Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read the first chapter of César Aira’s new novel, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, selected by Fiction Editors Rosie Parker and Rachel Mercer.
One day at dawn, Dr. Aira found himself walking down a treelined street in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same. His life was that of a half-distracted, half-attentive walker (half absent, half present) who by means of such alternations created his own continuity, that is to say, his style, or in other words and to close the circle, his life; and so it would be until his life reached its end—when he died. As he was approaching fifty, that endpoint, coming sooner or later, could occur at any moment.
A beautiful Lebanese cedar along the verge of a pretentious little street lifted its proud rounded crown into the pinkish-gray air. He stopped to contemplate it, overwhelmed with admiration and affection. He addressed it in pectore with a short speech that combined eulogy, devotion (a request for protection), and, oddly enough, a few descriptive features; for he had noticed that after a time, devotion tended to become somewhat abstract and automatic. In this case, he noticed that the crown of the tree was both barren and leafy; the sky could be seen through it, yet it had foliage. Standing on his tiptoes to look more closely at the lower branches (he was very nearsighted), he saw that the leaves, which were like small, olive-green feathers, were partially coiled around each other, it was the end of fall, and the trees were struggling to survive.
“I honestly don’t believe that humanity can continue much longer on this path. Our species has reached a point of such dominance on the planet that it no longer has to confront any serious threat, and it seems that all we can do is continue to live, enjoying what we can without having to risk anything. And we keep moving forward in that direction, securing what is already safe. With each advance, or retreat, no matter how gradual, irreversible thresholds are crossed, and who knows which we have already crossed or are crossing at this very moment. Thresholds that could make Nature react, if we understand by Nature, life’s general regulatory mechanism. Maybe this frivolity we’ve achieved has irritated Her; maybe She cannot allow one species, not even our own, to be freed from its most basic needs . . . Of course I am personalizing this quite perversely, reifying and externalizing forces that exist within us, but it doesn’t matter because I understand myself.”
Such things to say to a tree!
“It’s not that I’m prophesying anything, especially not catastrophes and plagues, not even subtle ones, no way! If my reasoning is correct, the corrective mechanisms are at work within our present state of well-being and as a part of it . . . I just don’t know how.”
He had started walking and was already at some distance from the tree. Every now and then he would stop again, and with a look of deep concentration he would stare at some random spot in his surroundings. These were abrupt stops, which lasted about half a minute and did not occur with any discernible regularity. He alone knew what they were in response to, and it was improbable that he would ever tell anybody. They were stops of embarrassment; they coincided with a memory, which emerged out of the folds of his idle digressions, of a blunder. It wasn’t as if he enjoyed these memories, on the contrary; he simply could not prevent them from rising suddenly in his mental tide. And such an appearance was powerful enough to paralyze his legs, make him stand still, and he would have to wait for a fresh impetus to start walking again. Time lifted him out of the shame of the past . . . It had already done so; it had already carried him into the present. Such blunders were cessations of time, where everything coagulated. They were mere memories, stored away in the most impregnable of safe boxes, one no stranger could open.
They were small, ridiculous, and perfectly private disgraces—a moment of awkwardness, a faux pas, which had affected nobody but himself; they had made strong impressions on him, clots of meaning that blocked the flow of events. For some reason, they were irreducible. They resisted translation, such as a transfer to the present. Whenever they appeared, they paralyzed him in the middle of his somnambulistic activities, which is what would bring them out of their labyrinthine lair of the past. The more he walked, the greater the chance that he would catch one, against his will. This turned his endless strolls into trajectories through the bifurcated maze of his youthful past. Perhaps, after all, there was some kind of regularity that drew a pattern through space-time, these cessations creating an empty distance . . . But he would never be able to find a solution to his strange theorem if he couldn’t explain why his steps stopped whenever a memory of this kind made its appearance; standing still and staring at one spot could be explained as an attempt to dissemble, perhaps pretend that this spot interested him so much that he had no choice but to stop. But the cessation in itself, the relationship between the blunder and paralysis, remained obscure, as long as he did not resort to psychological interpretations. Perhaps the key could be found in the very nature of those embarrassing moments, in their essence or common denominator. If that were the case, what was happening was a repetition compulsion in its most purely formal aspect.
