domingo, 20 de septiembre de 2020


by César Aira
Argentina, 1993

An appreciation of Argentinean Literature of Doom great Roberto Arlt penned by fellow Argentinean Literature of Doom great César Aira?  Sort of!  While I'm not sure what prompted Aira (above, photographer unknown) to take up this possibly spurious exercise in literary criticism, he begins his essay with a definition of the methodologies of expressionism and impressionism which I won't go into here.  Arlt, "torturado y pensativo como un alemán" ["pensive and tortured like a German"] (55), is an expressionist, though--the "like a German" line supposedly owing itself to a quote of Goethe's on the nature of the Teutonic temperament.  Moving from the general to the specific, Aira then zeroes in on the theme of "la traición' ["treachery, betrayal"] (57) as an example of how Arlt's expressionist tendencies ooze to the surface in his work.  Although Aira cheekily calls this "a random but a central" example  ["uno cualquiera, pero central"], parenthetically adding that "la elección de ejemplos es una trampa que habría que evitar" ["the choice of examples is a trap that should be avoided"] (!) (57), one wonders why the choice of language is so slippery here given that betrayal and treachery are so foundational to Arlt's fiction.  One possible answer: "Cuando uno se pregunta por las intenciones de un artista, es inevitable que se pierda en un laberinto" ["When one wonders about the intentions of an artist, it's inevitable that one get lost in a labyrinth"] (59).  And another: slippery language is foundational to Aira's own obra.  Whatever one's opinions on Arlt's art, of course, one needn't be a fan of either writer to be amused and/or intrigued by Aira's essayistic antics and conclusions.  One of my favorites among the former comes in the paragraph which begins, "Suele decirse 'Arlt, nuestro Flaubert'" ["As the saying goes, 'Arlt, our Flaubert'"].  Although I've actually seen Arlt referred to by Argentines as "our Dostoevsky," I'd be surprised if Aira didn't make up the "our Flaubert" talk altogether.  It's a great set-up line, though, insofar as our critic goes on to hammer home the points that 1) "Creo que la aproximación es inepta, y no sólo por el abismo que hay entre un escritor maduro y burgués, y el adolescente visionario que fue Arlt...  Yo diría 'nuestro Lautréamont'" ["I believe the approximation is inept and not only because of the gulf that there is between a mature, bourgeois writer and the adolescent visionary that was Arlt...  I would say, 'our Lautréamont'"] and 2) "Lo que en la novela europea se hizo a lo largo de quinientos años y mil escritores, en la Argentina lo hizo Arlt solo, en cinco años" ["What in the European novel was done over the course of five hundred years and by one thousand writers was done in Argentina by Arlt alone in five years"] (63, ellipses added).  Aira, who hides his cards on the matter of how much he esteems Arlt as a stylist or not, loses his poker face when concluding that Arlt's sense of "lo novelesco" ["the novelesque"] has roots in "el folletín truculento" ["the grisly feuilleton"]--something in opposition to "la novela ideológica, la falsa novela" ["the ideological novel, the fake novel"] as practiced by a more conformist writer like Eduardo Mallea: "Es la diferencia entre el gentleman y el Monstruo" ["It's the difference between the gentleman and the Monster"] (62); when pointing out some of the paradoxes of Arlt's style ("Las novelas de Arlt son historias de la inmovilidad, novelas de las que no se sale, pero al mismo tiempo no se explican sino como novelas de viaje" ["Arlt's novels are stories of immobility, novels in which there's no exit, but at the same time can only be explained in terms of travel novels"]) (63); or when finding unexpected parallels between Arlt's suspension of time and sense of perspective and Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass.  "Yo mismo, proponiéndome como ejemplo de la singularidad extenuada del tiempo, trepo a la cinta del continuo y corro tras el Monstruo revestido de la figura irrisoria de la explicación" ["I myself, setting out as an example of the exhausted singularity of time, step onto the treadmill of the continuum and chase after the Monster sheathed in the ridiculous figure of  explanation"], Aira writes, purportedly moved by "la introyección feliz de lo imaginario" ["the happy introjection of the imaginary"] and "la recepción del cine mudo de Arlt" ["the reception of Arlt's silent film"] technique, prey to images that dance before his eyes.  "Duchamp la llamó Perspectiva, yo la llamo Inspiración.  Salgo a buscarlas todos los días, en una rutina inmutable, a la perfecta transparencia de lo habitual, a las calles de mi barrio, que es el de Arlt, Flores, a los cafés de los alrededores de la plaza y la estación, donde voy todas las mañanas a escribir" ["Duchamp called it Perspective, I call it Inspiration.  I go out to search for them every day, in an unchanging routine, in the perfect transparency of the habitual, in the streets of my neighborhood, which is the same as Arlt's, Flores, at the cafés surrounding the plaza and the train station where I go every morning to write" (70-71).  Yes!

"ARLT," written in 1991 and published in 1993, appears on pp. 55-71 of the Argentinean journal Paradoxa #7.  People wanting a full account of all the good stuff I had to leave out from it can find a PDF of the piece here.

4 comentarios:

  1. Did Roberto B borrow from César A the 'novels in which there is no exit' line for his 'corridor with no apparent exit' when describing his estimation of contemporary Chilean letters?

    Anyway, why does César A seem to grudgingly make Roberto A his precursor? César - with the clarity of his sentences that were more than a bit un-Arlt-like - could only adopt the narrative principles of his predecessor. The Perspective/Inspiration behind Roberto A's silent film(?) slash found objects.

    1. Excellent questions! Re: the latter, I suspect that Aira admires or once admired (?) the effects or perhaps the solutions Arlt arrived at re: the destabilization in his texts without desiring or being able or interested in writing like that himself. However, it's hard for me to tell at times when Aira is just describing or possibly mocking Arlt. He calls marriage in Arlt's work a "ready made" (p. 59), for example. Another example: at one point Aira lauds Arlt's unpredictability re: causality by pinpointing how his characters' paranoia leads them into a paranoiac no man's land where explanations will always be insufficient or excessive--and hence unexpected? Aira calls Arlt's solutions to one of these examples "una formulación perfecta" ["a perfect formulation"] (66).

    2. Maybe it’s the unpredictability in Arlt’s use of images that Aira saw an affinity with. Putting antipoetic (irreverent) spin on the classic style, where ideas (readymades) matter, not plot or character.

    3. That's a pretty good guess, I think. Aira always seems to favor unpredictability over predictability in any event.