Mikhail Iakovlev tries to make sense of César Aira’s Three Novels
What happens when you mix Garcia Marquez with Jean Genet together and add a pinch of Argentinian sensibility?
César Aira is the answer. Or at least I think so, as the very moment I took his book off the shelf in Foyles last Wednesday, I could not put it down.
It is described as a prolific and highly intelligent writer “in the oxygen-deprived heights of avant-garde literature” by the Guardian. It was praised by Roberto Bolaño, a celebrated Chilean novelist, as “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.”
The short novels in the book are Ghosts, The Episode in Life of a Landscape Painter and The Literary Conference. There are three of them as the eponymous title of the collection suggests. These have been chosen to allow the reader a taste of Aira’s larger body of work, which is large. Aira is said to write two to four short-novel length pieces per year. They are essentially the blueprints of Aira’s work.
Ghosts unfolds in a half-finished building in Buenos Aires, inhabited by an alcoholic Chilean watchman, his numerous family and “chubby” naked ghost. Aira playfully combines social commentary on class inequality with comical descriptions of the petty dramas of family life (and his daughters somewhat sexual fascination with the naked other-worldly beings).
The Episode in Life of a Landscape Painter paints a different picture. The protagonist is a 19th century German landscape painter Johan Moritz Rugendas, travelling through Argentina, Mexico and Chile at the prompting of Alexander Humboldt. His goal is to paint landscapes of “physiognomic totality”, where the boundary between the painting and reality is blurred. In search of the perfect landscape in Argentina, he gets struck by lightning. With his vision of reality seriously disfigured, his paintings take a turn for the better (or worse?).
In the last book of the trilogy, Aira explores the experience of a mad scientist’s pursuit to clone a famous author. This novel is particular significant as the scientist can be taken to represent Aira himself, pushing literature to the verge of the absurd with his outlandish experiments.
Aira writes in an exhilarating and fast paced-style. He describes his style as a “fuga hacia adelante” (flight forward). Instead of revising his works, Aira improvises in order to get himself out of narrative cul-de-sacs. The resulting product is fresh and unexpected with sudden shifts in style and tone. This makes him a symbol of the emerging new-wave of South American writing, which is reopening certain questions about literature and its relation to the rest of the World – questions that have been long avoided or simply overlooked by other avant-garde artists. In this sense, Aira is both exciting and fresh.
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