Cesar Aira takes on reality
There are some authors whose work seems impossible to describe or condense and this is, of course, why I feel compelled to grope toward a way of writing about the fiction of Argentinian writer Cesar Aira. To talk about his novels and stories is like trying to describe an epiphany to folks you hardly know: the experience seems too personal, but also too weird. It’s a thing words can’t seem to capture but that’s the story of fiction: the attempt to contain experience for an instant in something as crude and as sublime as words.
Aira’s story In the Cafe, collected in The Musical Brain and translated by Chris Andrews, introduces us to a young child, three or four years old, who flits between tables while her mother talks to a friend. An old couple calls her over and they present her with a boat the man has fashioned from a paper napkin. The little girl giggles with joy, wheeling away to play with the boat which, being made of thin paper, soon disintegrates. Immedi ately, another man presents her with an airplane he has likewise fashioned from a napkin and away she goes, with the airplane aloft.
A child requires so little to be happy. So little, and yet, at the same time, so much, because the little thing that fills the child with innocent happiness lasts no longer than a sigh and must be replaced by another.
For the rest of the story, the patrons of the cafe fashion ever more elaborate objects from the tissue paper, objects that become huge somehow, have moving parts somehow, yet soon dissolve, collapse or are blown away. They do so partly as a challenge to themselves and each other, partly to delight the little girl. This story is indicative of much of Aira’s work: it’s impossible to tell at any given moment, where the narrative leaves the realm of the plausible and becomes fantastic. There is no real dividing line for Cesar Aira. He never seems to be postulating a world of spirits or fantasy, another reality; there’s simply a sense of reality as, at the very least, holding the potential for magic.
Often this happens in, and through, a landscape. Aira is fascinated with the way the natural world around us seeps into our perceptions. To read An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, also translated by Chris Andrews, was to feel these changes seeping into my own consciousness. It’s impossible to say how or when this happens in the course of the book, yet suddenly I was enveloped by the setting and the nearly mundane story in such a way that it felt like a memory, something I myself had experienced that I was recalling fully, viscerally, once again.
In this book, Aira imagines the journeys of German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858) across Latin America. Already well known as a master landscape painter, Rugendas was advised to go to these countries by his mentor Alexander Von Humboldt to record the stunning vistas and countryside. Rugendas had a system for painting that had been devised by Humboldt, a method for achieving in art the ‘physiognomic totality’ of nature at any given moment. In the book, he holds to these theories until a literally transfiguring episode, and the landscape around him, begin to re-wire his perception.
In Cecil Taylor, also collected in The Musical Brain, Aira details failure after failure in the life of the titular character as he attempts to play the jazz he hears in his head for anyone, anywhere, who might listen. There is no sentimentality here, no heroic artist journey in which the genius is recognized in a sudden cultural awakening. Aira replaces sentimentality with necessity: the simple, nearly blind necessity Taylor feels to write and play his music. Taylor and Rugendas are both building their own elaborate and fleeting paper structures.
While the actual narrative is often fascinating, it is not what keeps me reading Aira. The plots are generally rooted in the mundane and the characters are an integral part of the story but they are not the whole story. The story is elsewhere. If I study an old photograph, I’m not simply looking at faces and trying to imagine the names and ages of the people in the picture. My eyes are drawn to every detail; the placement of furniture, the pattern of wallpaper, the open bottle on the table, each detail opens up the moment. I’m imagining a moment as a physical space.
This interweaving of time and space is integral to Aira’s work. The world he invites me into is not dreamlike, it’s not fantastical, at least not in the way we usually use those words. It’s a world where something might have happened in an instant or an hour and it’s impossible to decide which, where my perceptions are slowly led to widen and narrow. Strangely, it’s a world that seems to perceive the people in it as readily and constantly as they perceive their environment .
Maybe it’s that Aira’s work unfolds in that depthless, uncharted space between my left brain and my right brain, the place where intuitive images and symbols conflict with my need for logical structure. In every story, when I begin to approach the more familiar, I’m delicately nudged away.
But in the world of nature, there is always an explanation for delicacy.
In true Aira form, he never reveals exactly what that explanation is. !
STEVE MITCHELL’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC