César Aira’s body of work is a perfect machine for invention—he writes without necessity or any apparent forebears, always as if for the first time. Aira’s creative approach has never changed: he reads exhaustively every author in every genre, from every period and every country, as if it were possible to process it all. He has compiled an archive so vast and diverse that it becomes impossible to consult. Each individual trace added to the mix is erased by its juxtaposition with all the others. Aira likes it all and writes accordingly.
He rarely agrees to be interviewed—never doing so in his own country, and almost never outside of it—because he reserves literary invention and originality for his own literature. There would seem to be in Aira a dream of autonomy: everything within the work, nothing outside it.
At times it is tempting to describe Aira’s writing procedure in the simplest of ways: writing by picking up with the last line written the day before, planting something implausible in the work, and then continuing to write until he has made the implausible believable.
It’s something as simple as the device of the guardian in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” as if Aira has made good on his childhood dream of writing serial novels or of becoming the next Borges. Complex problems can indeed have the simplest of solutions: Joseph Conrad rightly wrote that the Titanic could’ve been saved by affixing a kind of flotation device on its bow.
César Aira’s physical movements are a citation of Borges—when he becomes distracted, when he answers questions; it’s the same vacillating voice, the same fleeting look. Yet Aira has not been afflicted with blindness. He has not had to imagine what transpires before him; rather, he is a nearsighted person who gets close to every object until achieving the vision of a naturalist. Listing Aira’s novels (there are nearly 50) would exceed the length of this introduction and would take up part of the interview. Let it suffice to mention here those that are available in English: The Hare, How I Became a Nun, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and the forthcoming Ghosts.
The visitors looked up at the strange, irregular form of the water tank that crowned the edifice, and the big parabolic dish that would supply television images to all the floors. On the edge of the dish, a sharp metallic edge on which no bird would have dared to perch, three completely naked men were sitting, with their faces turned up to the midday sun; no one saw them, of course.
Excerpted from Ghosts, a novel by César Aira. Translated by Chris Andrews and due out in February 2009 from New Directions.
César Aira I lived in Pringles, the Buenos Aires province, until I was 18 and then I lived out the classic story of Balzac’s novels about the kid who goes to the big city. I came with the excuse of studying law, which I faked for two years.
María Moreno It’s always a mystery how the desire for reading begins in homes where there are no books, or in a town without any cultural landmarks.
CA I know that at some point I began to read Emilio Salgari, the 19th-century Italian pioneer or sci-fi and adventure novels, and what were known then as "Mexican magazines," which were comics—they were translated in Mexico before they were distributed in South America. I came to have a fairly complete collection of one called Little Lulu that I later gave away, and then compiled again. In an interview, Robert Crumb says that he also liked Little Lulu. I was interested in Salgari because his novels were serial. His Pirates of Malaysia series, with Sandokan as the hero, consisted of over 20 novels—The Mystery of the Black Jungle, The Mystery of Raimangal, Quest for a Throne, among many others—and I liked that continuity.
MM What did you like about Little Lulu, which was supposed to be for girls? The “Mexican magazines” seemed to have audiences of both sexes: of course there were some neutral characters like Elmer Fudd, who was not particularly epic. Were you on Lulu’s side or with the Westside Guys?
CA I was interested in the eroticism underlying physical violence—spankings, for one—and in the boy’s club . . .
MM With that sign that said, “No Women Allowed.” I think it marked my life in another way. Do you remember Little Itch and Ol’ Witch Hazel?
CA Yes, they were characters in the fascinating stories that Lulu would tell Alvin, the next-door neighbor for whom she sometimes babysat. The stories would repeat the incidents in the kids’ everyday life, but they’d be converted into fairy tales.
MM You say that you compiled the collection again; are you a collector?
CA I’ve never been a collector except, like all kids, with stamps. I always resisted, because I think I have a dangerous collector gene that could lead me to obsess.
MM Perhaps you’re a peculiar collector of your own novels?
CA It may be, because I always publish with small publishers and so it’s as if I were asking readers to search for the hidden item, giving them a little suspense. It’s not easy for them to find one of my books. There was a time when I wanted to have my books published by every big press, with those nice covers from Anagrama, Tusquets, Alfaguara, Mondadori, but no! I’m devoted to those independent, almost clandestine publishers. But I did collect “Mexican magazines” and by 12 or 13, I had already become an obsessive reader. In my town, even if there weren’t any bookstores—and in my house there weren’t any books—there was a municipal library, and another one founded by the town doctor, both of which were very good. In that era, at the end of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, the industry of the bestseller, of cheap and popular entertainment, didn’t exist yet, so everything I read was good. The two libraries had librarians, and for them I became a recurring character. I would take some book out on loan or I would stay there reading through the afternoon. The next day I would come back. I didn’t have anybody to talk with about what I was reading.
