César Aira's Literary Toys for Adults

Feature by Alan Bett | 18 Apr 2017

Argentine author César Aira is like nothing you've read before. As a light is shone on a small corner of his work – translations of The Proof and The Little Buddhist Monk – he discusses why each of his stories are highly distinct from one another

It’s a tough gig interviewing César Aira, Argentina’s most impishly playful avant-garde man of letters. Firstly, his writing consists of more than 80 works, yet only a small percentage have been translated into English. Then, when combining these back-catalogue black holes with the hugely diverse nature of this translated writing (each work wildly different to the last), it is simply impossible to tie him down as a writer.

So, you seek a second opinion from those in the know, but his critics polarise into the disparaging (‘Slippery’ – The Nation; ‘too smart’ – New York Sun; ‘infuriating’ – New York Times; ‘a writer of perplexing episodes’ – NYRB) and the adulatory (‘[the] most original, shocking, subversive Spanish language author of our day’ – Ignacio Echevarría; ‘one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today’ – Roberto Bolaño). Patti Smith simply proclaims ‘Hail César!’

In order to understand the work of Aira, think of the alchemy of Borges, take a left towards Calvino and stride past the surrealist thought of Duchamp. It’s a complex literary map, but Aira is a perplexing writer. He can twist narrative structure inside out and turn a story on a sixpence. Even the end of a sentence can seem to forget where it originated from. He moves easily across plots and timelines and tense.

A literary chameleon, Aira cuts his stories from cloth of varying size and style, meaning that of the over 80 works he has written, many are around the 20-30 page mark (yet are published individually rather than as collections). Many others fit weighty themes into compact 100-page novellas – like The Proof (a tale beginning with the word ‘wannafuck’, as two punk girls, Mao and Lenin, allow their proposal of love to blossom into ultraviolence) and The Little Buddhist Monk (a seemingly absurdist interpretation of the Western gaze onto Eastern exoticism – I think). Both are translated into English for the first time by Nick Caistor and form the beginning of our conversation when we speak to Aira from Buenos Aires. 

The Skinny: The two books now being published in the UK (The Proof and The Little Buddhist Monk) are new to English language readers, but are actually pulled from the annals of your back catalogue. What are your memories of writing both books and how do you feel about them now?

César Aira: In hindsight, I see all my books as a kind of experimental test. All are different due to dissatisfaction. After writing one, I am so discontent that I want to try something completely different, in theme, in tone, in form. I do not remember the exact circumstances of these two books, but I suppose that after writing a well-mannered book, and feeling that this was not my best style, I wanted to do something brutal and transgressive like The Proof. After writing a novel of psychological seriousness, and feeling that I had failed regrettably, I wrote a cartoon-like book like The Little Buddhist Monk. And in turn, both The Proof and The Little Buddhist Monk also felt like failures that drove me to different things. I think if I ever felt satisfied with something I wrote, it would end this fun odyssey of genres and aesthetics that has been my literary life.

When, for example, you begin The Proof with the word ‘wannafuck?’ do you have any idea where the story might take you?

There's always an idea, I need it to get started. In this case, the idea was to bring to the world of contemporary adolescents – in addition to that, punks – the romantic, chivalric theme of the test of love. But I need the idea to be naked, just an idea, a support, that allows me to improvise the development on the run.

Is it liberating then, to face the page without any restrictions?

Freedom is perhaps the reason why I write. And in my stories I allow myself all freedoms. Sometimes, rarely, I write an essay, in which I must take care of what I say, be intelligent, coherent, and I do it so as to better appreciate the freedom that gives the narrative, when I do not need to take care of anything, nor be coherent or intelligent. I might compare it to someone who spends a day locked in a basement just to better appreciate the air and sun the next day.

But it's not only tone and style which feel unrestricted, many of your stories run to just over the 100-page mark and others 20 to 30; both are unconventional and uncommercial lengths for literature. Do they simply run their natural course?

In my youth, I wrote novels of a conventional length, because I wanted to be published. When I had enough prestige to impose my will, or my whim, I narrowed myself to the limits that seemed to me most suitable for the poetic and imaginative density of what I write. There is something else, which may seem a bit ridiculous. All my friends and influences during my youth were poets, and published these slender elegant books, beside which the thick volume of novels seemed clumsy and primitive. I was not, nor am, a poet, but over time I managed to make my books slim and elegant also.

And despite the separation of your writing (both physically, as individual publications, and in continually developing thematically), is there a bigger picture to be built from your body of work? A fresco, painted through grand design or chance?

I'm the last one to be able to see the big picture, because I am making it brushstroke by brushstroke, and I intend to continue doing this while I live. I observe in me an intuitive opposition to any kind of totality or totalisation. When I feel that there begins to form a recognisable figure, I immediately do something to deform it. When I hear, say, that I have some influence on young writers, I wonder how it is possible, if my work seems (or it seems to me) made by ten different writers. The only influence I can exert is that of my insistence on freedom.

The current publisher, & Other Stories, seem to be gladly pushing the negative reviews as much as the glowing praise. Do you enjoy being such a provocative and divisive writer?

I think the best compliment is the existence of that division. Good literature does not form a consensus. If it satisfies the whole world it is because it has condescended to one or another mediocrity.

There is often humour and absurdity in amongst very serious themes in your work. Is this deliberate technique or just a natural process?

It's natural. I think there is a constant veil of irony, so that the reader has to think twice if I am saying things seriously or jokingly. Philosophy, History, Journalism, are bound to be serious, Literature is not.

Is there something specific to Argentine literature that defines or influences your work? For many in the UK, Borges is the name that rings out, but who else should we be aware of?

Borges was how I discovered literature, I mean the literariness of literature, when I was a teenager. And his work is very present among my influences up until today. I once said (exaggerating, but not so much) that everything I have written is a footnote to Borges' work. Borges set a very high water mark for Argentine literature. I think the only ones that were up to the challenge were Osvaldo Lamborghini and Alberto Laiseca, both untranslated, I'm afraid.

Remaining on the theme of nation, you’ve lived and written over changing social and political periods in Argentina, some turbulent. Does this seep into your work? 

I guess it's inevitable, but in my case at an unconscious level. I was more affected by reading Lautréamont than by a dictatorship. But I warn those who question me in advance, that I never speak of politics or football, which makes me less Argentine than I should be, because these are the two great passions of my country.

English language speakers can, at the moment, only access a small percentage of your work in translation. As your writing is so diverse in theme and style, it can be hard then to pin you down. How would you describe your work more broadly?

I have a provocative (but sincere) definition for my books: ‘Dadaist fairy tales’. I recently found a much better one: ‘Literary Toys for Adults’. And I think I can justify it. ‘Toys’, because the intention is always playful; ‘Literary’, because they operate with the mechanisms of literature, not with those of reality (we all grew up loathing metaliterature, but the sad truth is that literature is metaliterature); and ‘for adults’ because I endeavour to be read by readers who have gone all the way, from Jules Verne or Salgari to Kafka.

The Proof and The Little Buddhist Monk are both published by & Other Stories, out now, RRP £7.99. Both are translated by Nick Caistor