Bedtime Stories: The Little Books of César Aira
At the beginning of the summer the homeowners association in my neighborhood voted to hire the man who mows the grassy field they use as a parking lot for their little marina to also beautify the area with some landscaping. Specifically, they asked him to put a flower bed at the base of one of the electrical poles and to plant red, white and blue flowers to convey their patriotic spirit. Over the next two weeks, the grass mowing man did just that, while I watched him from my library window.
The thing is, it is one of those absurd situations—almost Sisyphean. The field is pure sand, and the only grass that grows on it is the exceptionally indestructible stuff that can eke out its existing in droughts and the baking heat of a Southern sun. To grow flowers—the white petunias and red geraniums and blue rocket that the homeowners asked for—he had to bring in dirt. There is no water source barring the occasional afternoon rain. So whenever it doesn't rain the man fills his station wagon with plastic jugs full of water and brings them to his little artificial oasis in order to stave off death by drought for another twenty-four hours. God forbid the man ever becomes sick and misses a day’s water run, the flowerbed won’t survive the neglect. All for the sake of the kind of beauty that is designed to be ignored. The eyes of homeowners will slide right over the dusty red of the geraniums as they unload their fishing boats and put in their kayaks. The only creatures that seem to appreciate all the effort is the dogs, who like to pee on the corners of the bed.
The flowers are not meant to be looked at, they are only there as testament to the organization and affluence, the good standing, of the owners. I’m not sure what such evidence of good standing is worth in hard cash, but the man paid to tend these pointless flowers probably isn’t complaining. The economy is bad and even I can hear that his station wagon will need a new muffler soon.
It’s the kind of scenario that, had he been standing next to me in the library looking out the window, might have inspired César Aira to write a novel—something that he probably would have completed in a couple days, writing at a furious pace and never returning to what he wrote the previous day or even the previous hour. Aira has a compelling talent for seeing both great profundity and great absurdity in the most mundane situations, and surely this old man with his riding mower and his station wagon full of water jugs is the epitome of “mundane.”
I keep Aira’s many small novels on my bedside table to read just before I go to sleep because they always give me such strange dreams. It is a habit I first picked up with a book called An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter—one of the first of Aira’s works to be translated into English. It is an odd little story about a German painter in Argentina who is struck by lightning while out on the Pampas—causing a facial deformity and a certain “interruption” of the neural pathways between his brain and his fingers, so that what the painter sees in his mind’s eye is turned into something savage and grotesque at the end of his brush. For weeks after I read it my dreams were littered with lightning flashes, faces in rictus, and lines of slow-moving wagons crossing oceans of grass. To date, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter remains my favorite Aira novel—not just because it is a story about creating art (“...a painter had emerged from the night to reveal the delirious truth of the day's events”)—but because even years later I can still see those slow, somber wagons crawling across a high plain in my mind.
Allowing César Aira to tell you bedtime stories produces a curious effect. Not just the dreams; after An Episode the character of my bedtime reading changed. I used to keep stacks of simple, easy to read stories—mystery novels and science fiction adventure stories. Books that I could easily slide into and slide as easily out of when sleep finally came. But Aira is not what you'd call “easy.” His books veer into the experimental, the avant-garde. (It’s a good thing they are also short.)
It is exhausting to be open to the experimental for any length of time—something that is conducive to sleep. But I also found that I was reading differently. “Floating” as it were, through the story and allowing my tired mind to settle on any particular phrase or image that happened to capture my attention. Even when I fell half-asleep Aira’s books had a way of shocking me awake for a few moments over a particular event or description. And if his stories were not particularly easy to slide into, neither did they easily let go. As I said, they had a way of following me into my dreams.