Digging deeper into the issue, of course, was the fact that these blunders had occurred. They happen to everybody. They are the inevitable result of sociability, and the only solution is to forget. Truly, the only one, because time doesn’t go backwards, so they cannot be fixed or erased. And because he could not depend on forgetting (he had the memory of an elephant), he had taken recourse in solitude, in almost complete isolation from his fellows, in this way guaranteeing at least the minimization of the effects of his incurable awkwardness, his bewilderment. And his somnambulism, which existed on a different level of his consciousness and his intentionality, should move in the same direction, like an a posteriori redemption, if in fact a somnambulist acted with the elegance of perfect efficiency.
To be honest with himself, he had to admit that blunders were not the only issue; the common denominator actually was spread along a rather sinuous path, which turned out to be not so easy to follow. Or perhaps one had to broaden the definition of a blunder: it could also include small infamies, acts of stinginess, accounting errors, cowardice; in other words, anything that feeds retrospective and private shame. And it was not as if he blamed himself (though during those stops a voice inside would shout: “What an idiot! What an idiot!”), for he had admitted they were inevitable at the moment they had occurred. At least he took comfort in their insignificance, for they had never been crimes, nor had there ever been any victims other than his own self-esteem.
In any case, he had promised himself they would never happen again. To achieve this he didn’t need to do anything but remain alert and avoid precipitous behavior, always acting within the rules of honor and a proper upbringing. In his practice as a miracle healer, a blunder could have dire consequences.
In a novel, blunders are set up with great deliberation, with ingenuity and care, which is quite paradoxical, for it turns out to be more natural and spontaneous to write a scene in which everybody behaves properly. Dr. Aira equated every act that was morally, intellectually, or socially wrong with an act of violence, one that left a scar on the eminently smooth skin of his ideal behavior. He was one of those men who could not conceive of violence. Although he knew this to be absurd, he could not help imagining that were he to find himself in a robbers’ cave, for example, among the most brutal of criminals, he would be able to avoid violence if he behaved reasonably, talking and listening to others’ opinions and expressing his own. Even if the situation was ripe for violence, even if the robbers had caught him spying . . . But how could they have caught him if he himself had not planned his intrusion? And he had sworn he’d never again get himself into an awkward situation like that. It’s true that he could have entered that hypothetical cave by mistake, thinking it was empty and unoccupied; that’s where paying attention came into play—that he should always be awake, never blink. Which was easier said than done, though to achieve it, he had a practice, an ascesis, which he had made his life plan. Even so, a miraculous incident could occur in which he suddenly opened his eyes and found himself in a cave full of stolen goods, and before he had time to react a gang of suspicious- looking subjects entered . . . Of course, he was smack in the middle of the realm of the imaginary, of remote possibilities. Once he was there with them, what would prevent him from establishing a civilized conversation with the robbers, getting them to understand what had happened, the teleporting, the somnambulism . . . ? But in that case the robbers would also be part of the fiction, the theory, and his persuasive success would have no demonstrative value. Real reality was comprised of blood and blows and shouts and the slamming of doors. In the long run, the glaze of courtesy got scratched, if not from the causal line of facts then from another, inevitably, from the line that emerged out of the bifurcation of time.
An enormous dog lying at the entrance to an auto repair shop stood up when it saw him then bared its teeth. He instantaneously broke out in a cold sweat. What an incredible lack of consideration on the part of the owners of these animals, leaving them loose on the sidewalk and responding to any complaint with the familiar, “He’s friendly, he won’t do anything.” They say it with total sincerity, and full conviction, but they haven’t stopped to think that nobody else has any reason to share that conviction, much less so when facing a black mantle the size of a motorbike hurtling toward them . . .
