The Essential Gratuitousness of César Aira

It is not in the least original to begin talking about César Aira’s work by recounting the technique that produces it. But it can’t be helped: Aira has made a discussion of his practice obligatory ...

It is not in the least original to begin talking about César Aira’s work by recounting the technique that produces it. But it can’t be helped: Aira has made a discussion of his practice obligatory. To read him is less to evaluate a freestanding book, or a series of them, than to encounter one of the most extraordinary ongoing projects in contemporary literature.

Aira has published around 80 books, mostly novels and mostly very short, since 1975; beginning in the 1990s they have appeared at a rate of about four per year. Aira says they are all produced according to the same method, which might have been devised to baffle our fantasies of how “literary” fiction gets made: late mornings he stations himself in a café, usually in Buenos Aires. He starts with an idea for a story, but beyond that the only guarantee is that he’ll write something. “I open myself to what’s going on, to what happened to me that day or the day before, to things I see on TV, the silly celebrity programs or the sit-coms that are always on (TV is a great source of involuntary surrealism). Of course, there’s also my reading, movies, chats with family and friends. And the neighborhood, the people on the street.” The less propitious an event or passerby seems for inclusion, the more likely Aira is to seize on it. In one account of his practice, he says that if a bird wanders into the café, a bird goes into his book. In another, he mentions seeing a man dressed as a rat walking down the sidewalk: “So I’ll put someone dressed like a rat into the marital drama I’m writing.” He produces about a page a day, and does not permit himself to revise. Aira calls this the “fuga hacia adelante,” the flight forward.1

The results of the method should by rights be unreadable. Certainly it has produced a body of work nearly indescribable in its lunatic variety. One of the first to reach English-language audiences was An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter ([2000] 2006). The novel follows the 19th-century German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas as he perseveres in a mission to paint the Argentine pampas even after being struck by lightning—twice—and dragged by his horse down a dirt road. As an introduction to Aira, Episode is slightly misleading: the novel’s cerebral, ominous tone and its tactic of processing large issues of colonialism and representation through a little-known historical personage made Aira seem like a Sebald for the Southern Cone.

Anglophone readers who missed that the novel’s most outlandish detail—Rugendas’s proverb-defying bad luck—was its most characteristically Airan feature would have been startled by the next book to appear in English. The narrator of How I Became a Nun ([1993] 2007), a six-year-old named “César Aira” referred to variously by male and female pronouns, spends the middle of the novel hallucinating after eating a contaminated strawberry ice cream cone. The novel ends when the widow of the ice-cream vendor (who has been killed by the narrator’s vengeful father) hunts down the child to thrust her-or-him into a vat of this same ice cream. The book made Aira seem like the Argentine Kathy Acker.

Rarely has an author observed so obsessively the demand never to repeat himself.

Or was he an oblique chronicler of his country’s political terrors? You might think so from reading Ghosts ([1990] 2009), in which a group of naked specters haunts the construction site of a luxury apartment building and beguiles the teenaged daughter of the night watchman. Was Aira refracting Argentina’s disappeared through the lens of the fantastic, making his heroine’s sexual awakening an allegory for an apprehension of a traumatic recent past? But then Varamo
([2002] 2012) presents Aira as late Borgesian, an inventor of improbable literary histories: the book’s eponymous hero is a low-level bureaucrat who spends a single night in 1923 writing a poem—his first—that becomes a monument of modern Panamanian literature.

And what to make of La prueba (1992; The Test), where two punk lesbians accost the chubby and shy Marcia on a Buenos Aires street and draw her into a bloodbath in a local supermarket? Or of La princesa primavera (2003; The Spring Princess), whose heroine must defend her castle against an invasion led by General Winter and his malevolent lieutenant, a fake Christmas tree (named Christmas Tree) fitted with blinking lights and retractable branches? Secondary characters here include Arturo Toscanini’s daughter Wanda and the mummy of her deceased husband, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (their marriage is in the historical record; Horowitz’s mummification is not).

Aira’s tone is no more predictable than his content. The first line of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is: “Western art can boast few documentary painters of true distinction.” The first line of La prueba is: “You wanna fuck?” The first line of La princesa primavera is: “The Spring Princess lived in a beautiful white marble castle on a paradisiacal island off the coast of Panama.” Rarely has an author observed so obsessively the demand never to repeat himself.

One can only sympathize with the requirement to explain any of this in jacket copy or a press release. Aira’s North American publishers, New Directions, have given prominence to Roberto Bolaño’s remark that “once you’ve started reading Aira, you don’t want to stop.” Bolaño’s comments about the Argentine writer, scattered across several essays, provide some useful clues to Aira’s precursors: Bolaño mentions Osvaldo Lamborghini, the Buenos Aires vanguardist who was Aira’s friend until his death in 1985, and Raymond Roussel, the early 20th-century novelist whose rule-generated whimsy inspired the surrealists and the Oulipo group. All of this could give off an air of strenuous zaniness, tedious to experience on the page. But Bolaño’s encomium is strictly accurate: Aira is addictive to read.

