by César Aira
translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions, 2019
The Argentinian writer César Aira is famous for his absurd prolificity; since the early nineties, he’s published a handful of novellas every year. From a marketing standpoint, this output is a dream. His seemingly mass-produced novellas often have exciting, semi-fabulist premises (like Dinner, an artsy take on the zombie apocalypse); they come in a guaranteeably palatable length (about 90 pages), and, by virtue of Aira’s gadarene process of composition, which eschews any preoccupations with literary style, are fairly quick and painless to translate.
With many of his relatively traditional, story-driven works having already appeared in English, the emphasis in translating Aira seems to have turned to his more reflective, and reflexive, works. This February saw the release of Birthday, a strange sort of author’s manifesto, and an apologia for Aira’s own discursiveness. Essentially, Birthday is an attempt by the author to get control of his mind, to come to terms with his greatest weakness: “distraction.” The ironic underpinning of the work, of course, is that Aira’s yen for distraction is part of the generative force behind his writings, and one of the main reasons for his fame.
Birthday, like many of Aira’s writings, is basically structureless. Famously, Aira doesn’t revise his writings—he follows his pinballing thoughts and surmises wherever they lead him, refusing to reverse course when he’s launched himself into a plot hole, instead forging blindly ahead, arriving, by this method, at a playful form of literary invention. Birthday begins with an evening in the fiftieth year of Aira’s life, when he discovers, on a moonlit walk with his wife, that a certain fact about the moon that he’d long taken for granted is in fact completely wrong, likely nothing more than a childhood supposition that had gone unexamined in his mind for decades.
Aira vows to discover the exact moment when he’d settled on this false theory, though that task, which is essentially impossible (“That faraway past is an inextricable blend of forgetting and invention, from which stray fragments emerge by chance”) and anyway pointless, quickly falls by the wayside, as Aira uses it to springboard a broader investigation into the origins of his “failure” at life, and the ways in which this failure influenced his style of writing. “My main fault, and the root of all the others,” he writes, “is the lack of a stable and predictable rhythm in which acts and ideas would find their places one after another.”
What Aira ultimately longs for is continuity of expression, and the continuity of consciousness that would come with it: “I would like to have style; if I did, all my experiences would be connected; my acts and thoughts would follow one another for a reason, not just by chance or on a whim.” As it is, though, he’s unequipped to write continuously: “My style is irregular: scatterbrained, spasmodic, jokey—necessarily jokey because I have to justify the unjustifiable by saying that I didn’t mean it seriously.” This description goes a long way towards explaining why Aira, with his unsatisfactory armchair theorizing, can sometimes come off as a lazy ironist; the self-conscious remove, the too-light touch aren’t core parts of his strategy, but simply patches on a sinking ship, admissions of failure.
Birthday’s ten short chapters aren’t simply internally rambling; they bear only the sparest connection to one another. The book contains a disquisition on the “Encyclopedia,” a Borgesian literary enterprise of Aira’s which serves as a warehouse for his aimless research; a chapter about the death of the French mathematician Évariste Galois; a playful hermeneutic probing of the Last Judgment; and an encounter with a young religious waitress in the Café del Avenida in Pringles who, when she fails to show up at the café again, elicits one of the book’s most poignant asides:
The lives of strangers have their own rules, which differ from case to case, and anyone who tries to deduce them from a chance meeting is bound to get lost in an ocean of conjectures. It’s strange to think that even the most predictable creature of habit, like myself, might, from a stranger’s point of view, appear and disappear in an apparently random fashion.
As with many of Aira’s novelettes, there’s something dry, almost aseptic about Birthday. In the chapter on Galois, a famed mathematician who, after challenging a man to a duel, composed his entire life’s work in a single night, Aira considers the impossibility of a novelist getting away with a similar trick, though he cedes it’s a mechanism he’s been pursuing all his life: “I was searching for a system that would allow me to write all my novels on the last night.” It’s a lovely line, tinged with romanticism and the moonlight of impossibility, but, surrounded as it is by the jangle of his jerky prose, it rings hollow.
Aira’s lack of a larger schema under which his atomism of speculations would fall into order ultimately makes Birthday an unsatisfying venture. In a strange rumination on whether the central point of a circle can be said to turn when the circumference turns, Aira asks his son’s opinion and is promptly scoffed at. Perhaps, his son explains, if the circle were real, with a physical point, then Aira’s question might have weight, but a “mathematical point” is something completely different. Aira finds this hairsplitting ridiculous: “Reality is complicated enough already; why burden it with pedantic fictions?” As a reader, you’re tempted to scribble in the margins of your copy of Birthday: “Look who’s talking.”
—Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick.