An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira. New Directions.
The Literary Conference by César Aira. New Directions.
How I Became a Nun by César Aira. New Directions.
Ghosts César Aira. New Directions.
The Seamstress and the Wind César Aira. New Directions.
Varamo César Aira. New Directions.
The recent import of new generations of Spanish-language authors into English has been a significant gift for readers. The spearhead of this development, of course, was the entrance of Roberto Bolaño into our literary consciousness, and it is worth briefly considering why the Chilean has made such a large impact in his relatively brief stay in our discourse. For one, he shows us a new picture of world literature as completely cosmopolitan (2666 in particular seems to work extremely hard to establish this fact), a landscape in which we are all exiles from the republic of literature. Nevertheless, Bolaño and his stable of fictional authors work to recover the idea of literature in a world that continues to do its utmost to destroy such a notion completely.
This second aspect, I think, is near the wellspring of Bolaño’s widespread popularity: the earnest reopening of certain big-picture questions about the place of literature in the contemporary world, a line of questioning that some of our more familiar avant-gardes have attempted to suppress, bypass, or at best approach only very obliquely. The other authors who have been pulled into English by the force of Bolaño’s inertia share this concern to greater or lesser degrees, including Enrique Vila-Matas, Javier Marías, and finally, César Aira. Each of these authors offers us a potential antidote from a creeping sense of paralysis in the fiction of our own language. Critics who are prone to decry the impossibility of truly understanding literature in translation are blind to the ways that such works constantly reconfigure our sense of what is possible. One reads these authors with a wide view for difference and similarity, as if watching a person with a completely different skill set try to solve a problem for which we would never have imagined such tools used.
Aira is an attractive author, but he is perhaps the most difficult of all of the above mentioned. This is not because his prose is particularly dense or difficult to understand, but instead because of his attitude toward literature, which seems alternately ironic and playful to the point of indifference toward literature as a “grand” pursuit. Each novella feels like an experiment in the most basic sense of the word (it is not for nothing that Aira construes himself as a mad scientist in The Literary Conference), where anything created can be annihilated just as easily, including the markers of literary greatness.
This betrays one difference from Bolaño, who even when he castigates literary authors or “literariness” is tacitly celebrating such conceptions. If Bolaño’s appeal is based on the construction of a myth of authorial greatness, the links of which endlessly (and perhaps fruitlessly) forged in darkness, Aira offers us something very different. Aira is rather more of a conceptualist, a unique variation on the tradition of a Latin American literature of ideas, following in the Argentinian vein of Borges and Cortázar.
Aira is known as a prolific writer of novellas, most of which remain untranslated, and for his distinct method of composition. Any discussion of Aira must return to his method. Almost every piece written about Aira so far concentrates on his unique sense of “fuga hacia adelante,” (flight forward) in which his novellas veer wildly from one topic to the next from page to page. It is said that he rarely revises what he has written. Each novella has at least one development that simply could not have been guessed by a first-time reader. It could be the attempt to clone Carlos Fuentes, disfiguration by lightning, the sudden personification of an amorous wind god, a reflection on the rare appearance of dwarves, attack by giant blue silkworms, or the revelation of an illicit golf club racket in Panama. All of these incidents pass by in the space of a few pages in their respective works, their brevity compounding their strangeness. One of Aira’s selves, the surrogate-Aira of The Literary Conference, puts it this way:
Hyperactivity has become my brain’s normal way of being. […] In my case, nothing returns, everything races forward, savagely being pushed from behind by what keeps coming through that accursed valve. This image, brought to its peak of maturation in my vertiginous reflections, revealed to me the path to the solution, which I forcefully put into practice whenever I have time and feel like it. The solution is none other than the greatly used (by me) “escape forward.” Since turning back is off limits: Forward! To the bitter end! [26-28]
But what exactly is Aira attempting to escape? The “hyperactivity” mentioned before does not refer to the novella’s contents, which are certainly varied and quite active. It instead refers to the problem of possibilities that the author faces. For Aira the construction of the novel is essentially a problem of contingency. Is there any truly necessary sequence of action or continuity for fiction any longer? If the novel begins to become boring, why not simply uproot it and introduce a new subject? Or simply end it before it becomes too long? The flexibility of fiction is being tested, and Aira generally intends to see how far it can bend before it breaks.
It’s worth asking if contingency is simply a given from where we start out as modern readers. We live after the period of radical questioning on the subject of literature’s structure, order, origin, and acceptable vocabularies. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assume that we have become inured to range of potentialities on display for contemporary fiction writers. Often this situation is formulated as a standard dichotomy: the choice for many, it seems, is either to write a type of postmodern fiction that acknowledges pervasive heterogeneity, or to continue to plow forward as if the break never happened.
Aira belongs to the former category, but with somewhat of a twist. He is not the first to inject complete, radical disjuncture into narrative. His natural forbearers are Roussel and Breton, both of whom are mentioned by name in his work. Aira’s own method lies somewhere in between the programmatic experimentalism of the former and the unconscious flow of the latter. However, what makes Aira’s novels distinctive is that as one continues to read him, eventually adjusting to the pace of his writing, his ruptures begin to seem like means toward something and not as ends in themselves.
This is not to say that older writers simply fetishized their own disjuncture (though at times they did) or that Aira is completely free of the same crime (The Seamstress and the Wind, while enjoyable, is the particular culprit here and the maybe the weakest for it). It is to say that Aira’s work recognizes the tangent as a given, a starting point instead of a polemic to be made against an existing system of order. Nor does Aira’s intention seem to be to antagonize or “challenge” the reader; generally, his prose remains straightforward, alternately like someone unconcerned with such problems or someone in a hurry to get to the point. Instead of anxiety, it is a celebration of fiction as an open field of possibility. The difference in emphasis is small but significant.
Consider Aira’s Ghosts, one of Aira’s most accomplished works. The novella recounts the New Year’s Eve of a family who live in an incomplete condo complex in Buenos Aires(the father is the night watchman for the construction company), drawing a beautiful portrait of their daily minutiae and familial relationships. True to Aira’s way, the complex also happens to be haunted by a swarm of fleshy and naked male ghosts, who seem to have attained their ghostly whiteness by the addition of a layer of supernatural flour. What makes the arrangement work is how skillfully Aira manages to normalize the juxtaposition. The “shock of the new” wears off within the first thirty pages; we become used to the premise, and Aira moves on to stranger and more beautiful combinations, including an extensive dream about architecture and Lévi-Straussian anthropology that sits like a marker in the center of the novella.
The description of “escaping forward” is also not as straightforward as it seems at first glance. To say that Aira simply flies forward without a thought for what has come before would be to mischaracterize the construction of each novella. Each work develops subtly, returning to points found earlier in the text, and demonstrating structure even if that structure is loose. This is perhaps the second key element of Aira: there is no absolute, even of contingency. Any line can be erased and redrawn.
Take for instance, in Varamo, where a piece of candy that the eponymous character bought distractedly in the novel’s early pages returns as the novel’s final poetic image as the center of a vortex of birds pecking at the candy. To be sure, this is a literary joke, as Aira notes accordingly: “This struck Varamo as interesting and poetic: a ‘writerly’ experience. For him, everything was ‘writerly’ now.”  However, neither is the joke really deprecating: there is something still meaningful about the “point at which they all converged”, even if its foundation is ultimately arbitrary.
Aira’s deviation from the (now nearly extinct) “norms” of fiction is generally concerned with aspects of what I’ll call “fictionality”: language on the level of the sentence, in contrast to many modernists, is not the main point of inquiry. Instead, plot, degree of realism, types of description, characterization, and symbolic vocabulary become Aira’s tools for manipulation. There is a deep sense of the author at play, finding pleasure in the connection of disparate ideas not because they are disparate, but because something is always found in the connection. A figure for this appears in How I Became a Nun, in which the child César Aira invents an imaginary world of pedagogy. Random rules are given to imaginary children in a system that becomes increasingly complex:
It got to the point where everything I did was doubled by instructions for doing it. Activities and instructions were indistinguishable. […] How to manipulate cutlery, how to put on one’s trousers, how to swallow saliva. How to keep still, how to sit on a chair, how to breathe! […] I took it for granted that I already knew everything. I had mastered it all . . . that’s why it was my duty to teach . . . And I really did know it all, naturally I did, since the knowledge was life itself unfolding spontaneously. Although the main thing was not knowing, or even doing, but explaining, opening out the folds of knowledge . . . [87-89]
This exercise is both a game and a poetics of universality. All life unfolding is a subject for recounting, a jumping off point into something more elusive, more difficult to explain. There is an implicit claim: because anything can become an interesting subject once investigated or “explained,” there is no hierarchy of literary value here.
It is exactly the democracy of this contingency that feels liberating. Aira’s symbolic or imagistic vocabulary is difficult to recount because it is almost completely mutable. Any topic or object can be fashioned into a bridge to a new discovery or relation. A catalogue of all the repeated motifs in Aira’s novellas (many of which are shared between volumes) would be exhausting, and ultimately somewhat uninformative. A good example would be the gigantic tractor-trailer in The Seamstress and the Wind, in which the seamstress finds an endless number of rooms to wander through: each is evocative and interesting, but the sense of infinite extensibility is the true quality exhibited. Even genre is not safe from this endless mutation, from the historical fiction of Landscape Painter to the science fiction of The Literary Conference to the exploded autobiography of How I Became a Nun`. The capriciousness of this is often explicit:
“I’ve been looking for a plot for the novel I want to write: a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions. Until now, nothing occurred to me, except the title, which I’ve had for years and which I cling to with blank obstinacy: ‘The Seamstress and the Wind.’ “ 
Any writing that works against the grain must discover a way to be explained. This may come from criticism proper or from a criticism articulated from within the work itself. Aira provides the latter, as each novella involves some account of artistic creation, but with a very large caveat. Is this self-referential poetics merely another key in which the versatile fiction writer finds himself able to play? Normally, when a work takes the reader aside to describe its own mechanics, the reader can rest easy knowing that he or she has found a governing idea behind the work. For instance, when an author places the dilemma of an artist at the center of the work, we are both informed of the hierarchy of values (the creation of art stands at the top) as well as given a microcosm of the work’s creation. In Aira we are given microcosms that may only exist because they are interesting and not because they represent any larger principle.