Utterly indifferent to the usual criteria of the “readerly” text—his novels are skimpy on convincing accounts of psychology, event, or social structures—Aira is nonetheless peculiarly attentive to his reader’s experience, and we always know that he knows how disorienting his worlds are. One feels strangely accompanied in reading these books, which are dense with reflection on their own eccentric procedures and what they might mean; Aira is always on the verge of an ars poetica. The narrator of How I Became a Nun describes three radio soap operas his-or-her family follows: the first focuses on the adventures of the boy Jesus, and features a moment in each episode in which the voice of God the Father is thrillingly audible, the “radio within the radio”; the second is a historical program in which a wise grandmother recounts landmark events of Argentine history; the third is a show for adults whose premise is that “everyone was in love. They were like molecules with love valencies reaching out into space, into the sonorous ether, and every one of those little yearning arms found a hold.”

The interpretive protocols demanded by each of these programs—the mystical, the historical, the purely formal—all at one time or another suggest themselves to Aira’s readers; the channel-surfing among them is an even more potent image of his mercurial project. And when the narrator of The Literary Conference ([2006] 2010)—a self-proclaimed “mad scientist” named César Aira—tries to clone Carlos Fuentes but instead creates enormous blue silkworms when he inadvertently samples a piece of the Mexican novelist’s tie, the ludicrous premise becomes a meditation on Aira’s own literary ambitions, and a nod to how difficult it is to tell whether to characterize his manic output of slender books as a species of miniaturism or gigantism.


Even Aira’s writing about writers seems to offer an account of his own practice. His critical enthusiasms are catholic, encompassing the formally austere Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik and the radiant English short-story writer and novelist Denton Welch; Aira’s strong opinions are showcased in the Diccionario de autores latinoamericanos (Dictionary of Latin American Authors), an astounding 600-page compendium he wrote and published in 2001. But his most revealing piece of criticism is Edward Lear, a book-length essay on the Victorian nonsense poet (2004, untranslated). Aira declares that “even nonsense cannot escape the gravitational law of sense”—a premise that licenses him in a bravura, half-mad series of close readings of Lear’s first 50 limericks. What should be an unbearable exercise becomes an astonishing display of interpretive ingenuity. “There was an Old Man of Kilkenny / Who never had more than a penny; / He spent all that money / In onions and honey / That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny”: when Aira announces that these lines are a meditation on “concentration and dispersion,” one wants to laugh in disbelief—until he shows how Lear first doubles down on the formal tightness of the limerick with a thematics of scarcity and hunger, then “opens an incongruous epic panorama on this Irish desolation” with the Greek-sounding onions and honey, and finally pushes the poem further into the orbit of Odyssean wandering with the apparently unmotivated choice of the word “wayward” in the final line. Aira’s quasi-Talmudic interpretations of Lear achieve a cumulative intensity, as this aggressively minor literary figure stands revealed as a poet of improbable stature. A collateral effect, of course, is to send you back to Aira’s own work with a renewed conviction that he is a deadly serious artist.

Two stray remarks in the book on Lear offer a clue as to why, even at its silliest, Aira’s work feels like a project of authentic historical importance. Discussing Lear’s preoccupation with the limerick, Aira comments that “every artist has to find his format … The format, whatever it is, is eminently historical, and as such it only works once”; and in a discussion of an early limerick collection, the anonymous History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women of 1820, Aira claims that what made it remarkable was its author’s decision to turn these disconnected pieces into an interpretable totality by “making a book out of them: a gratuitous book, a purely bookish book.” The remarks make it suddenly clear that Aira’s “format” is not the novel or the story or the essay—his writing is hard to definitely characterize as any of these—but the book, and that a good part of his power derives from the insistence on making his work take the shape of book after book (after book), each one a self-enclosed world.

Aira’s graphomaniacal project, after all, would in many ways be better served by the Internet. But web publication would dilute his experiment in format, the effect of which is to emphasize the singularity of his book-objects. Aira began his career with small independent presses, and—even now that his popularity has attracted giants like Mondadori—continues to publish indiscriminately both with major presses and with almost unknown houses capable only of tiny editions (one result is the wildly unpredictable price of his books, some of which are essentially born “rare”). To read Aira is to be confronted with the book as a historical, aesthetic, and economic artifact. These objects radiate a weird elegiac power, as if Aira were trying single-handedly to repopulate the shelves of the world’s closing bookstores and shrinking libraries. But even the historical orientation of Aira’s work is difficult to nail down: the critic Craig Epplin points out that Aira “simultaneously invokes slower modes of production and models their opposite: speed and textual flight.”2

