by Uriel Perez
César Aira is something of a literary workhorse – since 1993, the Argentine novelist has been publishing at least two of his trademark novelettes a year and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon (the man’s published three this year alone!). His pace is unrivaled, and to draw a familiar comparison for the North American reader, he produces at nearly the same rate as James Patterson and his slew of co-writers. The work, however, couldn’t be any more different. Whereas Patterson fills shelves with formulaic thrillers and steamy romances, Aira churns out Dadaist fairy tales that combine the philosophical with the utterly fantastic – capturing wonder and thrusting readers into deep mental states between the covers of his work.
And while his publishing track record is prolific, don’t expect to find hefty five hundred page tomes when you come across his name at the bookstore – rarely does Aira venture past the 150-page mark in his work. Aira opts, instead, for writing these mini books that relay the same universal truths of great literature with as few pages as possible. Writing these condensed tales is one way in which Aira combats the idea of the novel, a genre that he believes “was used up in the 19th century.” Writers, he feels, should constantly push against the grain, create and innovate when it comes to literature. Aira fancies a story with less focus on the intricacies of character and plot (components of generic literature) and instead drives through a narrative full of sudden left turns and ideas – his stories might abruptly shift genre (i.e. sci-fi, horror, adventure, detective fiction, travelogue, etc.); fictional characters might encounter historical ones; characters feel more like absurd caricatures than actual people; endings might be left wholly unresolved.
This is not to say, though, that Aira’s books are complete psycho-babble. His books read largely like parables and will usually be tied up nicely once the central theme of the novelette is brought home. Aira’s books are the kind that are meant to be enjoyed for their wit and inventiveness – the deeper message comes to fruition comes once the book’s been fully digested by the reader.
One such novelette which captures the full breadth of Aira’s style is 2015’s Dinner (originally published in Spanish in 2006). The story begins when our nameless protagonist, a down-on-his-luck unemployed sixtysomething, gets invited to dinner by a friend with his mother as a date. For a few pages we flutter back and forth between town gossip, talk of the magical happenings around Coronel Pringles (our story’s setting and Aira’s actual birth place) and our narrator’s inability to remember names, places and dates. Upon returning home, plopped in front of the TV, our narrator begins to follow a live news broadcast of the town’s deceased rising from their graves amassing to feed on the endorphins of the inhabitants of Coronel Pringles (giving a new meaning to the book’s title – haha). We are treated to fifty solid pages of the undead overwhelming the bumbling antics of the living who do their best to escape with little success. The book’s occurrences seem to occur for no other reason than Aira’s own will to make it so and by the end we are delivered an ending which sees the hoard felled and the thin connection of the narrator to the whole mess. It is a masterfully spun fable on memory and making meaning of one’s life told through the happenings of a B-horror film. This translation by Katherine Silver captures the bizarre, rambling feel of Aira’s work, the perfect combination of astute prose and the kind of weird that reminds me of the stories of George Saunders and Donald Barthelme.
Dinner is just one of fourteen other novelettes New Directions Publishing has translated into English for American readers thus far. With a backlog of 80+ novelettes, we have only scratched the surface of Aira’s full catalog – there is so much more to discover from this writer that is sure to take a seat next to the giants of classic and contemporary Latin American literature. Like fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, Aira is pushing the limits of what great literature can be and making some damn good art out of it.