I had “just” finished a César Aira (b. 1949) novel in late January, but here I am having read another. I finished The Literary Conference last night. I cannot help it; I find these strange little novels utterly enticing and, I guess, addictive. They are unique and fill this odd niche sort of space. I have no idea regarding the dates of publishing for this book. According to the front matter of the book in front of me, the novella was originally published in 2006 as El congreso de literatura. I am not going to lie – on Wikipedia [the Source of Truth and Wisdom] this is listed as being published in 1997. It does feel like an earlier work by Aira (I say as if I am an Aira-expert). My edition is the New Directions paperback with cover art by Rodrigo Corral, translated by Katherine Silver.
The main thing that I love about the Aira novels, and his writing style, is his ability to very subtly mix reality and fiction. I have read somewhere that he has a particular writing process involving cafés in the morning. He does not seem to agonize over his writing, either. In other words, once written he does not revise and edit endlessly. I do not think he even communicates with publishers or translators unless truly necessary. Now, I want to say here that this is definitely a privilege because most publishers and translators do not “allow” writers this kind of treatment. Overall, Aira does have a touch of elitistm about him; this does not bother me. Anyway, short-form novellas work for him. He seems slightly annoyed when having to put his writing into a category. Is it poetry? Fairy tales? Allegory? Autobiographical? It is what it is, I think, and our desperate obsession with pigeon-holing things makes readers uncomfortable when thinking about an Aira “novel.”
Until now, I have been drawing a portrait of a character who represents me in more or less fair and realistic – even if partial – terms. Until now, he could have been taken for a cold, clear-headed scientist writing a well-reasoned memoir in which even emotions take on an icy edge. . . To complete the portrait, though, we would need to paint in a background of passion, so alive and excessive that it makes the rest tremble.
It would be counterproductive to go into too many details, so I won’t. I know myself and I know that the triumph of my false modesty when I sit down to write would translate into such absurd fairy tales that I don’t know where it would end up. — pg 43
Is Aira being tongue-in-cheek? Because factually, this book’s “storyline” is a dizzying absurd tale that no, I do not think even the most seasoned reader would predict. When Aira uses the pronoun I, which I is he speaking of? The character César? The writer César? Or yet another, developing, César? Decide however you like – when I am reading Aira and have these sorts of pauses and questions, when I feel the story has moved beyond what I find clear, I just think of Aira having a coffee at a table in a café in the early morning and just letting his pen tell the story while he pays a small amount of attention to the activity on the downtown streets around him. Writing like that, an author does not really agonize over the problems of Identity and Self. So what if the plot is veering around?
Hence the subtle shift from reality to fiction – hanging around on the line of each, which apparently, runs right through the café our author is sipping beverages at. Speaking of “lines” – this is precisely the apropos moment to insert the wild side-story of the Macuto Line – a old pirate “cable” that runs around the lagoon by the Caribbean Sea that leads to treasure. No, this is not real – its part of Aira’s deadpan storytelling that makes the reader unsure what is real and historical and what is just some dip into some absurd idea he had at the café table.
Lines and translations. Those are, I think, Aira’s starting points in this little work. Maybe he is following these lines and translations through the character, César, whom the author has made into a mad scientist. What do the lines and translations symbolize or what is the author trying to show us? I feel like he is just having a fun time writing and seeing where things go.
Now, the actual storyline is a bit odd (no kidding, right?). I mean we have this mad scientist who is ALSO a literary author. He is going to a literary conference in Venezuela where they are staging one of his plays. His viewing of his own play, by the way, has a very unique feel to it and probably someone should be writing an essay just on that segment. Anyway, the mad scientist is cloning Carlos Fuentes – and his great attempt becomes a huge disaster. When this happens in this little novel, it is one of the most outrageous, but deadpan, moments I have ever read. The little novella is getting too introspective and esoteric and then suddenly – a catastrophe that you could never have guessed! Its awesome. And then when the explanation for what is happening is given, it is laugh aloud, slap your thigh, giggle for awhile legit funny.
The most quoted lines of this whole story are these; and I would never not join the crowd in once again quoting them:
Only through minimalism is it possible to achieve the asymmetry that for me is the flower of art; complications inevitably form heavy symmetries, which are vulgar and overwrought.
But my mania – to be constantly adding things, episodes, characters, paragraphs, to be constantly veering off course, branching out – is fatal. It must be due to insecurity, fear that the basics are not enough, so I have to keep adding more and more adornment until I achieve a kind of surrealist rococo, which exasperates me more than it does anybody else. – pg. 59
Yes, I am sure this aggravating to the author Aira. It is also, probably, why he does not revise much and just sends his writing away as fast as reasonably possible without wanting to linger over it and return to it. However, this sort of “mania” as he calls it, mixed with that minimalism, is the very thing that brings so much delight and enjoyment to us his readers.
This is not an easy novel to read. On the other hand, the prose is straightforward and uncomplicated. Aira does not sound obnoxious. He has this matter-of-fact delivery that is so engaging when contrasted with the absurd chaos his tales run to. Recommended for strong readers.