to call talent. We say rather originality, charm, delicacy, strength; and then one day we add up the sum of these, and find that it amounts simply to talent.38
Of Aira it is often said that he has originality, humour and a wild imagination (what is less often said is that he constructs intriguing characters and vivid atmospheres). For a growing number of readers these qualities add up to quality. But not for prize judges. He has never won a major prize, although in Carlos Fuentes’ La Silla del Aguila (The Eagle’s Seat) he wins the major prize, the Nobel. Aira himself says that he writes badly and he’s not entirely wrong: by current standards, parts of his work are slapdash, and it would be pretentious to claim to be judging already by the standards of the future. But saying that he writes badly is another provocative simplification, because if he didn’t also write very well, by current standards, he would not have attracted so many fans and annoyed so many detractors; he would not have been able to create a new position in the Argentinean literary field.
The absolutely new is an unattainable ideal (like the ideal of never looking back in automatic writing), but one that has kept prompting Aira to begin again, making new starts, initiating new series, inventing new reasons to keep writing. By stressing generic discontinuities and monstrosity, I have no doubt given a false impression of Aira’s work so far, because most of the examples have been drawn from a small subset of his 46 novels. I could have given quite different impressions by speaking of other sets, such as the recent Las Aventuras de Barbaverde (The Adventures of Greenbeard), an indefinitely deferred romance between a shy reporter and a conceptual artist, almost brought together by a mysterious superhero (Greenbeard), who never quite appears in the sequence of four novellas; or the discontinuous autobiography that could be subtitled ‘Moments in the Life of the Encyclopedist’, constituted by Diario de Hepatitis (Hepatitis Diary), Nouvelles impressions du petit Maro (New Impressions of Little Morocco), Cumpleaños (Birthday), Fragmentos de un diario en los alpes (Fragments of a Diary in the Alps), El Tilo (The Lime Tree) and Como me reí (How I Laughed); or the fairy tales Mil gotas (A Thousand Drops), Yo era una chica de seis años (I Was a Girl of Six) and La Princesa Primavera (Princess Springtime), whose arabesques conform to Ludwig Tieck’s early romantic aesthetic of nonsense, analysed recently by Winfried Menninghaus. Which series will be continued next? How will they split and intersect? So wonder the multiplying Aira collectors, swept up in the flight forward, impatient to be disconcerted and even disappointed, again, differently.
1 ‘Derivas de la pesada,’ Entre Paréntesis, Anagrama, 2004, pp. 23–30.
2 ‘La Nueva Escritura’, La Jornada Semanal, 12 April 1998, http://www.jornada.unam.mx/1998/04/12/sem-aira.html. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.
3 José Corti, 1980, pp. 95-104
4 Wesleyan University Press, 1961, pp. 57–59.
5 See François Le Lionnais, ‘La Lipo’, Oulipo: La Littérature potentielle, Gallimard, 1973, pp. 19–22.
6 Ibid., p. 59.
7 Alejandra Pizarnik, Beatriz Viterbo, 1998, p. 12.
8 Ibid., p.13.
9 See Winfried Menninghaus, In Praise of Nonsense: Kant and Bluebeard, trans. Henry Pickford, California University Press, 1999, p.17.
10 How I Became a Nun, trans. Chris Andrews, New Directions, 2007, p. 1.
11 Ghosts, trans. Chris Andrews, New Directions, 2009, p. 1.
12 Trans. Chris Andrews, New Directions, 2005.
13 Mondadori, 1997, p. 107
14 Ibid., p. 109.
15 Era, 2002, p. 54.
16 Copi, Beatriz Viterbo, 1991, p. 18.
17 ‘Entrevista con César Aira’, interview with Jorge Carrión (2004) http://www.jorgecarrion.com/tertuliaAira.htm.
18 Mondadori, 2004, pp. 29, 32.
19 Ibid, p. 56.
20 Ibid, pp. 107–108.
21 Ibid, pp. 137, 140.
22 ‘Asimetrías : Una entrevista con César Aira’, interview with Benjamin S. Johnson (2007), http://animalitosinexpresivos.blogspot.com/2007/05/asimetras-una-entrevista-con-csar-aira.html
23 R. Knowner, ‘Facial asymmetry and attractiveness judgement in developmental perspective’, Journal of Experimental Pyschology, 22 (1996), pp. 662–675.
24 Trans. Chris Andrews, New Directions, 2009, p. 57.
25 ‘Asimetrías: Una entrevista con César Aira’, interview with Benjamin S. Johnson (2007), http://animalitosinexpresivos.blogspot.com/2007/05/asimetras-una-entrevista-con-csar-aira.html.
26 Mondadori, 2001, pp. 81, 83; Mariano García, Degeneraciones textuales: Los géneros en la obra de César Aira, Beatriz Viterbo, 2006, p. 49.
27 Mondadori, 1999, pp. 23–28.
28 Espectáculos de la realidad: Ensayo sobre a narrativa latinoamericana de las últimas dos décadas, Beatriz Viterbo, 2007, p. 120.
29 Las Noches de Flores, Mondadori, 2004, p. 8.
30 Cumpleaños, Mondadori, 2001, pp. 48–49.
31 Degeneraciones textuales, Beatriz Viterbo, 2006, p. 19.
32 La Fórmula de la inmortalidad, Seix Barral, 2005, 205.
33 Aesthetic Order, Routledge, 2000, pp. 199–201.
34 Clarendon Press, 1982, pp. 170–190.
35 Film / Genre, BFI, 1999, pp. 52–59.
36 See Gérard Genette, Figures V, Seuil, 2002, p. 62.
37 Mondadori, 2001, p. 76.
38 Swann’s Way, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Chatto and Windus, 1966, pp. 132–133.