by Sergio Pitol
Sergio Pitol's eight page long tequila shot "Lo que dice César Aira" ["What César Aira Says," as far as I know not yet available for consumption in translation] is the sort of warm, memoiristic slap to the head that might induce more of a fannish literary history buzz in people who are already familiar with Aira's 1997 El congreso de literatura [The Literary Conference]--a true story about a mad scientist named César Aira who decides to clone Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes at a literary conference in Venezuela--but even for people who haven't drunk the Aira Kool-Aid as yet, it's still exactly the sort of mind-altering amber goodness you might expect when one of your favorite writers decides to hoist a shot glass or two in honor of another one of your favorites. In any event, I'll step out of the way and let Pitol (photo above) get the anecdotal ball rolling:
Debió ser a finales de 1993 o principios de 1994 cuando conocí a César Aira. Fue en uno de esos congresos anuales de literatura en Mérida, Venezuela, a donde invitaban una o dos docenas de escritores hispanoamericanos, y que tenía como sede un hotel campestre, rodeado de chalets. Después de los escritores venezolanos, que eran legión, la delegación mexicana era la más amplia: seis o siete narradores. A mí me tocó compartir una cabaña de tres dormitorios, un amplio salón y un baño, con el español Enrique Vila-Matas, amigo desde hacía muchos años y con un joven argentino para mí enteramente desconocido. Era César Aira, quien se presentó con nosotros muy educadamente, pero con un leve aire de lejanía. Durante los cinco o seis días que duró la reunión, cambiamos escasísimas palabras. Los saludos en la mañana, las buenas noches después de la cena y durante el transcurso del día alguna que otra frase banal sobre el clima. En la noche había fiestas y convivios bastante divertidos a donde él no concurría. Siempre lo veía inclinando escribiendo en unas pequeñas libretas. Sus compañeros argentinos Héctor Libertella y Sergio Chejfec hablaban de él con reverencia. Comentaban que quizás era la figura más inusitada de la nueva literatura. Era una escritura provocativa, irritante, radicalmente desconcertante, semejante a la de Gombrowicz, nos decían a los mexicanos, quienes, como yo, también lo desconocían. El único de nosotros que podía participar en esas conversaciones era Hernán Lara Zavala, pues había publicado en la colección que dirigía en la UNAM una novela suya, El llanto. El tema del congreso ese año se ceñia a una ars poética; cada uno debía explicar la suya. Aira definió su juego de procedimientos narrativos como un mecanismo que se movía en dirección contraria a las convenciones narrativas. A él no le interesaba hacer lo que todos hacían, ni seguir las líneas de Balzac o Stendhal, a quienes conocía perfectamente y respetaba, porque esas formas ya estaban cristalizadas; la novela contemporánea que tocase los mismos temas y siguiera haciendo algunas variaciones sobre formas narrativas ya canonizadas, le hastiaba. A él le interesaba remontarse a los orígenes, empaparse en ellos, para luego proseguir una fuga hacia el futuro, hacia lo no manoseado, hacia una escritura estimulante (173-174).
[It must have been at the end of 1993 or the beginning of 1994 when I met César Aira. It was at one of those yearly literary conferences in Mérida, Venezuela, where they'd invited one or two dozen Spanish-American writers, and which had a rural hotel, surrounded by chalets, as its base. After the Venezuelan writers, who were legion, the Mexican delegation was the largest in size: six or seven narrators. It was my lot to share a three bedroom cabin, a bathroom and a spacious common room with the Spaniard Enrique Vila-Matas, a longtime friend, and with a young Argentine who was entirely unknown to me. It was César Aira, who introduced himself to us very politely, but with a slightly distant air. During the five or six days that the gathering lasted, we exchanged very few words. Greetings in the morning, goodnights after dinner, and during the course of the day one or another banal comment on the weather. In the evenings, there were quite entertaining parties and banquets which he didn't attend. His fellow Argentines Héctor Libertella and Sergio Chejfec spoke of him with reverence. They commented that he was perhaps the most unusual figure in the new literature. His writing was provocative, irritating, radically disconcerting, similar to that of Gombrowicz, they told us Mexicans, the rest of whom, like me, also didn't know about Aira. The only one of us who could participate in those conversations was Hernán Lara Zavala since he had published a novel of Aira's, El llanto, in the imprint he oversaw for UNAM. The theme of the conference that year was on the topic of an Ars Poetica; each writer had to explain his own. Aira defined his strategy for narrative proceedings as a mechanism which moved in the opposite direction of narrative conventions. He wasn't interested in doing what everybody else was doing, nor in continuing in the line of Balzac or Stendhal, whose work he knew well and respected, because those forms were already crystallized; the contemporary novel which touched on the same themes and continued making slight variations on narrative forms which were already canonized bored him. What interested him was going back to the origins, steeping himself in them, to then press on with a flight toward the future, toward forms that hadn't been fiddled with, towards a writing that was stimulating.]
