Dinner – César Aira (translated by Katherine Silver)

So after a week of reading about Indonesian un-dead, ghosts and folk-lore, I thought a visit to Argentina would be in order, a bit of South American fiction, translated from the Spanish, I delved into the world of César Aira. The back cover has a quote by Rivka Galchen from Haper’s “Aira’s worlds are like slim cabinets of wonder, full of unlikely juxtapositions. His unpredictably is masterful”. Not having delved into any of his fifteen previously translated works from an oeuvre of over eighty published works, it was time I jumped on the Aira train. And wasn’t I in for a wild ride…
 Dinner is a very short work, running to just 108 pages, but it is definitely not a flimsy work. Our story opens with our first person narrator discussing memory and his earliest childhood memories containing pits:
This recurrence of memories of pits, so primitive and maybe purely fantastical, had maybe come to symbolize “holes” in memory, or rather holes in stories, that not only don’t exist in the stories I tell but that I am always filling in to stories others tell me. I find fault in everybody else’s narrative art, almost always with good reason. My mother and my friend were particularly deficient in the respect, perhaps because of their passion for names, which prevented the stories’ normal development.
Our narrator is bankrupt, no assets and living with his mother off of her pension. They dine at a friend of his place where miniature toys are collected and displayed. The night ends with photographs being taken of our narrator wearing a huge elephant mask, surely this will be relevant later on….
Upon returning home, listening to his mother’s grumbles, our narrator decides to channel surf and comes across the local television station broadcasting live, they are riding their motorbikes to the local cemetery where corpses are returning from the dead:
Anyway. They were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord. This was as improbably as an adolescent fantasy. It was, however, true. The guard who sounded the alarm first heard some rustling sounds that kept getting louder and spreading across the graveyard. He came out of his lodge to take a look and hadn’t even made it across the tiled courtyard to where the first lane of cypresses ended when, in addition to the worrisome rustlings, he began to hear the loud banging of stone and metal, which seconds later spread and combined into a deafening roar that reverberated near and far, from the first wing of the wall of niches to the rows of graves extending more than a mile. He thought of an earthquake, something never before seen on the serene plains of Pringles. But he had to dismiss this idea because the paving under his feet could not have been stiller. Then he managed to see, by the light of the moon, what was making the noise. The marble gravestones were moving, lifting from one side and breaking as they came hurtling down. Inside the crypts, coffins and iron fittings were cracking open, and the doors themselves were being shaken from the inside, the padlocks were bursting open, and the windows were shattering. The covers on the niches were being forced off and crashing loudly to the ground. Concrete crosses and stucco angels flew through the air, hurled by the violent opening of the crypts.
Our sleepy village of Pringles in being invaded by zombies, and they are sucking the endorphins from the brains of the living, they are topping up on our happiness:
There was something diabolically efficient in their timing. If what they wanted were endorphins, the little drops of happiness and hope secreted by the brains of the living, there was no more propitious time than Saturday night, when the worries of life are set aside and people temporarily indulge in the needs for socializing, sex, food, and drink, which they abstain from during the rest of the week. In their depressing existence in the afterlife, the dead had developed a true addiction to endorphins. It was a glaring paradox that the Cemetery Road and become the Endorphin Road.
Besides the bizarre story, the vivid language also portrays the scene perfectly, you are draw into the Saturday night scene and chaos in Pringles, the tension is not just because of a horde of endorphin sucking zombies, it is also the settings that bring the tale to life:
El Manco, on the other hand, was up there alone, but he wasn’t any less confused. He had to admit that the view was splendid and defied the imagination; beyond that, everything was ambiguity. The full moon spread its white light impartially over the darkness of the town, seeming to make it rise to the surface, like the checkerboard skin of and antediluvian sperm whale. The plain stretched out and beyond, as did the phosphorescent ribbon of highway distorted by the curvature of the horizon. The sector he was watching was much closer, though he was well aware that at night the illusory plains of contiguity could become stuck together, like the pages of a book. His attention separated the pages, and there the aberrations of nocturnal vision coincided with the monstrous fantasies of nightmare.
Our linear narrative is strange, to say the least, and my early thoughts about connections between miniature toys, gigantic dolls and elephant masks continued to play on my mind as the ritual of the undead continues through the whole town. As per usual, I’m not going to give away any endings or connections, you’ll have to read this yourself to see if the zombies are defeated.
A work that explores a number of themes, probably more than I picked up, however the overarching concept of our names dictating our identity resonates throughout, we are known by our names the only thing that accompanies us to the grave. There is a very early reference (page 1) to our narrator’s mother enjoying names…”she was the one who most enjoyed the conversation – and it was the only thing she enjoyed that evening – because there was a constant mention of the names of the town’s families, magic words that distilled her entire interest in life.”
Our work also ends with a very uplifting beautiful soliloquy, a page that is worth buying the book for that revelation alone.

So I’ve gone from Indonesia undead to Argentinian zombies, what a journey…a reflection on our times? The era of undead tales? I think my next book choice will be a little more sedate….I think I might read about a cat…
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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