Catch up time for reviews – I have seven books in backlog, my notebooks bulging at the sides, it’s just the distraction, the all immersing experience of reading Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” that keeps me from writing up my notes and putting some sort of coherent review together.
Another entry from the “10 Essential Spanish-Language Books”, as listed by Daniel Saldaña Paris in Publisher’s Weekly , is César Aira’s short story collection “The Musical Brain” (Translated by Chris Andrews). I’m almost through that full list, with Bellatin’s “Beauty Salon” (translated by Kurt Hollander) and “The Empty Book” by Josefina Vicens (translated by David Lauer) no longer in print, I can only get to eight of the “top 10” and have covered off five on this blog. I do own the missing three, will I review and read them is a different matter?
Argentine César Aira, a prolific producer who has published of over 80 books, with thirteen alone available in English translation through New Directions (including this book), is not your standard narrative producer. As Daniel Saldaña Paris says in his article about essential Spanish Language books;
There are no gratuitous descriptions here, nor are there linguistic diversions that don’t reveal something fundamental about the author’s richly detailed, imagined world. Aira’s stories pave the way for the art of the twenty-first-century narrative.
Aria himself in the short story “The Spy” from this collection
Looking back at what I’ve written, it all seems rather muddled, and if I want to be understood, I need to say it differently (not by means of examples, but, once again, by making it the theme). Sooner or later there comes a time when being correctly understood is vitally important. The hidden cannot endure without that transparency, against which it becomes visible. The hidden: that is, secrets. I have secrets, like everyone else; I don’t know if mine are especially shameful, but I take all sorts of precautions to prevent them from coming to light. It’s natural for people to feel that their own affairs are important; the self is a natural amplifier. When the person concerned is a character in a dramatic performance, at the very centre of the plot, the amplification reaches deafening extremes. The whirlwind of the action forbids any kind of detachment.
Yes it does, it is said Aira writes his works and does not edit, this story is a classic case, the writer appears lost, and the reader is certainly confused.
A short story collection featuring twenty stories dated from 1993 to 2011 just about any subject you can think of would probably be included here, and if you haven’t thought of it, there is a good chance it will appear here…let’s have a look at a few highlights…
“The Dog” is about a dog chasing a bus and barking, or “In The Café”, a story about origami with paper napkins and a lamentation on napkin dispensers. If those two aren’t weird enough for you, how about “God’s Tea Party”
According to an old and immutable tradition in the Universe, God celebrates His birthday with a magnificent lavish Tea Party, to which only the apes are invited. Nobody knows or could know, in those timeless regions, when this custom began, but it has become a fixture in the great year of the All: it seems that the patiently anticipated day will never come, but come it does, precisely on time, and the Tea Party takes place. It is said, plausibly enough, that the original reason for the ceremony was negative: the idea was not so much to invite apes as to not invite humans. Apes are a sarcastic joke, a kind of deliberate and spiteful (or, at best, ironic) slight on the part of the Lord, aimed at a human race that has disappointed Him. It may well have begun like that. But as soon as the arrangement was in place, it was accepted as an ancestral tradition, without a clear meaning, but saved from blatant absurdity by the hefty weight of precedent.
It doesn’t stop there, how about the title story, contains a dwarf love triangle, a circus, theatre, a brain that sings, book swaps, an egg laying human flying phoenix and more .
In Aira’s world of shifting realities, nothing is absurd, his standard narrative suddenly explodes with possibilities as you turn each page, even if you do presume something bizarre will happen, you’ll be wrong.
How about the story “A Thousand Drops” where the one thousand drops that make up the Mona Lisa decide on a trip around the world, leaving the board on which it was painted, bare.
What is fiction? Anything you want it to be…
I persist in asserting, precisely, that literature does not require proof of aptitude. In my heart of hearts I never felt called to literature, or saw myself doing the work that such a vocation would entail. If I were to reply sincerely to the question of which professions I would have liked to pursue, had I possessed enough vigor to lead a real life, I’d have to list, in this order: ladies’ hairdresser, ice cream vendor, bird and reptile taxidermist. Why? I don’t know. It’s something deep, but at the same time I can feel it in my skin, in my hands. Sometimes, during the day, I find myself unintentionally gesturing as if I were doing those kinds of work and, in a sort on sensory daydream, experiencing the satisfaction of a job well done and the desire to excel myself; and then, as in a dream within a dream, I begin to hatch vague plans to market my skills, build up my client base, and modernize my premises.
No need to worry about the plot, if Aira paints himself into a corner, simply start painting in a different colour towards a different corner:
This is what literature really is. Now I can see it. Everything that came before, everything that people, including writers, think of as literature, that is to say the laborious search for themes and the exhausting work of giving them shape, all of that collapses like a house of cards, a youthful illusion or an error. Literature begins when you become literature, and if there’s such a thing as a literary vocation, it’s simply the transubstantiation of experience that has taken place in me today. By pure chance. Because of a fortuitous encounter, and the revelation that followed.
I enjoyed the evil shopping trolley that stalks in between the shelves alone at night, Aria proving anything can become fiction. Or how about two men, one with giant hands, the other with giant feet? Appendage’s so large, as large as their bodies, they live, shut away, together:
That was all: the hands of one, the feet of the other. The two men couldn’t have been more different, and yet, in a way, they were the same. It must have been because of the opposition, ot a kind of asymmetrical symmetry, as if putting them together would have made a man with giant hands and feet, or as if they had resulted from the division of a man like that…But putting them together the other way would have produced a perfectly normal man. You had to assemble and disassemble their images mentally, because there was something inherently illusory or inconceivable about those men, something that made it impossible to believe your eyes when faced with what, believe it or not, was real. It must have been their complementary opposition that made them seem alike.
This is not simply crazy experimental literature, it is also covers wide sociological territory, moral and cultural references. In the story “Acts of Charity”, a priest spends his money on building and furnishing a new house for his predecessor instead of helping the poor in his parish, he sees this as a charitable gift as his predecessor will have no wants and can dedicate more of his income to the poor. This collection is worth buying for this moral tale alone.
Or the story of the underappreciated and scorned jazz pianist, Cecil Taylor, which ends this collection. Is Aira the Cecil of literature, underappreciated? As in the jazz form, there are rules for writing too goddamit, C’mon César follow the rules…
A weird and wonderful collection of bizarre tales, stories that have tangents that just keep flying, strap yourself in before you open this one, a wild ride is ahead. Even the cover is brilliant with a hologram of a neon flashing hand, nothing is normal here, don’t expect sanity
In the end, biographies are literature. And what counts in literature is detail, atmosphere, and the right balance between the two. The exact detail, which makes things visible, and an evocative, overall atmosphere, without which the details would be a disjointed inventory. Atmosphere allows the author to work with forces freed of function, and with movements in a space that is independent of location, a space that finally abolishes the difference between the writer and the written: the great manifold tunnel in broad daylight…Atmosphere is the three-dimensional condition of regionalism, and the medium of music. Music doesn’t interrupt time. On the contrary.
Aira writing his own definition of literature, join in the party.