For instance, Rugendas, the main character of Landscape Painter is dedicated to a process described as “physiognomic “ landscape painting, a technique that provides the benefit of “conveying information not in the form of isolated features but features systematically interrelated so as to be intuitively grasped: climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds …”  Besides belonging to the running joke of Aira’s tendency to describe things that cannot actually be visualized, the description tempts us toward a superimposition of Rugendas’ painting and Aira’s own work. However, we’re quickly lead astray by Aira’s flight forward, and the idea of using Rugendas as a figure for Aira’s process of creation becomes increasingly tenuous. Rugendas comes from a line of painters well known for their depictions of battle scenes. At the end of the novel, Rugendas is returned to this function as he manically draws a battle between natives and settlers near an Argentinian outpost. Doubtless there is a significance in the comparison between Aira and Rugendas, but as the example is folded back into the fiction, complete with corollaries and details, the parallel becomes increasingly difficult to draw.
Another example is Aira’s digression in Varamo, in which he discusses the “avant-garde” in literature:
The poem’s capacity to integrate all the circumstantial details associated with its genesis is a feature that situates it historically. It doesn’t possess that capacity by virtue of being an avant-garde work; in fact, it’s the other way around: it’s avant-garde because it makes the deductions possible. It can be said that any art is avant-garde is it permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged. While the conventional work of art thematizes cause and effect and thereby gives the hallucinatory impression of sealing itself off, the avant-garde work remains open to the conditions of its existence. 
Varamo is framed as a piece of literary criticism that attempts to explain how a Panamanian bureaucrat wrote a masterpiece of 20th century poetry. This account of the avant-garde seems sound on the surface, but is highly questionable in the larger context of the novella. Not only is the work itself never described (how could we verify the assertions?), but the whole work is in fact a thematization of cause and effect, describing precisely, to the point of absurdity, the necessary events that caused the work to be created. It is a parody, but the novella’s pleasure derives exactly from the tendency that is being scrutinized. Each novella seems to prescribe rules of fiction only to expose their futility.
But what makes all of these flights and contortions more than a mere exercise? With the contingency of form, subject, and artistry already made explicit, Aira loops around to interrogate the idea of fiction as a work that reveals something about life as it is experienced. The recurring question for so many characters in these novellas is an emphatic and unanswered question of “Why me?” Rugendas asks it after he is hideously disfigured by lightning halfway through his adventure. Delia, the seamstress of the book’s title, asks it as she is vaulted endlessly through the sky into a Patagonian moonscape. Patri, the quiet homebody of Ghosts, asks it before she is inducted into the glowing festival of ghosts.
There is a sense of Aira as the indifferent god who subjects his creations to difficult situations, but there is something more than that. The real contingency of our lives is reflected in these works, the ways in which we are constantly found to be powerless against the stream of events. This has the double effect of underlining the ways in which fiction transforms the contingency of our lives into necessity: the classic novel is an isolated work, frozen and perfected in its architecture. Things must have had to happen that way, we think. Perhaps we are attracted to traditional, formally symmetrical stories exactly because they encourage us to see our lives in the same way. We take in stories like a cure, looking for our own symmetry. In Aira we find a world that is as haphazard as our lives, but are instead encouraged to create our meaning in the cracks, forging the relationships and significances ourselves. And literature takes on again a new power, as Aira is always free to begin again, to write the novellas in which all the possible alternatives happen.
For decades now, the most prominent place in our literary canon has been awarded to the monolithic novel, a work that attempts to give the impression of containing all topics within its pages. Modernist epics like Ulysses or The Magic Mountain set out to create total pictures of their world, or at least capture in art (momentarily) the unity that seemed so lacking beyond the domain of literature. Even the generations of large postmodern novels following in that wake, from The Recognitions onward, seem to champion and pursue that unity while simultaneously avowing its impossibility.
Maybe then Aira’s preferred format, the novella, is a type of literary humility. His work, when considered in total, creates a body of work that is similarly vast, filled with digression, disjuncture, and juxtaposition, but the decision to occupy a series of books around 100 pages feels like a small literary joke: another author might simply have labored several more years to thread together these six novellas into one large, “definitive” novel. Aira leads us toward a realignment of values in our literature, where representing totality is unnecessary. Instead, we are encouraged to find value in surprise, the free play of ideas, and a rejection of the rules that we supposed shackled authors. As we continue to fly forward, we continue to find something new.