His first encounter with the world of paranormal medicine had been through dogs. When he was a child in the town of Coronel Pringles, Mayor Uthurralt issued an order mercilessly expelling all of them from the city limits, without exception or appeal. Fear alone (it was the era of the terrible polio epidemic) guaranteed compliance, this in spite of the usually strong attachment between pets and their owners. Moreover, the expulsion was temporary, though it ended up lasting three years, and nobody had to really get rid of their pets: all they had to do was find a place for them somewhere in the countryside. In a town that lived off rural activities, everybody had a friend or relative with a plot of land nearby, and that’s where the dogs were sent. The problem was that the only veterinarian in Pringles was separated from his patients, and although he accepted having to travel to treat them (he had no choice if he wanted to keep working), the process was expensive and bothersome. And it made it difficult to neuter male puppies when they reached reproductive age, operations that had become that much more urgent under the present circumstances. Faced with the truly ghastly alternative of handing them over to farm hands, who could carry out the brutal procedure only with a branding iron and without any sterilization, some doled out a lot of money, others shut their eyes, most hesitated . . . It was an opportunity for a local photographer, nicknamed the Madman, to start a business of long distance, painless neutering, which became all the rage in Pringles during that period. Dr. Aira, at the time a child of eight, heard of this through rumors that had been grossly distorted in the echo chamber of his childhood circle. At that time, such subjects were rarely discussed, especially in a decent middle-class family; his little friends, all from poor families because he lived in a neighborhood of hovels, did not suffer from this disadvantage, but their families’ amazing ignorance and credulity fully compensated for this lack.
The Madman’s method was of exemplary absurdity, for it consisted of a fairly long series of penicillin shots given to the dogs’ owners, shots that neutered the animal in absentia. At least that’s what could be garnered from the stories that were making the rounds. He could never find out anything more, and perhaps there was nothing more. Nor did he ever learn in any reliable way if anyone had actually agreed to submit to this strange treatment. But this information was enough for him to reinvent on his own the possibility of action from a distance, of discontinuous efficiency, one that created a new continuum out of heterogeneous elements, and from then on his entire mental landscape was based on this premise. Soon thereafter the Madman’s method ceased to be used (if it ever had been in reality), this in the wake of a scandal of vast proportions. A headless dog was born on a nearby farm, a cocker spaniel whose body stopped at his neck but who nevertheless survived and even grew to adulthood.
Inevitably, popular imagination connected one thing to the other, and the Madman, perhaps also frightened by the effects of his manipulations, threw in the towel, for the time being. Dr. Aira didn’t know what ever happened to that dog; at some point it must have died, like any other dog. Many people in the town went to see it (it hadn’t been sent away). Apparently, the animal was very lively: hyperactive as well as acephalous. Its nervous system ended in a bulb on top of its neck, and this protuberance, like a Rosetta Stone, was covered with markings that represented eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, scribbles it made do with. Under other circumstances the fact that such a monster was viable would have attracted the attention of scientists all around the world; it should have been considered a kind of miracle. But country folks are accustomed to such miracles—paradoxically, they used to be more accustomed to them, back then when they lived in greater isolation, without radio or television or magazines; their entire world was the small world they lived in, and their laws made room for exceptions and extensions, as a totality always does.
If this had happened with a dog, why couldn’t it happen with a man? This possibility, the infinite and infinitely fantastic possibility, established the always so immediate limitations of reason. All that polite reasoning he planned to use with the robbers in the cave showed itself to be just one form, a form contiguous with life’s many violent insanities. Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges. The fact that he had extended its reach to cover everything, like a panacea he hoped would make up for the shortcomings of action, was simply a personal quirk, and a very symptomatic one: it showed his true colors and the error in which he lived. Because those eminently reasonable characters he so much admired and whom he modeled himself after (like Mariano Grondona), were considered reasonable only pour la galerie—that’s how they made their living—but they also had a real life in which they were not reasonable, or they were only intermittently and carelessly so, depending on the circumstances, as these things should be. In order for action to be effective, one had to depart from the purely reasonable, which would always be an abstract way of thinking devoid of any truly practical use.
One could depart through realism. Realism was obviously a representation, but precisely for this reason it could become a spontaneous way of being when applied to an entire discourse. Realism was a deviation from the reasonable; a theory pointed to a path that was a straight line, but the realistic man who knew how to live followed one that was roundabout and had twists and turns . . . each one of these detours away from the straight path was by nature and intention Evil. It didn’t matter that it was an attenuated Evil, one without consequences; its essence was still Evil, and it had to be for the detour to be effective and for realism to be created, and for reality to be seen through realism, finally, real reality, so distinct from the pale fantasies of reason . . . Perhaps there, in that eminently benevolent utility, resided Evil’s purpose.
