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Author Cesar Aira sitting in empty bathtub, clothed.

César Aira, Or the Art of Beginning a Novel


Aira isn't looking for the black thread, but the possible frameworks of any thread.

Perhaps the literature of César Aira (Coronel Pringles, 1949) is a long, uninterrupted investigation on the engines and hinges that keep the machine of narration running. Let’s not think of a story, novel, short, medium-sized or long story, but rather just plain narration: the multiple interests of life have been filtered by the strainer of literature: to talk about film, fine arts, scientific discoveries or philosophy, he resorts to novel. It’s like he says: the novel in our days is such a flexible object that it fits literally anything and everything, and with more than thirty novels published, perhaps Aira hasn’t covered everything, but quite a bit.

As a reader, one cannot help but feel challenged to cover so much, or nearly as much as Aira: to follow the footprints of his numerous books is a full-time job. I have met men and women who have left their families, their jobs and their countries for the pursuit of these novels. I’m not exaggerating––it is even an understatement. I myself haven’t even covered a third of what he’s published, and this is due to publishing-related reasons: Aira lives off the royalties of his books published in Spanish publishers such as Mondadori, De Bolsillo and Alfaguara: El Mago, Las noches de Flores,Parménides, Cómo me hice monja, Cumpleaños (sometimes labeled as an autobiographic essay), or more recently, El santo. This gives him the supreme freedom to write — according to his own words — a page per day, or even less, in a meticulous yet unhurried ritual, which leaves him the time and desire to publish a pair of novels per year at a good rhythm at independent publishers such as Blatt & Ríos, Cuneta and Belleza y Felicidad, thanks to which they can publish new authors. They are short novels “that sometimes don’t reach 100 pages.” Aira writes with the prolixity of the old, such as Balzac and Flaubert, but without their marathon length. The Airan novel is not long-winded, but fast-paced.

Novels by Cesar Aira on bookshelf

Aira’s emphasis is on the process of pulling the narrative thread more than finding the black thread. He is a self-proclaimed fan of stereotypes: his characters are fair magicians, women beat by jerks, European tourists in Buddhist temples, monks and nuns, pizza delivery boys, zombies, occasionally writers and occasionally himself a character. No psychology or psychologisms to be found here. When he has written about other authors (such as in his beautiful books on Alejandra Pizarnik and Copi), he has given priority to the work more than the character-writer. Stereotypes allow him to ignore the need to construct a character from scratch, while concentrating on the framework of narration. When the entanglement of a story is shortened, like a wick on fire, Aira produces one of his anticlimactic finales, which his detractors use as a basis for quick judgment. Sometimes the endings are a blast, but often they are wet explosives. In 2009, he declared to the newspaper La Nación: “My endings aren’t that great. I’m often criticized for them, with good reason, because they are a little abrupt. And I’ve noted I sometimes get tired or I want to start another story, and I finish it however I can.”

How to start a novel? La costurera y el viento begins with a boy who accidentally boards a bus headed to Patagonia; Triano, with two young poets putting together an exhibition; Parménides with a king that hires a writer for pay; El pequeño monje budista with a pair of retirees who meet the smallest monk in the world; and El mármol with a visit to the supermarket. What goes unsaid in Aira is this: a novel can began at any time, with the most modest and simplest elements, and the most banal characters. Aira’s skill lies in what he is capable of doing with such materials. There are novelists who are the goldsmiths of fine jewelry, but Aira seems more like a talented artisan whose greatest quality is stubbornness, almost the fanaticism of continuing to narrate, for not cutting the black thread, but to continue engaging to the infinite.

Perhaps we can make a small addendum to the initial argument of this article; Aira’s work isn’t an investigation on the machine of narration, but on its beginnings: on what triggers a story and keeps it alive. The novel as a rocket, not as a race car. The combustion of its engine is required to propel itself beyond the limits of gravity and terrestrial obstacles, but not always enough to bring it back home. Because once it is propelled, the story doesn’t return to the point of origin: nothing is settled, the reader isn’t left with any deep lesson or admiration for the technical skill of Aira: he simply closes the book and carries on, but the Airan fever certainly takes hold in the imagination.

Aira´s many and faithful readers probably seek that finale in each new publication, that definitive conclusion that none stops having; or they return — we return — addicted to his masterly beginnings. The enthusiasm of reading him comes from immersing oneself in the flow of that ever-promising beginning, full of possibilities to explore. That’s why it seems Aira isn’t going to retire soon. He’s just getting started.


Image credit: Daniel Mordzinski

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