MM The poet Arturo Carrera, who is also from Pringles and was going to the same libraries, took note of you as a reader because one day he went to ask for something by Kafka and you had it out. It was the first of Kafka’s works for him, but you had already been through the whole gamut.
CA My intellectual contact with Arturo began in our adolescence, but he’s a different reader. I’m a narrative reader who searches for a good story, and he’s a poetic reader who searches for a good word. I recommended a Balzac novel to Arturito, he read it a bit reluctantly and later said to me, “I loved the part where it says ‘the little salted spoon’!”
MM At times you’ve said that you write certain things “because they sound good.” Are you really interested in plot?
CA What I mean to say is that I’ve never been interested in the sensuality of words. In fact, what I write is in the clearest, most neutral tone possible. I try to make my prose almost transparent. In the long run, that can create a style and a type of sensuality in the cadence, in the rhythm of the writing.
MM In your essay “La nueva escritura” (The new writing) you say that you align yourself with an avant-garde that attempts to recuperate the gesture of the aficionado: invention.
CA I’ve always thought that I didn’t have avant-garde chops, because I like conventional literature too much. I deliberately want to create something new but I instinctively go on loving the old. Lately I’ve been given over to the temptation of rereading. It’s a sign of aging. In rereading I find a kind of multiplied pleasure. I’m reading books that I read 40 years ago. A little while ago I reread—it was one of those gaps that you leave for a rainy day—The Brothers Karamazov. When one reads one makes one’s own novel—what I found this time around was all the novel’s grotesque excesses, its surrealist displays, but not so much its moral mysticism. Since I’ve never taught or written criticism, I’ve always read for the sake of reading. But I have my system: when I start on an author I read him completely. Not because I force myself but because I naturally want to read it all, and then afterward a biography, studies about him, the authors he read, his disciples. . . . I think it’s a way of making something organic out of the reading experience. There are people who read on a whim or out of curiosity or because they liked the cover of a book, and they don’t end up building on it at all. I used to think that the issue of searching for influences was in fashion, and I asked myself why I, in reading and writing so much, had never felt that fear of contaminating myself with someone else’s work.
MM Or of stealing from them unknowingly.
CA It’s not that I’m avoiding this at all, but just the opposite: I let everything influence me, but my premise is that everything gets diluted. Someone who reads just one book or is fascinated with just one author might feel that anguish. But if one goes on leaping from one author, era, or genre to another, everything ends up diluted.
MM But surely you bear the traces of some of your contemporaries, like the legendary late poet and novelist Osvaldo Lamborghini.
CA Before I was published, when I was a kid, I was surrounded by people who considered me a great writer. They insisted that I publish and they introduced me to publishers, things that I would sabotage because I was already very satisfied with my consecration—I might publish a book somewhere and they’d see that it wasn’t as good as they had thought. I think I have traces exclusively of Osvaldo because of the relationship that we had, his personality, and our difference in age. All this is still very present for me. A lot of times I think, “What would Osvaldo say about this?” And at times I write against him, because it’s not a question of staying loyal to ghosts. The other day I was thinking about him because I went by the corner of Córdoba and Pueyrredón, where there used to be a little bar called Tobas. It was in that little bar that the two of us first met one-on-one—I was 22 or 23 years old at the time—and I ordered myself a gin and tonic, I don’t know why because I never drank alcohol and I have no tolerance for drinking. I probably wanted to look interesting. Osvaldo was drinking coffee. Later, in all our years of friendship, he would remember thinking at that moment, “This guy is one of my people.” I remember one time—I still hadn’t published anything—he said to me, “You’re a great writer.” Then another day he decided to be more specific and he said, “You’re a great writer, but not like these writers, more like Thomas Mann or Borges.”
MM And what did he mean by that?
CA I continue to ask myself that question to this day.
MM You make a case for the avant-garde—
CA I’m not entirely sincere in that. “Avant-garde” is a military term, and to be a real member of the avant-garde you have to have an impulse toward destruction. And I try to construct. I’m a man of letters and I have the good fortune of liking it all. For example, the poet Marianne Moore has always been a model for me, and everything that wasn’t as strict, mechanical, and aloof as her writing seemed sentimental, pathetic, and affected to me. But lately, perhaps because of the natural softening that comes with age, I have begun to appreciate poets with a more “human” side, like Elizabeth Bishop. And it’s not that now I appreciate Moore less. Actually, these changes in my own taste don’t surprise me. I am eclectic. I make it so that sooner or later I like everything I read, or almost everything. Lately I’ve been reading John Ashbery. I had read his older books and they didn’t seem like anything special until, just recently, I found a poem in an American magazine and saw that he had become wilder and had captured that atmosphere of the first Surrealist poets, and so I liked him.
