Thursday, July 28, 2011

Whatever Gets You There: The Writings of César Aira

The man: César Aira. His hometown: Coronel Pringles, Argentina. Some of his books: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Ghosts, How I Became a Nun. His prose: Umm…. Well, seeing I haven’t yet figured out how to describe Aira’s writing style—though Lord have I tried, as I’m excited by his work and have attempted to convey the reasons why to friends—I think the best means at my current disposal is to offer a composite of the elements that make up his narratives and hope that if you then stand back and squint a little you might get some idea of their effect:

His books are short, all novella length; his books are not genre, or rather of one genre, but unlike the writers of the nouveau roman movement in the Fifties, who jumped stylistically from novel to novel, Aira, without affection, does so as often as chapter to chapter. It is said (by him) that he doesn’t revise, edit, or make outlines—his vision of the contemporary avant-garde South American writer is one who always moves forward, doesn’t backtrack, uses all the devices in the modern literary kit to write oneself out of any tight jam. Trapped in a corner in a tale that thus far has read like a 19th Century period piece? Why not enlist the help of an intergalactic portal that wasn’t due for delivery for another thousand years or so (though this hasn’t actually occurred in any of his books that I’ve read, but I’m reluctant to give away any of his far more inventive ploys in this review). In the book Ghosts, a Chilean family—who for the past year has been living in and keeping watch over a construction site filled with hundreds of bare-ass, well-endowed specters—prepares for a New Year’s Eve bash while the previously innocuous aberrations start cajoling the family’s eldest daughter to perform a terrible deed. In An Episode in the Life of A Landscape Painter, a fictionalized excerpt from the life of German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas, two painters dare to traverse the barren land just past the Cordillera de los Andes while heading for the heart of Argentina, only to suffer greatly and be rewarded in turn for their attempts to render the “physiognomic totality” of the land to canvas for the first time ever (get all of that?). And all of his books just end, and never on even the least gratifying of notes, which at first irks the shit out of you, that is, till you find that several months later the story has continued on in your mind.

Somehow this all makes for some terribly addictive reading.

Finally, if I may end on a personal note here, shortly before my recent trek to Prague, I very much wanted to find one of Aira’s books (what would have been my first) to read on the long flight. But I could not find a single copy in all of Chicago. Three days later, after leaving the Kafka museum, I came across a tiny English-language bookshop in the shadow of Prague Castle, in the Malá Strana (Lesser Town) district. I went in for a look-see, started perusing at A, curious what the average English-speaking Czech or ex-pat read in such parts. The second book on the shelf was Ghosts. I snatched it up and marched it past the many ribald puppet shows, the Gothic cathedrals that peeled with organ recitals, the remaining Communist eyesores that couldn’t yet be demolished but were defaced with gimcracks, and the phalanx of statues with verdigris stains beneath their melancholy eyes, back to my room, where I closed the curtains and promptly fell into the strangest of worlds.

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