Posts Tagged ‘cesar aira’

The Proof

March 13, 2017

Although Cesar Aira was first translated into English (by the self-same Nick Caistor who has translated The Proof) and published in the UK in 1998 – the rather atypical The Hare – it has been New Directions in the US who have been largely responsible for making him available to an English-speaking audience. Luckily, presumably as a result of And Other Stories’ new partnership with New Directions, they have now taken on the mantle of Aira’s UK publisher having reprinted The Seamstress and the Wind, and released two new works, The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof.

Famously, once Aira starts writing he does not look back but pursues his premise to the end. The Proof begins with an unexpected encounter between innocent, isolated, sixteen-year-old Marcia and two ‘punk’ girls who call themselves Lenin and Mao. Marcia is described as:

“…blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes.”

The ‘punks,’ in contrast, are all in black. They are two among the many young people gathered in the cold night “with the ridiculous need to meet their friends” that Marci has passed, feeling that “she couldn’t be part of it.” They greet her with “Wannafuck?” the novel’s very first words, a shock for the reader intended to echo Marcia’s surprise. This crudeness is a counterpoint to Marcia’s comfortable but unhappy existence. Of course, she walks away, but is also attracted to devil-may care attitude of the girls:

“That two girls, two women, could have wanted to pick her up, out loud, voicing obscenities, two punks who confirmed their violent self-expulsion from proper behaviour… It was so unexpected, so novel… Really anything could happen, and those who could make it happen were the hundreds of young people who came out into the street to waste time at nightfall, after school.”

The girls pursue her, the one who called out to her, Mao, insisting it is not a joke:

“Listen to me, Marcia: what I told you is true. Love at first sight. It’s completely true.”

The girls’ ill-mannered assault is now reset as an expression of romantic sensibility. In fact, throughout the novel Mao and Lenin will remake themselves in both Marcia and the reader’s eyes, their disregard for rules allowing them an unpredictability which threatens the boundaries of both characterisation and realism.

Marcia agrees to go to a café with them to talk. Further tension between Marcia’s conformity and the punks’ disregard for social niceties is immediately created by their refusal to order despite Marcia’s fear that, “We’ll get thrown out if we don’t have something.” Her questioning rebounds against their insistence that nothing is of any importance, including any answers they might give her. They mock one of the waitresses, whom Marcia immediately identifies with; their conversation offers duelling ideologies where neither ideology is stated. Still, Marcia is thrilled by their unpredictability:

“Marcia’s surprise only grew. From surprise she went to surprise within surprise.”

If the novel seems lacking in action up to this point, be assured the final twenty pages more than make up for it. This may be a leap of faith for readers ensconced in a largely realistic narrative, but, like Marcia, I found myself breathless with the audacity of both the girls and the author.

The seven Aira novels (or novellas) I’ve read previously divide fairly evenly into those I like and those I love: this falls into the ‘love’ category without question (and not just because of the subject matter). Though still possessed of the wildness of his best work, it is also intensely coherent, following an unstoppable narrative path from Marcia’s first step to her last. Aira’s presentation of Mao and Lenin is both cartoonish and nuanced: one moment he seems to be mocking them, the next casting admiring glances. The move at the end from all-talk to all-action is a master stroke, powering us towards a genuine conclusion. This may well be the Aira I recommend to newcomers from now on.

Lost Books – The Hare

May 4, 2012

The publication of a new novel by Cesar Aira in English is now a commonplace event (two this year alone), but his first appearance in the language occurred as recently as 1998 thanks to Serpent’s Tail (and translator Nick Caistor), an imprint that was also introducing UK readers to other South American writers such as Juan Carlos Onetti and Juan Jose Saer. That novel, The Hare, is atypical of what has been published since: at a whopping 248 pages it is much longer than the slim volumes we have come to expect, and it is also much more conventional in its structure, taking the idea of resolution – so often absent from Aira’s work – to comic extremes.

The story, however, will not be unfamiliar to those who have read Portrait of a Landscape Painter as it is also set in the nineteenth century and concerns the journey of a European explorer across the pampas of Argentina. The explorer is an English naturalist, Clarke, who sets off in search of the titular Legibrerian Hare accompanied by a local guide, Gauna, and a young painter, Carlos Prior. They spend some time with the Mapuche tribe but when their chief, Cafulcura, goes missing, they are asked to help discover what has happened to him while still ostensibly searching for the hare. Both of Clarke’s companions are also seeking something: Prior has fallen in love with a Mapuche girl – “Ynuy has run away and I propose to set off in pursuit” – and Gauna is searching for a long lost sister. The hare, therefore, comes to symbolise an elusive goal (or, indeed, a narrative MacGuffin).

This is particularly appropriate as nothing in the Mapuche language can be pinned down to one meaning:

“…he (Clarke) knew that the Mapuche word for ‘law’ could also mean many other things, among which were ‘venture’, ‘suggest’, ‘stranger’, ‘know’, ‘word’ and ‘Mapuche’.”