MM You wrote about the classic early 20th-century writer Roberto Arlt. You’re captivated by his inventiveness, which seems so contemporary.
CA Maybe he’s not as good as we make ourselves believe. We have Borges, which forces us to go in search of someone else so we can say that there is more than one writer in the Argentine canon. Readers are ahead of globalization. If at a certain time I had to choose between reading the Argentine Groussac or Proust, I would read Proust. For me reading and writing both have to do with the freedom that we lack in our social life. I always say that I’m a man of letters, but that doesn’t mean that I’m disconnected from everything else. Once I was on a plane with a literary critic, we were going to a literature conference and I saw that Robert Duvall was in a nearby seat. I told the critic and he replied, “I don’t know of any Duvall in this conference.”
MM You admit to lying according to your whims. At any rate, in interviews you insist that you write every day, but very little.
CA For me writing has always been a pleasure, a continuation of the system of reading. I write very little because I happen to write very slowly, and I think about every word, every paragraph. I have a whole fetish for paper, notebooks, pens. I use very fine notebooks, smooth, without lines or grids, spiral-bound. There is a man at Casa Wussmann who supplies them to me. Wussmann makes the bills for the national mint. The bills are printed in a tightly secured space on the premises. Before, the Espasa Calpe press used to print bills. I buy paper at Wussmann because of the quality of what I find there: the ink flows well on their paper. So I’m showing off my frustrated vocation as a visual artist. For me, writing bears a resemblance to drawing in the selection of materials, but, above all, because what I write always has a visual component. I make a kind of written drawing that disappears once it undergoes transformations. My Montblanc, which is the pen I use regularly, is refilled with cartridges of black ink. Yesterday I was walking through Recoleta and I went by the Vuitton house because I have a Vuitton pen and they have some great ink, and I bought a box of cartridges. I like ink to be fluid and shiny.
MM So that it stays a little moist and can be smeared? Ink with suspense to it?
CA That doesn’t happen if I’m using good paper. Sometimes there are surprises, though! We were saying that I’m not concerned with the sensuality of words. Well, in my case, perhaps we’re not dealing with a search for sensuality but rather for elegance.
MM Elegance in slowness: you’re like dandies and turtles. If I saw you writing, would I notice your hand going from left to right and right to left or rather writing one sentence and pausing?
CA Pausing, absolutely. That’s why I like writing in cafés. I’ll write a little there, a page or page and a half a day, look around, watch people, things. I need to have a mixture of concentration and distraction when I write. I have tried writing alone at home but it doesn’t work very well for me. There I’m looking at the wall, which I’m always looking at. I come back from the café, go to the computer, and throw out the handwritten page.
MM Che! And what about genetic criticism then? The criticism based on the work’s origins and subsequent transformations?
CA It’s curious, now that you’ve made me think about it, I’d argue that in literary projects, or artistic projects in general, the process is what is valuable, not the result. And, nonetheless, I trouble myself with methodically erasing the traces of the process, making all notes and manuscripts disappear. Perhaps there’s no contradiction if the intention is for everything to be part of the process, including (and above all) the result, and for nothing to be there to distract from that.
MM So does the café scene enter into the text?
CA Sometimes it does, as do the random things that happen that day. If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing—it did happen once—it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.
CA For example, if I’m writing a scene about a couple, a marital spat in a house with closed windows and doors. . . . So, I make the bird appear flapping around among the furniture, and I find a way for the bird to have a reason for appearing in the story. It could be a mechanical bird designed by an engineer who was the woman’s first husband, whom her present husband thought was dead, but the engineer faked his own death to escape justice—he had invented killer mechanical pigeons. He continues to live under a false identity, and she’s discovered him and is blackmailing him. . . . It could be this or anything else. In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion. I always think of something. And what I think of also changes the course of the plot. Since the next day something different will happen at the café, the plot continues to change accordingly. That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot.
MM Are you capable of taking a break in a scene? Or do you not stop writing until you finish it? For example, that memorable scene in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter where the painter, who’s riding on horseback during a storm, is hit by bolt after bolt of lightning.
CA Let’s not get carried away. I take breaks.