In either case, for readers attached to the increasingly quaint mode of print, Aira renders the fact of publication newly mysterious. His growing celebrity notwithstanding, liking him can feel remarkably lonely: it is possible to read 15 of his books and to meet another enthusiast who has read even more of them, only to find that you have hardly a single text in common to discuss. Read him for a while and eventually you will find yourself in a magical childlike state, convinced that you may literally be the only person in the world to have encountered a particular title, even when the book’s front matter assures you the universe holds more than one copy. The effect is to return a sense of exclusive possession, of private experience and unique discovery, to an increasingly mediated cultural landscape. But Aira’s work offers his readers this nostalgic pleasure at the price of making them feel a little unhinged, as if his secret ambition is to turn the most casual fan into a mouth-breathing acolyte.

One effect of these books’ extreme difference from one another is that each of them can seem like a Rosetta stone for the career as a whole. Three of Aira’s books have been my successive favorites—each one, I was inconsistently convinced, the key to the high-wire act constituted by his body of work. This is another way of saying that these are the three Aira books I read most recently, and I have no confidence that I would say the same thing next month: one submits to Aira’s destabilizing enterprise all the way or not at all.

In El llanto (1992; The Weeping), the narrator, a middle-aged male writer, reports that “what I feared most has come to pass.” What he most fears turns out, of course, to be Aira-weird: he has returned from a miserable fellowship year in Poland to his wife Claudia’s announcement that she is leaving him for her lover, a Japanese assassin who has masterminded the death of the Argentine Prime Minister; only later does the narrator remark on the oddity of this, since Argentina has no Prime Minister. When, installed in Tokyo, Claudia gives birth to quintuplets, her international romance helps make her a media sensation—replete with commentators’ “endless speculations on the Argentine tradition of exile”—and the narrator learns that an actress friend of his has been approached to play Claudia in the obligatory American movie version … Ridiculous as all of this is, El llanto is somehow not at all silly. The pile-up of unreal incident achieves a paradoxical realism—not of event or of character but of rhythm: Aira’s subject is the exhausting proliferation of detail in a life, the way experience is always threatening to overwhelm design.

El llanto’s story certainly calls for attention, but the book astonishes most in its meditations on the implausibility of story itself. It begins with an abstract cry of pain, as the narrator, alone in his apartment, recounts his bouts of crying and sleeplessness before focusing his attention on a program unfolding on the television and then, finally, on his own life. “Nobody can live without a story,” he tells us, and then, as if in response to this dictum: “My wife left me.” One effect of Aira’s method is to prompt us to look in the published text for the seams between his daily bouts of café-writing, the circadian rhythms undergirding the prose. Here, the reader is pretty sure that the narrator’s weeping took Aira to the end of his first day and that he only settled on the marital story on the second—and this sense that our narrator (like Aira) may simply be spinning his divorce drama from whole cloth becomes a commentary on the willed nature of emplotment itself. It thus makes perfect, perverse sense when, at the other end of this deeply distressed and Claudia-obsessed novel, the narrator crawls into bed with someone—hitherto unmentioned—named Liliana, whom he calls “my wife, the woman of my life, the first, last, and only.” Aira’s “flight forward” here becomes an allegory of the brutal ongoingness of human existence: the book is a devastatingly sad account of the hinges between a life’s serial installments, and of the emotional and cognitive effort necessary to tune into the next episode.

Aira’s subject is the exhausting proliferation of detail in a life, the way experience is always threatening to overwhelm design.

But El llanto was my favorite only until I read La prueba, the one with the lesbian punk terrorists. The “test” of the title points in many directions, but its most important referent is Aira’s self-appointed task of sustaining a conversation between total strangers for the book’s taut 70 pages. Marcia is an introverted 16-year-old who, leaving school one day, finds herself parrying the sexual advances of two black-clad women who call themselves Mao and Lenin. In classic punk fashion, the duo violate all possible social codes, from the mundane (they refuse to order food from the fast-food restaurant whose tables they commandeer) to the consequential (sounding like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen explaining the rules of Wonderland chess to Alice, Mao denies that Marcia’s heterosexuality has any bearing on the pleasures they should enjoy, assuring her quarry with implacable logic that she is not a lesbian either but that she “loves” Marcia—“and I’m not talking about a platonic love”). The girls’ ability to keep Marcia in uneasy colloquy is a mirror of Aira’s own gift for keeping the story moving, their programmatic inconsistency an image of his determined wrong-footing of generic expectation. We have no idea at all where this is going, or how it sustains itself, and the sensation is thrillingly unsettling.

