I did not know what to read after I read Murakami, but I felt that something non-English and maybe avant-garde was the way to go. So I have a couple of César Aira (b. 1949) novels (although… the word novel is not one he would enjoy my using) that I figured would do the trick. I picked up Dinner (2006 / 2015) and though it is only 101 pages, it still took me a little bit to read through. The work is divided into three unnumbered sections.
This is the first Aira I have read and rather than fiddling about wondering the best access point, I just grabbed the Dinner and started reading. I knew only what the back of the book provides in terms of quotes, praise, and synopsis. I do not read a lot of zombie novels, mainly because I think the zombie-concept is one of our stupidest. I am all for a few vampires, shapeshifters, demons, ghosts, ghouls, etc., but those zombies just have me disengage and roll my eyes. No interest. So, my first Aira novel has content that is admittedly not in my favorites list; the novel is going to need to do some work to make me a fan.
The novel, which I have to read translated since I have no Spanish whatsoever, starts off a bit mundane and slow. It takes a minute to get used to Aira’s style, his tempo, if you will. He writes stream of consciousness-ish with a bit of lo-fi downbeat. Its mellow, but smooth. Nothing jarring, but a reader has to not become impatient. The more I read of the first section, the more I enjoyed the writing style – and the more it seemed to fit the story (whatever that was) that was being told.
A key component to this tale is the understanding of how some people talk about people and not events or places. I know as a youth you were probably told many times about how “small minds talk about people etc.” – I know this was one adage that was pounded into me. I feel it refers more to people who gossip, but I mean, at the end of the day, maybe the adage also applies to thinks like “celebrity news” and other “people” things. I fall prey to this sometimes, though, I hope in all honesty that it is not very often. I prefer to discuss ideas and events and things and really anything that is not petty and small. Lately, (a few years now) I have had the nagging and depressing feeling that the world at large spends more and more time on small and petty topics. I am digressing and its untoward. ANYWAY – this adage of talking about people is not really what is happening in this novel, so do not worry. The narrator is describing how his mother and so many in his world seem to build their reality out of names. They can only grasp events and structure and hierarchies through the mnemonic of the people involved – especially the people’s names. By using names as waypoints, the citizens of Pringles are able to go forwards and backwards and side to side regarding their memories and understanding of the community.
Its beyond name-dropping to impress or gossiping in order to thrive on sordid details. Somehow the names are the mapping for a lifetime of an individual and an individual community. Unfortunately, the narrator does not possess this particular “skill.” Now, I have first-hand experience with this phenomenon, but I have never been able to so accurately and delicately describe it as Aira does here. My mother’s expertise in using people as waypoints and knowing all of the interconnectedness between them is on par with the narrator’s mother. I am very familiar with the ability of my mother to come upon the name of someone and then be able to piece together some history related to the community/church like a shamanistic anthropologist.
There was something magical in the way the most peculiar characters and events stuck to him. Nothing like that ever happened to me. There was always something fairy tale-like about the things that happened to him, which he didn’t seem to notice; he confused them with reality. . . because they were his reality. His prosaic way of recounting them — without nuances — highlighted how objective the emergence of fable was in his life. — page 17
Here, the narrator is talking about his long-time friend with whom his mother and he dined. His friend lives in a relatively large house with somewhat decadent taste and a collection of a variety of semi-precious oddities. The friend seems to be a gracious host and also manages to interact with the difficult personality of the mother with ease. In other words, the taxonomies of names and places does not ruin his stories or dinner. In some sense, I think Aira is describing himself. I do not know how close we are getting here to a self-portrait, but its close, I feel. Maybe I am wrong – I have never met Aira, of course, and this is my first reading of his work. However, it is a very strong impression that I got from the role that this friend plays in this tiny novel.
I do not want to give away much more of the book. There are a few remarks I would like to make regarding the zombies, though, that might be considered “spoilers.” Well, readers be ye forewarned, I am about to talk about the zombie siege that takes place in the middle section of this novel.
Its possible to interpret this middle section in a variety of ways – and I think the lack of one definitive answer is what Aira is going for. He likes fairy tales and fables and magic so he is going to be more than happy to let the reader wonder and ponder on their own. Was the zombie siege legit reality? Was it all a disagreeable-food-induced nightmare? Was it one of those yucky moments TV watchers have when they fall asleep with the TV on and the subconscious blends the TV show with the imagination? Or is this whole section really just a metaphor that allows the author and reader to contrast the hedonists and the salt-of-the-earth realists?
It was one of the best banquets of the night, that defenseless conglomeration of rich French partygoers – a class of people who make the production of endorphins their life’s work. – pg. 67
Simple: if we all need endorphins to overcome the animosity and tedium of the world, a cripple would need them that much more. The idea, pretty cunning, was to get El Manco [the cripple] to accompany them on the way out; if they attacked, they’d get him first, giving the rest of them a few precious seconds to escape. – pg. 72
Needless to say I really prefer the metaphorical interpretation of this story. I like the concept Aira has given me of zombies not eating BRAINS, but drinking ENDORPHINS and how the endorphins are disbursed and utilized in Pringles. I like considering how the tastiest brains are the ones who are pleasure-seekers. There are all kinds of fun and interesting ways to analyze and dissect (see that?!) this concept and maybe that is why I like this interpretation best. It gives me food for thought (I did it again! haha!)
Overall, I wanted a little more out of the novel – I wanted a big huge shock or a reveal or a big moment or a rocking worldview. I am really impressed with the tempo and the descriptions. The writing is mellow and smooth. I liked a couple of the main concepts quite a bit and will spend time considering them during traffic jams and dull moments, I am sure. However, I do think the novel needed at least one big sparkling moment or something. Something exciting to contrast with the very low-key delivery.