MM There is a detailed description of the man, who in spite of the storm remains mounted on his horse, and then the horse’s electrified fur—I’m not sure this is very scientific—becomes a magnet, and the man finally falls off and ends up hanging by the stirrup due to an effect of “electrical elongation” that I’m also not sure is scientific. Isn’t this a hard scene during which to take a break?
CA One of the few good pieces of advice Hemingway gave—he himself surely received it from someone else—was not to go on writing in one sitting until you’ve used up everything you’ve thought of, but to break at a moment when you do know how to go on. In that way you avoid, when you sit down to write the next day, the “blank-page syndrome.” It’s fairly obvious, like all good advice. In general I don’t have much faith in writers’ advice about the subject of writing, because literature is an activity that is so odd, so personal, so particular, that it can never fall under any generalization. When all is said and done, the first and last merit of a writer is to be different. So I’m a little like Scheherazade, who knew the next day how she was going to continue. I get to the end of an episode and of something that I had thought about up to that point and then stop. Maybe I’ll stop for two weeks, a month, always thinking that something will occur to me that way. The days go by, and absolutely nothing occurs to me, but when I decide to continue, I just continue and then things start to occur to me again.
MM Brooding over the text doesn’t give you ideas?
CA Ideas don’t occur to me in a void, but rather when I’m writing. For example, when I was writing the novel El juego de los mundos (The game of the worlds), which is science fiction, the idea was that in a remote future a man was worried about the possibility that the idea of God, which had been happily eliminated by humanity centuries before, would be reintroduced to the world. My whole plan for writing that novel was for it to end with a face-to-face confrontation between the protagonist and God. But when I got to the last chapter I felt that there were so many characterizations I could give to God that I was paralyzed because of embarras de choix. I bring this up because I’ve noticed that when something like that happens to me, when I decide against some continuation or another, and I suspend my work while I wait for inspiration, I can spend months waiting and nothing will occur to me. In the end, I sit down to write that continuation when I’m convinced that it’s useless to go on waiting, and as soon as I start, the ideas come, and I write them down. The moral of the story is that I can’t write other than when I’m writing. That’s what happened to me with El juego de los mundos: after spending a year waiting for the right God to appear, I just sat down to write. I should have said, “Let it be whatever God wills.” And what occurred to me was a spider God with a blonde wig who played soccer.
MM Do you have some problem with Catholics?
CA Not in that novel. Another time I was writing something and I somewhere read the sentence, “Catholics worship a bleeding marionette.” I liked it and I used it. And like I always do, I built a context around it—the character went into a convent, etc. A Mexican critic, who must have been Catholic, was scandalized by what he considered to be a terrible blasphemy. But everything that’s said in a novel, at least in a novel like mine, is fictional, and the only meaning that it has is aesthetic. In that case I had simply thought about the fact that marionettes’ strings come out of a kind of cross.
MM You write very little, yet you’re prolific.
CA I’ve always thought that in order to be prolific you don’t really have to write a lot, it’s sufficient just to write well. Writing a lot is what a monkey does when they sit him in front of a typewriter. Physically, I could write ten pages a day, but what’s important is for them to be of some value, that somebody will be interested in reading them, and that they can be published. I’ve realized that the perfect length for what I do is 100 pages. In my brevity there may be an element of insecurity. I wouldn’t dare give a 1,000-page novel to a reader. Once the Argentine novelist Rodrigo Fresán and I made the calculations, and he writes in two weeks—working on a newspaper, two magazines, and writing his own novel—what I write in a year. My novels became shorter as I became more renowned. People now allow me to do whatever I want. At any rate, publishers prefer thick books. But with books, the thicker they are, the less literature they have.
MM Do you think about the reader?
CA I think about the reader I am, one who’s looking for something believable, a work with an almost conventional storyline that can be read like an old novel although very strange things are happening. With the passing of time, a little club of my readers has come about, whom I know now. I know how they react, I am part of them. Speaking of my readers, once I was walking through the Flores neighborhood on a very solitary street and I crossed paths with a man who said, “Hi, Aira!” I looked at him thinking, “Where do I know him from?” And he said, “Don’t worry, you don’t know me, I’m a reader, a humble reader.” Humble reader? He might be a humble reader of Isabel Allende. A reader of mine is a deluxe reader, not because I’m so great but because in order to get to me you have to take a path through literature, not through some books bought out of curiosity at the bookstore. A reader of mine has to have read other things. Once, they published my novel La guerra de los gimnasios (The war of the gyms) in the newspaper La Nación. It was a mistake because people who read the paper buy books automatically, and a book of mine that falls into the hands of someone who’s not up on the topic of contemporary literature. . . . At any rate, there were people calling me on the phone—by the way, I’m in the phone book—to complain. They practically asked me to give them their money back. That’s why I publish with presses that are already formatted for a certain audience looking for that.