So after An Episode, I replaced all the forgettable fiction in my bedside stack with the shorter works of a series of South and Central American writers; Aira, Roberto Bolano, Alejandro Zamba, Paco Ignatio Taibo II. Weird little stories about writers and artists and revolutionaries, where literature has corporeal presence and transformative properties that are quite, well, literal. I found I would go to sleep with the revolutionary statements of subversive poets echoing in my ears, and wake the next morning to discover the smallest things impregnated with significance and meaning. Possibly, it’s a kind of contact poison in the paper of the pages. If my life were one of César Aira’s stories, that’s exactly what it would be. But more likely it is that these books reject the neat formulas for telling a story—as if everything really had a beginning, a middle and an end, after which the book can be closed, disappearing the story. The reader that finds Aira’s novels in his hands never knows what to expect, and eventually becomes open to expecting anything. Instead of paths to follow, Aira gives you three-dimensional space. There is forward, and back, and also up and down. The direction of the story in his novel Ghosts, (about a family living on the top floor of a half-finished condo building) goes from morning to night, but also from the roof to the ground floor.
Aira’s novels also tend to be a little lax about what is real, and what is not. The painter in An Episode, Johann Moritz Rugendas, is real. He's a historical figure—I looked him up. What happens to him is surreal, but apparently he really did get struck by lightning. The narrator who speaks to us in Aira’s novel How I Became a Nun is named César Aira, who is real, although the character may not be (Roberto Bolano does this all the time too). For one thing, she claims she is a six-year-old girl, even though her parents refer to her as a boy. How I Became a Nun is not about becoming a nun. It is about how strawberry ice cream came to symbolize all the horror of the world. The narrator of The Literary Conference is also named César Aira. This César is at least a man. Also, he is an out of work translator (real?) and a mad scientist (not real?) who wants to clone Carlos Fuentes to lead an army to world domination. Carlos Fuentes is real. At least, he was until May 15, when he died from a massive hemorrhage. His state funeral stopped traffic and will probably be in Aira’s next book.
Eventually reading along with these strange little stories late at night by the dim light of my lamp with the eco-friendly light bulb, I abandoned worrying about what was real, what was not, where the story was going, where it should have been going. Instead I just let myself be carried. “Accept everything,” I thought when I opened Varamo, the most recent little Aira book on the bedside stack. Varamo is a Chinese man living in Panama, a low-level bureaucrat who, when he goes to collect his pay, is given his salary in counterfeit money. This creates a state of anxiety in him that he tries to alleviate first by indulging in his hobby (taxidermy: he is trying to embalm a fish in a position that looks like it is playing the piano; he thinks that this will sell), and then by strolling down to the café he hangs out at where, after a brief adventure with a car accident that may have been an anarchist assassination attempt, and a run in with two women with three legs between them who smuggled golf clubs into the country, he settles down with coffee and writes The Song of the Virgin Boy—an experimental epic poem that becomes famous and starts a literary movement.
Varamo has never written poetry before, mind you, but the creative process hardly cares about something so trivial as that. Besides, he doesn’t dare spend the counterfeit bills in his pocket, so he needs money and a couple of publishers arguing at the table next to him offered to pay if he could write something at least sixty-four pages long (the minimum needed to give the book a spine). So perhaps it isn’t the creative process that is the driving force of literature, but the publishing machine. The publishers see Varamo’s inexperience with literature as an asset: “...in barbaric lands like the Americas,” they tell him, “writers produced their best works before learning the craft, and nine times out of ten, their first book was the strongest, as well as being, in general, the only one they wrote.” The Song of the Virgin Boy, by the way, not real. But those publishers in the cafe? Most definitely so.
The little books of César Aira sit by my bed like a set of demented fairy tales that show you the beauty and melancholy of life in the things you thought were trivial and mundane. Like the moment when Varamo, passive and indecisive by nature, puts the counterfeit bills he has been handed by the cashier into his pocket, and realizes, too late, that he has committed himself to accepting them and he is now a felon. “Opportunites,” he thinks somewhat desperately later on, “only exist in retrospect, when it’s already too late.” In the town square a bugle blows a high sad note while soldiers lower the flag at sunset. Read enough of this sort of thing and it isn’t only your dreams that become infected. It starts to bleed into your waking life, and you find yourself, like me, framing small events as potential fiction, watching out the window at the old man with his pointless garden, who is even now while I’m writing pouring water out of a jug not into his flower bed, but into the dirt beside it.
Why, I don’t know. Perhaps he really is a character in a César Aira novel.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.