In the book’s climax, as a final token of devotion (prueba also means “proof”), Mao and Lenin coax Marcia into a crowded supermarket, where they proceed to bolt the doors with rusted chains and terrorize the customers with razors, firearms, and, eventually, gasoline and live flame. The cartoonish violence is flagrantly unmotivated—gratuitous in the deepest sense—and it forces us to reflect queasily on the gratuitousness of narrative invention itself, which suddenly shows its kinship with a desire to conjure and wipe out worlds at will. “If everything is permitted … This new proverb has no second half,” Aira writes near the book’s end, in a commentary on Mao and Lenin’s rampage and on his own plank-walking narrative exercises. Aira’s removal of guarantees means not only that violence can intrude at any time but that it can just as abruptly cease: when, in the book’s final lines, the three girls metamorphose into “Las Tres Marías” (the constellation English-speakers call Orion’s Belt), the sudden shift to the serenity of heavenly bodies is as startling as the carnage that has preceded it. The moment functions as a tiny parable of Aira’s own practice, its refusal to let us relax even into shock.

But last week I read El divorcio (2010; The Divorce), and (this week) it seems to me the secret center of his work, a book compressing all the Airan effects—above all his gift for compression. The novel’s speed is breathtaking: in the wake of his divorce, the unnamed narrator leaves Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches literature, for a month in Buenos Aires, a city chosen, he tells us, “almost at random” (he seems to be North American). Within two pages he is seated in a sidewalk café, chatting with a woman named Leticia while the solicitous café owner adjusts the awning that shades the patio. A young man approaches, wheeling a bicycle. The day is so beautiful that the narrator has forgotten the storm from the night before—and so is as surprised as everyone else when the awning discharges its cargo of frigid rainwater onto the young man’s head. We sense that something of decisive importance has occurred, but we don’t know what direction it will take us. Will the young man laugh it off—order a coffee and dry off in the sun? Will he slink off in chagrin, or get angry—insult the café owner, or attack him? This utterly plausible and unspectacular accident has somehow raised the narrative to the heights of suspense, and one feels certain that exactly here is where Aira put down his pen for the day.

Reading El divorcio is like witnessing an explosion, or the birth of an alphabet.

What happens instead is that Leticia recognizes the unfortunate young man as Enrique, a long-lost friend from boarding school. A stunning narrative parenthesis opens as Aira takes us back to Leticia and Enrique’s friendship, the destruction of their school by fire, the magical escape they effected by crawling into a scale model of the school housed in its basement … We are ready to disappear down this fantastical rabbit hole when Aira closes the chapter and brings us back to the café, where the narrator now realizes that he too recognizes Enrique—as the manager of his hostel. As Aira opens a second parenthesis—this one on the fashion for outlandishly “themed” hostels (Buddhism, Classical Music, Polar Exploration) in the newly booming Argentine capital—we realize that El divorcio is never going to leave this café, or move on from this moment: Enrique will stay on that curb drenched in rainwater as ever more people inside the café recognize him and as Aira fits his short life into more and more genres. By the time this miraculously dense book has reached its conclusion, Aira has wheeled through the gothic novel, noir, sci-fi, family saga, social satire. It is almost impossible to believe the text occupies only 115 pages. Reading El divorcio is like witnessing an explosion, or the birth of an alphabet.

Near the end of the book, Aira mentions, inevitably, “The Aleph,” Borges’s 1945 story about a basement in Buenos Aires that contains the entire universe in condensed form. But Borges’s conceit is just another station on El divorcio’s headlong itinerary: Aira’s attempt to fit an infinite area into a delimited space digests even the Argentine master and his iconic image of totality. Instead of resting in homage to his precursor, Aira pushes forward into new and yet more improbable generic territory, offering a quasi-mythological ending in which Enrique and the torrent of rainwater figure as latter-day heroes of an Ovidian romance. In interviews Aira airily claims that his endings are his weak point, hastily concocted to allow him to get on to the next project.3 But it is precisely this indulgence in the arbitrary that makes Aira feel like the contemporary writer who takes endings most seriously, who most understands that the final lines of a book perform a pitiless mimesis of extinction, and of history’s own gratuitousness. It is of course a consolation that Aira’s endeavor continues: another title will be on its way shortly (next up in English is the story collection The Musical Brain,
scheduled to appear in March of next year). Luckily for his readers, the end of that project is nowhere in sight. icon

  1. The detail about the bird is described in Michael Greenberg, “The Novelist Who Can’t Be Stopped,” New York Review of Books, January 13, 2011. For everything else in this paragraph, see the interview with Aira in Carlos Alfieri’s Conversaciones: Entrevistas a César Aira, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Roger Chartier, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Ricardo Piglia, y Fernando Savater (Katz, 2008), pp. 25–6. These and subsequent translations from the Spanish are mine.
  2. Late Book Culture in Argentina (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 6.
  3. See, e.g., Alfieri, Conversaciones, p. 27.
Featured image: Bar Dorrego, Buenos Aires, Argentina (2006). Photograph by Paula Soler-Moya / Flickr. The man pictured is not César Aira. Or is he?