An ambulance siren broke through the quiet morning air of the neighborhood, apparently in a great hurry but also apparently taking a quite roundabout route, coming and going through those small and empty streets as if it couldn’t find its way. The physical phenomenon that makes a siren sound different when it is approaching from when it is departing, even when the distances are equal, is well known. That difference allowed Dr. Aira to reconstruct the intricate route the ambulance was taking. This is what he had been doing for the past few minutes without realizing it, absorbed as he was in other thoughts and memories; now, with the dog hurling itself at him, he became alarmed when he realized that the sound, with all its comings and goings, was drawing a circle that was closing in on him . . . There it was again, that cursed ambulance, which had been pursuing him in dreams and throughout wakeful nights, in fantasy and reality, always driving with its siren blasting along the uncertain edge of two realms! Fortunately, it had never caught up with him. Like in a nightmare that is never consummated but for that very reason is even more nightmarish, at the very last minute, just when it was about to catch him, he would escape through the center of the labyrinth, though he never knew exactly how . . . That was the moment of extreme danger, with terror ripping through the seams of reality, when he would transfer that sense of danger to some other element, as he had just now done with the dog, thereby establishing a continuum and crossing over that bridge, heading in the opposite direction of that fear . . .
The siren’s sudden escalation to ultrasound, combined with a screech of brakes just inches away, shook him out of his daydream. The scene plunged into a present where there was no room for thinking. That’s why he needed a few seconds to realize that the ambulance had found him and that he didn’t know what to do. The unthinkable had finally occurred. The dog, caught in the middle of its leap by harmonies only it could hear, did a somersault in the air, then began racing around in circles.
He turned, gathering up his scattered dissembling reflexes, and adopted a casual expression, one of almost indifferent curiosity. Two young doctors were getting out of the ambulance and starting to walk toward him (in any case, they were only a step away) with a decisive air, while the driver, an enormous black man in a nurse’s uniform, got out of the side door and started walking around the vehicle. He froze, pale and with his mouth dry.
“Dr. Aira?” said one of the doctors, as if he were confirming rather than asking.
He nodded briefly. There was no point in denying it. He still couldn’t believe that the ambulance, after such a long time, after so many twists and turns, had actually reached him. But there it was, materialized and white, so real as to be almost unbearable. And it had lifted him out (the doctor’s words had proved it) of that urban anonymity where one watches ambulances drive by . . .
“We’ve been looking for you for a long time; you can’t imagine how hard you’ve made it for us.”
“At your house,” the other said, “they told us you had gone out for a walk, and we went out to find you . . .”
The driver joined the group and interrupted, jokingly:
“No chance in hell we would have imagined you’d walk straight down this street!”
The others chuckled with complicity, eager to get to the point; all three had spoken at once, and therein ended the introductory chat.
“I am Dr. Ferreyra, pleased to meet you,” said one of the doctors, holding out his hand, which Dr. Aira took mechanically. “We have a desperate case, and they have requested your intervention.”
“Come, let’s continue our conversation in the ‘living room’ so we don’t waste any more time.”
And in a split second, and with worrying ease, they were inside the ambulance, the huge black man was behind the wheel, and they took off like lightning—the siren wailing, trees and houses slipping past like screen shots, all accompanied by the dog’s furious barking . . . Dr. Aira’s attention collapsed with the excess. The two young doctors were talking constantly, taking turns or overlapping, their eyes flashing, their handsome, youthful faces bathed in an invisible sweat. He heard them (too well) but didn’t register what they were saying, which didn’t worry him at the moment as he was certain that they were simply reciting the script they’d memorized, which they would be able to repeat as many times as necessary; perhaps they were already repeating it. The first thing he asked himself, once he was able to think again, was why he had agreed to get into this vehicle. He justified it by saying that it had been the simplest thing to do, the one that created the fewest problems. Now all he had to do was get out and return home; they were not going to get too carried away with this masquerade, because then it would turn into a kidnapping, and they would get into trouble with the police. His only concern now (and it didn’t present an insurmountable obstacle) was to refuse their requests and suggestions, refuse everything.