As if so engrossed in the Ars Poetica business that he momentarily forgot that he was writing about his introduction to Aira, Pitol spends most of his follow-up paragraph citing the literary mad scientist on his preference for "la mala literatura" ["bad literature"] over "la literatura convencional" ["conventional literature"] even when the latter is actually good literature ("aunque sea buena," 174). The words that follow are Aira's as lifted from an essay by Marcelo Damiani. Just what does César Aira say?
Lo que tiene de bueno la literatura mala es que opera con una maravillosa libertad, la libertad del disparate, de la locura, y a veces la literatura buena es mala porque para ser buena tiene que cuidarse tanto, se restringe tanto, que termina siendo mala. Termina siendo aburrida, o directamente no vale la pena leerla. Algunos libros de Marguerite Yourcenar, Octavio Paz o Milan Kundera, que se suponen buena literatura, podría traducirse interiormente como "Estoy bien escrito, estoy bien escrito, estoy bien escrito, etcétera", y eso es todo. Y uno querría otra cosa, ¿no?... Una buena literatura es buena en relación con las normas establecidas. Si la función de la literatura es inventar normas nuevas, no podemos limitarnos a seguir obedeciéndolas (174).
[What's good about bad literature is that it operates with a wonderful freedom, the freedom of folly, of madness, and at times good literature is bad because in order to be good it has to be fussed over to such an extent, to be reined in so much, that it ends up being bad. It ends up being boring or, more to the point, it isn't worth bothering to read. Some of Marguerite Yourcenar's books, of Octavio Paz's or Milan Kundera's, which are presumed to be good literature, could be translated internally as "I'm well written, I'm well written, I'm well written, etc." and that's it. And one would want something different than that, no?... A good literature is good in relationship to the established norms. But if the function of literature is to concoct new norms, we can't limit ourselves to continue abiding by them.]
"I'm well written, I'm well written, I'm well written, etc." Classic bookish smack talk!
Whatever one makes of Aira's dismissal of conventionally "good" literature (I, for one, like to imagine that he could just as easily have been throwing under the bus those book bloggers who get all weak in the knees whenever they drone on about that nonexistent genre known as "literary fiction"), his admirer and fellow novelist Pitol returns to the autobiographical/memoir tip to speak of the Argentine in the most glowing of terms. The novel that made him an Aira convert? I'll let the essayist tell the story:
Para continuar con la coexistencia en aquel encuentro de escritores en Mérida y el trato con Aira, puedo decir que fue sólo el último día cuando hablamos de literatura, de lo que leíamos y lo que cada quien estaba buscando en la escritura. Al despedirnos me regaló su última novela: Cómo me hice monja. Ese día marca un hito en mi vida de lector: existe un antes y un después de la lectura de esa extraordinaria novelita. La leí en la noche. Al día siguiente, en Caracas, no pude sino hablar de ese libro, y poco después, al regresar en el avión a México, volví a releerlo. Desde hacía muchos años no había sentido el asombro y placer que me produjo recorrer una y otra vez sus páginas, donde la transgresión era continua, como lo era también la permanente transmutación de toda norma de tiempo y espacio (175).
[To continue on with that writers' encounter in Mérida and my relations with Aira, I can say that it was only on the last day when we spoke of literature, of what we were reading and what each of us was looking for in writing. Upon saying goodbye to each other, he gave me a gift of his latest novel: How I Became a Nun. That day marks a milestone in my life as a reader: there exists a before and an after in regard to the reading of that extraordinary little novel. I read it at night. The next day, in Caracas, I couldn't do anything else but talk about that book, and shortly afterward, on the plane back to Mexico, I went back and reread it. It had been many years since I felt the astonishment and pleasure produced in me by thumbing through its pages again and again, where the transgression was ongoing as was the permament transmutation of all norms of time and space.]
