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Serendipity: Summoning Up the Genie

César Aira

César Aira

I have written before a couple of times about Argentinian author César Aira, the man from Coronel Pringles (not related to the potato chip). Today, in the August 13, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books, I finally read an article that seems to understand him. It is called “Staggering Local Wonderlands” and written by Geoffrey O’Brien, For your delectation, here are the concluding paragraphs of the article:

Finally one sticks around because of the tantalizing possibility that Aira may yet get to the bottom of something that seems to have no bottom. He is the master of a method whose application and ultimate purpose remain in perpetual doubt. He might be a rationalist demonstrating the irrationality of what is; a naturalist of the impossible; a maker of allegories, or of parodistic pastiches of allegories, of parables whose precise lessons deliberately elude clarification. He is just as likely demonstrating that such forms as allegory and parable are no more than imperfect attempts to capture a reality more elusive—“real reality, so distinct from the pale fantasies of reason” (The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, 2002). Aira seeks to improve on such earlier, approximate methods by means of his mad-scientist investigation into the neurology of story-making.

The act of storytelling is nowadays conventionally prized for its universal, ageless, benevolent associations. It is our shared heritage of magic; it is a defining human trait. With Aira we are just as aware of the essential cruelty of storytelling—or rather its cosmic indifference, an indifference only partly disguised in the oldest myths and legends and fairy tales. Finally there is nothing to cling to. Emotions are free-floating, personhood itself is free-floating—a state of affairs only thinly masked by the reassuring “thereness” of the voice-over commentary. The stories here do have a life of their own, and it is a life offering much surprise, much humor, much brilliance of observation and invention, but little in the way of even momentary consolation. They summon up a genie who can do everything but fulfill our wishes.

The reader feels at moments as if he has washed up in some successor state of literature, in which outward forms, characteristic tropes and techniques, are carefully maintained, but where former purposes have given way to some new and not yet decipherable intent. Yet in such a situation the old forms are perhaps more potent than ever: they regain the mystery of the incomprehensible that stories are always promising, in vain, to explicate. One of the stories in The Musical Brain begins: “Circumstances had reduced me to begging in the street”: a perfect narrative set-up for The Arabian Nights, that most wonderful, as well as supremely cruel, work. Aira’s reconceiving of such a compendium of all possible stories might be called an Arabian Nights of the corner drugstore; but then it is fair to say that The Arabian Nights itself was an Arabian Nights of the corner drugstore.