Whenever an unexpected incident disrupted his plans, he would become completely bewildered; as this happened to him fairly frequently, he had invented a remedy and had assembled a small recuperation kit, which he always carried in his pocket. The theory behind this solution was that he needed to restore the use of his senses, one by one, and the certainty that once he’d recovered his awareness of his senses, his ideas would fall into place on their own. The kit consisted of: an ampoule of French perfume, whose rubber top had a dipper immersed in the liquid, which he could remove and rub under his nostrils; a small silver bell the size of a thimble with a wooden handle; a little doll shaped like a bear, made of rabbit fur with a velvet cap he could rub his fingertips against; a quartz die with phosphorescent-colored dots, twenty-one of them, along with some other colors; and a piece of mint candy. It was so practical that he could make use of the entire kit in a few seconds. He carried it in a little tin box in his jacket pocket. But he had to use it secretly, which was impossible on this occasion, so he left it in his pocket. Moreover, he didn’t need to recover any particular level of lucidity to do so, quite the contrary. He knew he had a tendency to think too much, and he could even fall into his own traps.
They were the ones setting the trap. All he had to do was get out of it. The trap consisted of making him think until he’d convinced himself that it wasn’t a trap.
“Forgive me, I still haven’t introduced myself,” the other doctor said. “I am Dr. Bianchi.”
They shook hands, without having to stretch out their arms because they were sitting so close to each other on the folding benches in the back of the ambulance.
This was his indication that they were willing to begin repeating the explanations, now with the advantage of pretending they were just filling in details that had been left unclear or ambiguous. And the fact was, in what followed Dr. Aira managed to catch the word “Piñero,” which he had been expecting without realizing it. All the persecution he and his art were subjected to was instigated by the sinister Dr. Actyn, chief of medicine at Piñero Hospital. All the attacks and the ambushes came from there, and led to there, to the old hospital in the Lower Flores District of Buenos Aires.
Okay, so what was it about this time? And what was it going to be about? He knew it by heart: a terminal patient, the failure of conventional treatments, the family’s anguish . . . The thematic spectrum was so limited . . . Always the same! All the old miseries, even more depressing when taken out of their framework of absolute truth, of all or nothing . . . Because a doctor, as opposed to a patient, could always try again, even when it wasn’t fictional, as it surely was here. The possibility that it was a lie contaminated the very truth it was based on: the plausible itself.
A small curtain divided the ambulance longitudinally. They pulled it back: there was the patient, strapped to the stretcher. So they’d brought him here! Those wretches stopped at nothing! “All’s fair in war,” Actyn must have thought.
The two doctors leaned over him with such intense, professional attention that they forgot about Dr. Aira; they checked his IV, his pupils, the blood pressure monitor, the electrical activity in his brain, the magnetic ventilator. The ambulance was one of those new intensive care units. The patient was a man of about forty-five who had evidently undergone radiation therapy because the left side of his skull was bald, and the ear on that side showed mutations. It almost seemed authentic . . . But he shouldn’t think. He turned and looked out the window. They were still driving straight down the same street where they’d found him, still at very high speed and with the siren blasting, racing through intersections like an arrow, one after another after another . . . Where were they going? The houses, swept away like exhalations in their wake, were all small and humble, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. They seemed to be accelerating constantly.
He started paying attention again because they were talking to him. They drew a clinical profile of the utmost gravity. The two doctors’ self-assurance was astounding; they used technical vocabulary as if they had been brought up surrounded by electronic circuits. All the machines were turned on, and they illustrated the points they were making by pointing to a blinking curve, a decimal number, an insulin intake chart. They had everything divided into zones on an undulating tridimensional grid that trembled on one of the screens like a multicolored cube of gelatin; they focused in on the numbers, which they entered into a wireless pocket keyboard.
“Are you familiar with this technology?” Ferreyra asked him upon noticing his astonishment. “It operates with induced evolving boards, made of dual proteins. Would you like to try?” he asked, handing him the keyboard.
“No! I’m afraid of doing something foolish.”
“You see, all these marvels of science cannot prevent . . . ”
Yeah, yeah, you can’t get me to bite that. Where’s the camera? It had undoubtedly been easy to hide among all those machines, and Actyn was probably watching him at that very moment, surrounded by his henchmen, recording everything. Now he understood why the ambulance kept driving in a straight line without turning down any side streets: turning interfered for a few instants with the transmission of the image, and Actyn didn’t want to miss a single second; this worried Dr. Aira, for it indicated that all they needed from him was a momentary slip . . .
What were they telling him? Had they reached the core of the issue?
“ . . . your gifts, Dr. Aira, though from our strictly rational point of view . . . ”
And the other, at the same time:
“ . . . everything possible is being done, technology helps use up all possibilities of action . . . ”
What this meant was that the deployment of incredible machines hastened the intervention of magical healers like himself, for conventional medical science could almost immediately reach its insurmountable limit. Which established a link between him and them, making more plausible their request for his intervention.
And what might that intervention be? To bring a goner back to life? Pull him back from the very brink of death. As if that were something out of the ordinary! Wasn’t this what always happened? Didn’t everybody in extremis get rescued? That was the normal mechanism of interaction between man and the world: reality would search for one more idea, search desperately for it when all ideas had already been thought . . . and it would find it in the nick of time.
Of course they were hoping to see the exotic and picturesque part of the operation, the grotesque magical ritual, the touch of the ridiculous that they would know how to draw attention to, the blunder they would publicize in the tabloids, the failure. And of course he would not give them that pleasure.
Because all of this was the same as a medical “hidden camera,” the difference being that they could no longer catch him off guard; they had already tried so many times that all they could do was risk “hiding the hidden,” hoping to slip it in between levels.
He watched them talk, his attention waxing and waning at irregular intervals, as a result of which the two enthusiastic and youthful—almost frenetic—faces he had so close to his began to seem unreal. And they were, he had no doubt about this, though only up to a certain point; because they did belong to two human beings of flesh and blood. The intensive use of hidden cameras in the last few years (in order to pull off all kinds of pranks, but also to catch corrupt officials, dishonest businessmen, tax evaders, and criminal infiltrators into the medical profession) required using up actors at a phenomenal rate, for they could never be employed a second time because of the risk of blowing their cover. They had to always be new, debutants; they couldn’t have appeared on any screen ever before, not even as extras, because given the high degree of distrust that had infiltrated society, the least hint of recognition was enough to ruin the operation. And that same, constantly increasing distrust forced actors to be constantly getting better, more believable. It was astonishing that they didn’t run out of them; of course, they didn’t need to be professionals (with the new Labor Contract Law, they were not strictly required to be members of the union), but in cases where a lot was at stake, it must have required a difficult decision to place the success or failure of an operation in the hands of an amateur.
These two were really good; they not only handled the jargon perfectly but they even had the gestures, tics, bearing, and voices of doctors . . . Perhaps they were doctors who were collaborating with Actyn out of conviction; in that case, they were new recruits, because Dr. Aira knew all the original fanatics. Actyn had the necessary prestige and charisma to keep acquiring new adherents to his cause, which he called the cause of Reason and Decency. But it was a fact that doctors were also human beings, subject to the vicissitudes of incurable diseases, and whoever got “burned” in front of Dr. Aira would then be unable to use his services, even if the case was desperate. Hence Actyn’s only option was to seek active supporters among the ranks of the youngest doctors, those who would least consider their personal risk. This explained why these two were so young.
Of course there was also the possibility that this was a real case. A very remote possibility, one in a million, yet it persisted as a pure possibility, lost among all the possibilities. In a different era, before these cursed spy technologies had been perfected, it would have been the opposite: the possibility that this was a performance would have been so improbable that he wouldn’t have even entertained the idea; in those days, whatever happened was inevitably considered real. But there was no point in lamenting the good old days, because historical circumstances formed a block: everything would have been different in days gone by; you wouldn’t have been able to record a blunder in order to broadcast it urbi et orbi, but miracles were accepted as a matter of course, because the precise boundary between what was and was not a miracle had not yet been established.
If he could trust in the existence of true symmetry, he might be able to hope, now that this boundary had been clearly drawn, that the corresponding boundary—the one that divided blunders from what were not blunders—would begin to dissolve.
Because blunders were a tributary of spontaneity, and without it, they would vanish like an illusion. In this respect, Actyn might have gone too far, and he might now be entering the arena where all his efforts were automatically sterile. Ever since he had decided to turn all his firepower against Dr. Aira and his Miracle Cures, he had burned through stages, unable to stop because of the very dynamic of the war, in which he was the one who took every initiative. In reality, he had overcome the first stages—those of direct confrontation, libel, defamation, and ridicule—in the blink of an eye, condemned as they were to inefficiency. Actyn had understood that he could never achieve results in those terrains. The historical reconstruction of a failure was by its very nature impossible; he ran the risk of reconstituting a success. He then moved on (but this was his initial proposition, the only one that justified him) to attempts to produce the complete scenario, to pluck one out of nothingness . . . He had no weapons besides those of performance, and he had been using them for years without respite. Dr. Aira, in the crosshairs, had gotten used to living as if he were crossing a minefield, in his case mined with the theatrical, which was constantly exploding. Fortunately they were invisible, intangible explosions, which enveloped him like air. Escaping from one trap didn’t mean anything, because his enemy was so stubborn he would set another one; one performance sprung from another; he was living in an unreal world. He could never know where his pursuer would stop, and in reality he never stopped, and at nothing. Actyn, in his eyes, was like one of those comic-book supervillains, who never pursues anything less than world domination . . . the only difference being that in this adventure it was Dr. Aira’s mental world that was at stake.
But, according to the law of the circle, everything flowed into its opposite, and the lie moved in a great curve toward the truth, theater toward reality . . . The authentic, the spontaneous, were on the reverse side of these transparencies.
Be that as it may, the ambulance kept driving, the dog kept barking like crazy at the wheels (the sound waves of the siren, which continued wailing, must have carried the ultrasound frequency of the television broadcast, which the animal perceived), and the two dimwits kept holding forth. Now their alternating discourses focused on the patient—his personal circumstances, his history. How had that poor devil ended up in the state he was in? In the usual way, one any doctor could discover on a daily basis in the majority of the population: an unnatural diet and the exacerbation of the passions. This was the deadly duo that caused more premature deaths than war. Dr. Aira was struck by this old-fashioned and solemn vocabulary, but he reflected that this anachronism was enough to suggest a second interpretation on the next level into which everything would be translated if he succumbed: the “deadly duo” would turn into the abuse of minors and the enthusiasm for televised soccer.
In any case, whatever they were saying served no purpose other than as visual backup for the dubbing they would add subsequently to the film. It might even have been planned in order to provoke from him certain responses that in the dubbed version would become replicas of other sentences; because the only voice they wouldn’t dub over would be his, but they could radically change the meaning based on the context, which they did plan to change.
One concept was repeated more often than the others: “vegetative state.” In fact, the organism had already passed into the realm of brainlessness, after which all that remained was to continue to exist, no longer act, only react to the environment; at this point it could absorb only the effect of the medicine, without any further possibility of assimilating it in order to transform its effects. Of course, the phrase could be erased from the tape, but if it was uttered in the ambulance it was in order to provoke a certain response. Actyn must have been aware of his conversations with trees (how did he find out, the rascal?) and was attacking on that flank.
He was reminded of an episode in an old gothic novel: a monk with apostatizing tendencies demanded a miracle in order to remain in the monastery, an impossible condition for he was sure there would be no miracle. His interlocutor told him that if it was necessary, God would produce a miracle to keep him in the fold, and he told him to suggest one. They were sitting in the monastery garden, at the foot of a majestic tree . . . The monk, somewhat at random, said he wanted “this tree to dry up.” Needless to say, the next morning the tree was desiccated (the monks, true infernal Actynes, used a lethal chemical). Dr. Aira, that impenitent flaneur, would have asked to “dry up all the trees in Buenos Aires,” the entire forest of strange crisscrossing lines he got lost in on a daily basis. And the miracle could occur! Or directly did occur . . . After all, they were at the end of autumn.
Where were they? Where were they taking him? Had they gone mad? Would desperation have led Actyn to seriously consider violence? José Bonifacio Street kept going, on and on, always in a straight line . . . Everybody thought the streets of Buenos Aires actually continued beyond the city limits, into the countryside, there turning into the streets of faraway towns, then again continuing into the countryside . . . Past the small windows, which he looked through out of the corner of his eye so as not to take his eyes off the two little doctors, he glimpsed an infinite expanse, which must have been the Pampa. If it was, something had happened, something far beyond a joke. Nothing could be more realistic or more normal than a straight line, but following it one could also move into the marvelous. He had a miniature vision inside his head: the ambulance driving through an infinite and empty desert, and the dog running alongside the wheel, barking . . . Finally he spoke, interrupting some elaborate nonsensical explanation in mid sentence—and they stopped talking, because this is what they wanted: for him to talk.
“The answer is no.”
“No what, doctor?”
“I’m not going to do anything for this man, or for anybody else. I never have and you know that very well.”
“But your gift, Dr. Aira . . . The Miracle Cures . . . ”
“No cures or curates, and no monks, either. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“What do you mean, you have no idea? So why are you famous? Why do all the terminal cases beg for you?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never . . . ”
“Is it an invention of the media? Why did we spend half the morning looking for you, wasting time we could have spent performing brain surgery? You’re not going to tell us we’ve been duped.”
“I’ve got nothing to do with it. I want to get out.”
They suddenly changed tactics. The screens all turned red and began to emit blood-curdling beeps (surely they had secretly pushed some button). They threw themselves over the stretcher, shouting:
“A systemic collapse! He’s failing! There’s nothing to be done!”
In spite of their pessimism, they worked like the devil, shouting at each other, even swearing, all in an attack of hysteria. They applied electric paddles to the poor man, who was turning blue, seizing, writhing. The odor of strange chemical substances made it impossible to breathe. At the same time, the huge nurse stepped on the gas, as if he’d also been infected, and shouted incoherent orders over the siren’s loudspeakers. Even the dog was going nuts. In the midst of this indescribable chaos, Ferreyra turned to him and shouted:
“Dr. Aira, this is our last chance. Do something! Save a life!”
“No, no . . . I have never . . . ”
“Do something! We’re losing him!”
He was groping behind him for the door handle. He had decided to throw himself out the door, if necessary while still in motion. Again they changed tactics. Suddenly, all the screens went blank, and everybody calmed down, as if by magic.
“We’ll take you home, don’t worry. The patient has died.”
“You’re going to have to sign a form . . . ”
“ . . . to explain the use of the ambulance.”
“I’ve got nothing to do with it.”
They had stopped. They opened the door. As he was getting out, the dead man said:
He could have sworn it was Actyn’s voice, which he’d only ever heard on television. He stepped onto the sidewalk and looked around. The dog had disappeared, and the ambulance had already taken off, accelerating loudly. It was only at that moment that he felt a wave of adrenaline washing over his insides. This lag, like jet lag, had rendered him ineffectual, for the chance to beat the hell out of those charlatans had already passed. The same thing always happened to him: his indignation, which was torturous, came afterwards when he was alone, when he couldn’t fight with anybody but himself. Always the same concatenation between time and blunders. A civilized person like him couldn’t lament not having engaged in a knock-down-drag-out, but there remained a question about whether he was a Real Man or a scurrying rat. He was two blocks away from his house. He looked at the trees, the large banana trees along José Bonifacio Street, and it occurred to him that they were machines designed to crush the world until the atoms were released. That’s how he felt, and this was the natural effect of theater. Who said that lies lead to the truth, that fiction flows into reality? Theater’s misfortune was this definitive and irreversible dissolution. That was also its gravity, above and beyond the iridescent lightness of fiction.
At least he’d come out of it unscathed. His morning adventure was over. Once again, Dr. Aira had escaped from the clutches of his relentless archenemy and could continue (but for how much longer?) his program of Miracle Cures.
César Aira’s novel The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, came out with New Directions on October 16. To order a copy of the book, click here. Read BOMB’s interview with Aira here.