One of the reasons I wanted to share this piece with you today, friends and lurkers, is that in his typically exuberant fashion, drunk on literature as he so often is in his nonfiction writing, Pitol uses this confession as a prelude to an Acapulco cliff diving-like leap into the waters of readerly delirium. He claims that the adolescent reader lives and dies with the happiness produced by the reading of works that produce just such delirium--in his case Mann's Doctor Faustus; Dickens' Great Expectations; Schwob's The Children's Crusade; Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom; Borges' The Aleph; the Quixote "of course," and a host of unnamed authors. Although Pitol admits that this adolescent delirium tends to lessen in frequency over the years, it never really disappears, a pretext which leads Pitol to cite another number of the books he read later in life which took him back to this readerly paradise of his youth. Among the titles? "Casi todas las novelas cortas y algunos cuentos de Chejov" ["Almost all the short novels and some short stories by Chekhov"]; The Brothers Karamozov, "que fue en mí una lectura tardía" ["which was a late encounter for me"]; Tolstoy's War and Peace; Gogol's short stories; Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita; Rulfo's The Burning Plain; almost all Galdós; Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers; Kusniewicz's The King of the Two Sicilies; Felisberto Hernández's The Flooded House. What does this all have to do with Aira and How I Became a Nun? "La mas tardía revelación fue la obra de Aira" ["Aira's work was the latest revelation"], Pitol tells us (175).
Although the enthusiastic Pitol says many more things about Aira in this reminiscence that I'd love to share, I'm afraid you'll have to take my word on that for now since your humble scribe is about to succumb to a bad case of translator's cramp. Before I go, though, a few final notes. Pitol, who would have been about 60 years old when he first met the younger writer, says that he now only has five or six of the earliest Aira titles left to read since "los he leído tan pronto como los he encontrado (que no es nada fácil) y luego los he releído en un orden cronólogico" ["I've read them as soon as I've found them (which is no easy task) and then I've reread them in chronological order"] in search of the method behind Aira's madness (176). What has Pitol found? Among other things, this: "trozos de la vida del escritor, de las calles que transita, los cafés donde escribe, el pueblo de su infancia. En ese continuum se expande la biografía secreta del autor" ["slices of the writer's life, of the streets he travels, the cafés where he writes, the town of his childhood. The secret biography of the author expands in that continuum"] (Ibid.). That being said, Pitol does makes a distinction between what he calls "las más altas expresiones" ["the highest expressions"] of Aira's work and the more "tedious"or lesser ones, proposing The Hare, El bautismo, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Un sueño realizado, and Las noches de Flores as the cornerstones of Aira's oeuvre alongside How I Became a Nun (176-177). What does Aira say in these books as Pitol sees it? "No me interesa, dice, la literatura comercial. Tuve la suerte siempre de ser un snob. En lugar de leer lo que leía todo el mundo, leía cosas que no leía nadie. Leo a los clásicos, a los extravagantes, a los surrealistas, a los locos" ["Commercial literature, he says, doesn't interest me. I was lucky to always be a snob. Instead of reading what everybody else was reading, I read things that nobody read. I read the classics, the outlandish writers, the surrealists, the madmen"] (177). However, as Pitol adds, there's a big difference between "el escritor excéntrico y el vanguardista" ["the eccentric writer and the avant-garde writer"] just as there's a big difference between the works of Tristan Tzara, Filippo Marinetti and André Breton in comparison to the works of Gogol, Bruno Schulz and César Aira (179). The crux of the matter? "César Aira ha declarado su deuda con los vanguardistas, sobre todo los surrealistas; ha estado cerca de ellos. Ha acometido retos tan peligrosos como los vanguardistas, pero su temperamento, sus gustos, su ars poetica es plenamente distinta. Es uno de lo pocos autores que seriamente hacen de la escritura una celebración" ["César Aira has expressed his debt to the avant-garde, the surrealists above all. He's been close to them. He's undertaken challenges as risky as those of the avant-garde, but his temperament, his tastes, his Ars Poetica are completely different. He's one of the few authors who seriously turn literature into a celebration"] (180). I'll drink to that--here's mud in your Aira.
"Lo que dice César Aira" appears on pp. 173-180 of Pitol's La patria del lenguage: Lecturas y escrituras latinoamericanas (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 2013) and has been anthologized in at least one other Pitol collection that I can't remember the name of right now.