Aira has great fun with this, particularly when it comes to Clarke’s search for the Legibrerian hare whose defining quality seems to be its ability to fly:

“They say: the hare ‘took off’. In Mapuche that verb can also mean ‘was stolen, ‘was made to vanish’. We have no reason to know of these double meanings so we understand it in its first sense, and they go on with the joke at our expense; even when you ask them if what happened is real or an interpretation, they can permit themselves to lie with the truth, as they always do. And, between you and me, I reckon that ‘hare’ is the name they give to some valuable object.”

Even the landscape around them cannot be relied upon. During the hare hunt (when Cafulcura goes missing) Clarke notices:

“The faint line of the horizon, grown fainter than ever, always kept half the participants hidden from view while, at the same time, each one was at the centre of his own circle…Space itself changed position with each sweep: it seemed as though they were watching it pass by upside down.”

(With nothing being what it seems, it will not surprise you to learn that twins are important in Mapuche mythology).

The hare, then, is little more than an excuse for the trio’s picaresque journey across the pampas. Slowly the three of them bound, perhaps initially united by the extraordinary coincidence that they are all adopted. They share stories; Clarke talks of the only woman he has loved who he lost many years ago in Argentina; Gauna reveals his search for a sister he believes possesses a valuable family heirloom. They encounter other tribes, one of which lives underground, visit the Mapuche’s great enemies, the Voroga, and take part in a mock battle.

Despite being superficially a more conventional novel, Aira’s cavalier attitude to the construction of fiction is evident. In the first chapter he paints an interesting portrait of an Argentinian leader, the Restorer of the Laws, who does not appear again. Characters’ motivations are frequently oblique or opaque. And, as I mentioned earlier, the novel’s conclusion would make Charles Dickens blush. But with this comes Aira’s charm, that sense of the story moving forward, much like the travellers, regardless, never knowing, or caring, what comes next.

How I Became a Nun

February 20, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Cesar Aira

The Argentinian writer Cesar Aira is quite difficult to become acquainted with in English. Despite having apparently written more than forty novels, only five have been translated so far. But he is also difficult to know in another way: rejecting the traditional rules of the novel to reach for a form of story-telling based on a different, more intuitive logic. As he has explained himself:

“The story is always about something inexplicable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.”

This is in direct opposition to the development of the novel, where the depth and coherence of character has become one of the primary aims. How I Became a Nun is a good example of these difficulties: for a start, despite the opening declaration, “My story, the story of ‘how I became a nun’ began very early in my life”, this is not a novel in which the narrator becomes a nun, or shows any inclination to become a nun. In fact, it is not clear if the narrator is male or female. An early statement (“I was a devoted daughter”) is soon contradicted by a reference to the narrator from another character as “the boy.” This is the general rule that is followed throughout: the narrator refers to herself as a girl; others do so as a boy. So, we have a female narrator who looks male, a male narrator who thinks he is female, or a game on the part of the author. The latter seems the most likely as the narrator is called Cesar Aira, lives in the same town where Aira was brought up, and has a friend with the same name as another writer from that town.

What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the novel begins with the six year old Aira eating ice cream for the first time:

“No sooner had the first particles dissolved on my tongue than I felt physically ill. I had never tasted anything so revolting.”

His father cannot believe he doesn’t like it and forces him to eat it, a situation that last until he tastes it himself and discovers that it is, indeed, disgusting. A violent altercation with the ice cream vendor follows. Aira next wakes up in hospital; his father is in prison.

The novel continues to tell of Aira’s school days, a visit to the prison to see his father, listening to the radio, his friendship with Arturo Carrera. Though there is progression, most chapters could be read as short stories, and there is certainly no urgency to the plotting. Only the final chapter makes a handbrake turn from the leisurely tone of memoir into thriller territory with a deliberately over-the top denouement which parallels the novel’s opening.

It has been suggested that the novel is concerned with writing, providing some explanation for the autobiographical elements. Certainly, the idea of creating stories is repeated throughout, beginning with Aira’s time in hospital:

“I was in a state of unremitting delirium with plenty of time to concoct the most baroque stories.”

This continues when he becomes lost on his prison visit:

“I imagined a scene in which I was explaining to the governor of the prison what had really happened: ‘…it was my dad. He grabbed me and hid me somewhere…he’s going to use me as a hostage in the breakout he’s planning with his accomplices…”

Later, when he is following his mother as if shadowing her, he admits that the game is a result of his “sheer love of fiction.”

It is “sheer love of fiction” that is most noticeable in the novel, with Aira seemingly delighting in letting the story go where it will, only to reassert control at the conclusion.

Danger rating: like ice cream – moreish, but too much at once could lead to brain freeze.