MM You’ve got a number of “offspring” who curiously take from your work the succession of unforeseen adventures, the allusions to television, and the outrageous.
CA When I read their novels I understand elements in my writing. A while ago a guy showed me something that was some kind of pastiche of one of my own. I read it and it gave me the distinct impression that it was a novel of mine written in prose. I realized that what I produce, in spite of the neutrality that I seek by way of a transparent narrative, has a poetic effort that is present in all of my themes and characters.
MM In every one of your novels you give the impression that you hold dominion over a quantity of fields of knowledge—physics, geography, art history—and that those fields don’t function as add-ons, or what David Viñas calls “recent erudition.”
CA Raymond Roussel said that he had gone all over the world, but that there wasn’t any of that in his books. In just the same way, a little novel that I published not long ago, Las conversaciones (The conversations), takes place in Ukraine. So, I don’t know if it was when it was published or afterward, I commented to a friend, “I wrote a novel about the mountains of Ukraine, and I don’t know if there are mountains in Ukraine.” Then she went to Wikipedia and told me, “There are the such-and-such mountains.” What does it matter?
MM But there you also talk about the Baku oil pipeline, which really exists, and you locate the rivers Dnieper, Dniester, and Dnierer, and the high plains of Poltava. Either you always consult Wikipedia or the school you went to in Pringles is incredible.
CA I located the action of that novel in Ukraine, but it could have been any other place. I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, anything about Ukraine. But now I remember that when I was writing it I looked at an encyclopedia, and I saw that Ukraine produces arrabio, cast iron. I didn’t know what arrabio was, but I liked the term, and I made the villains belong to the “arrabio mafia.”
MM What doesn’t seem right is, at least in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, your “neurological vision,” those nerves that are quickly cut off in the painter’s head after his accident . . .
CA They once published the papers from a small interdisciplinary conference about that novel: there was a historian, an art critic, and a doctor who pointed out to me the errors in my description of that nerve that had become encapsulated after the accident but that, after worsening, had gotten entangled in some center of the frontal lobe, causing the painter to suffer terrible migraines. I didn’t read the whole book but I did read that chapter because I wanted to see to what extent my ideas about human physiology were based on fantasy.
MM Las conversaciones is an entire literary theory of verisimilitude, almost a problematic response to Barthes’s anthology. When there is an improbable event, in order to make it believable, do you feel obligated to keep the story going? Does having to correct a problem of that kind guarantee the forward movement of your prose?
CA Sometimes I start with an anecdote. In Las conversaciones the idea was for there to be two men casually speaking—they would meet up every day in a bar to talk about philosophical themes, and they’re convinced of the top-notch level of their conversations up until the point that the narrator discovers that the other one is saying something so stupid that he must have been a fool all along. From there I threw myself into the invention of what the conversations were, what the mistake would be, how everything would be resolved. Verisimilitude is sacred to me; I think it is for every novelist. You become a novelist out of love for verisimilitude. However, with my use of chance—the little bird, my innate taste for surrealism—maintaining verisimilitude is a challenge. In order to put myself up to the task I have to keep upping the ante of invention. That surreal scene in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter in which the Indian, instead of seizing a woman captive, takes a fish, occurred to me while I was looking at Rugendas’s El Malón in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Of course, I was interested in it having some verisimilitude; I knew that in the mountain rivers of the south there were salmon.
MM Critics speak of a supposed autobiographical turn in Argentine literature. You tend to invent, in some novels, autobiographical “versions” of yourself.
CA Ninety percent of the novels that are being published now are autobiographies of stereotypical lives. They all start with, “I got up in the morning, someone rang my doorbell, I drank some mate,” and the inspiration ends there. The themes are, “my husband died,” “my girlfriend left me,” or “I got a zit.” Autobiographical material runs out. I’ve always thought that the hard thing isn’t writing, the hard thing is to keep finding the stimulus to go on writing. If you’re going to express what you have inside, your opinions, what happened to you in your life, your family relationship, you’ll run out of that stimulus. In that sense I have no trouble, because in my work everything is invented, and I can go on inventing indefinitely.
Tranlsated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.
—María Moreno, one of Argentina’s leading chroniclers, is a journalist and a novelist whose books include El affaire Skeffington. In 2005 she published Vida de vivos (Life of the living), a collection of “incidental conversations” with a wide range of Argentine public figures. Her most recent book, Banco a la sombra (Bench in the shade), weaves anecdotes about parks around the globe. In 2002 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship.