Who Moves the Pieces?

Chess Pieces

Here is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s sonnets about chess. Except, as you can imagine, it is about more—a whole lot more.


Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
over the checkered black and white terrain
they seek out and begin their armed campaign

They do not know it is the player’s hand
that dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(the words are Omar’s) on another ground
where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

The translation is by Alastair Reid. Having just finished a cup of hot yerba mate at 9:30 in the evening, after having read a collection of Argentinean short stories by César Aira, I find myself, once again, drawn toward the land of the Sol de Mayo.

The Zombie Apocalypse Comes to Coronel Pringles

The Zombie Apocalypse Pays a Visit to South America

Who or why or what is Coronel Pringles? Actually, it’s a medium-sized town of no particular distinction in the Province of Buenos Aires, not too far north of Bahía Blanca. It is perhaps best known not only as the birthplace of Argentinian novelist César Aira, but the scene of several of his stories. One of these stories is Dinner (or Cena in Spanish), first published in 2006.

The story starts slowly enough with a penniless bachelor in his sixties who has moved back in with his mother. Together, they visit an unnamed friend of the unnamed narrator and view some of his collections. When they return home, the mother expresses dissatisfaction with the evening; and the son turns on the television … only to learn that the dead of Coronel Pringles are rising from their graves and attacking the living:

This was as improbable as an adolescent fantasy. It was, however, true. The guard who sounded the alarm first heard some rustling sounds that kept getting louder and spreading across the graveyard. He came out of the lodge to take a look and hadn’t even made it across the tiled courtyard to where the first lane of cypeses ended when, in addition to the worrisome rustlings, he began to hear the loud banging of stone and metal, which seconds later spread and combined into a deafening roar that reverberated near and far, from the first wing of the wall of niches to the rows of graves extending for more than a mile.

The Area Around Coronel Pringles

At first the newly risen dead show a lack of coordination, but they begin to pick up speed. “No two were the same, except in how horrible they were, in the conventional way corpses are horrible: shards of greenish skin, bearded skulls, remnants of eyes shining in bony sockets, sullied shrouds.”

What do these undead do? They go for the brains of the living (as expected), but what interests them most are the endorphins contained therein, which they suck out with ghoulish glee. Is there nothing that can stop these delinquent ancestors from decimating all of Coronel Pringles? Well, yes, there is, but you’ll have to read this short (101 pages) but delightful book for yourself to find out. Be prepared for a completely surprising dénouement in Part III.


The Magnificent Seven

Table for Two at La Biela: Statues of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

Table for Two at La Biela: Statues of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

At Recoleta’s busy La Biela Café, a table is permanently reserved for those two lions of Argentine literature: Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. They naturally belong together, as they were lifelong friends and collaborated together on several books.

In my readings of the literature of Argentina, I have come upon seven writers whose works are equal (when they don’t actually surpass) the best of European and American literature. I will confine my comments only to those works written in the 20th century, as earlier works, such as Hernandez’s Martin Fierro and Guiraldes’s Don Segunda Sombra belong more to the Gaucho myth than to literature.

Here are the seven writers whose works I recommend:

JORGE LUIS BORGES is, to my mind, one of the giants of 20th century literature. Although he never wrote any novels, his poems, short stories, and essays are must reads. Start with his collections Ficciones, Labyrinths, and The Aleph.

ADOLFO BIOY CASARES is not only Borges’s friend and collaborator, but is the author of several novels including The Invention of Morel and The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. He was married to

SILVINA OCAMPO. Together, they were known as Los Bioy. Her Kafkaesque short stories are collected in a volume called Thus Were Their Faces. She is the sister of Victoria Ocampo, founder and editor of Sur, a magazine and a noted publishing house.

CÉSAR AIRA is a recent find for me. I have written several blog postings about him and his highly original narrative style (resembling a Roomba vacuum cleaner that always moves forward). I particularly liked The Hare and The Seamstress and the Wind (my favorite novel about Patagonia).

JULIO CORTÁZAR is known primarily for being the author of the short story which Michelangelo Antonioni adapted into his film Blow Up. I think his short stories are his best work.

THOMAS ELOY MARTÍNEZ has written novels about the Peróns. My favorite is about the long journey taken by the body of Evita Perón after her death by Cancer: Santa Evita. Today, Evita’s corpse is finally at rest at Recoleta Cemetery under her maiden name, Duarte.

JUAN JOSÉ SAER writes about El Litoral, the area along the River Paraná centered around Santa Fe. I think he may be up there with Borges and Bioy Casares. Currently, I am reading The Clouds. Another excellent title is The Witness.

If you feel your reading is in a rut, I highly recommend you turn your attention South—way South—and read one of these Argentinean classics.



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.

Ghosts on the Pampas

Mapuche Indian Women

Mapuche Indian Women

One doesn’t hear much about the aboriginal population of Argentina. That is because, for the most part, the Indians of Argentina were done away with. Those who didn’t die of the white man’s diseases were rounded up and either executed or imprisoned during the 1870s under the “Conquest of the Desert” fomented by President Julio Argentino Roca (pictured below on the Argentinian 100 peso note).

Two Argentinian writers, however, did a fair job resuscitating the original peoples of the land. In The Witness, Juan José Saer writes of the fictional Colastiné who inhabited La Litoral along the Rio Paraná. A Spanish cabin boy is one of several prisoners from his 16th century landing party. His mates are all cooked and eaten in a cannibal feast. Yet there is a strange beauty to them:

For the Indians everything seems and nothing is. And the appearance of things is situated above all in the field of non-existence. The open beach, the transparent day, the cool green of the trees in spring, the otters with their smooth, rippling skin, the yellow sand, the golden-scaled fish, the moon, the sun, the air and the stars, the tools they skilfully and patiently fashioned from recalcitrant materials, in short everything that presented itself clearly to the senses was for them formless, and had a vague and sticky underside against which the darkness beat.

Saer’s Colastiné are true primitives, whereas César Aira’s Mapuche in The Hare are subtly ironic. Fortunately for them, the Mapuche survive today on the Chilean side of the Andes. (Unlike the Argentineans, the Chileans frequently intermarried with their tribal peoples.)

Argentine 100-Peso Note

Argentine 100-Peso Note

In The Hare, the narrator, Clarke, is an Englishman in search of the legendary Legibrerian Hare, which can not only run and leap, but fly when necessary. The Mapuche chief Calfucurá tells Clarke:

We have a word for “government” which signifies, in addition to a whole range of other things, a “path,” but not just an ordinary path—the path that certain animals take when they leap in a zigzag fashion, if you follow me; although at the same time we ignore their deviations to the right and left, which due to a secondary effect of the trajectory end up of course not being deviations at all, but a particular kind of straight line.

Both Saer and Aira are superb writers, and both capture in their own ways the peoples who came before them.

Dragged Kicking and Screaming into the 21st Century

A Brave New World

A Brave New World

It used to be that, in fiction, the story was king—partly, I think, because God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world. A few things have happened since then: two World Wars, terrorism on a global scale, Charles Darwin, contraception, quantum mechanics, the Internet, and the Atomic Bomb. Mind you, I still love the great storytellers, men like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nikolai Leskov (see illustration below), Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, the authors of the Icelandic sagas, and John Steinbeck. But the world has changed, or at least is in the process of changing, and the only people who still stick with the fundamentalist view of society are the United States (particularly in the Bible Belt) and the Middle East (with the Jihadists).

Slowly, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the postmodernist 21st century. In 1999, Martine and I walked right by the Picasso Museum in Paris without expressing any interest in its contents. I still actively dislike Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and most abstract expressionists. As for much of current architecture, I curl my lips in disgust. As for music, I tend to be pretty conservative, especially as I listen to most music while reading. Perhaps, for the time being, I am interested only in the literary impact of postmodernism. As for the other art forms, perhaps later….

Russian Stamps Honoring Nikolai Leskov, One of the Great Storytellers

Russian Stamps Honoring Nikolai Leskov, One of the Great Storytellers

What started me down this path is my clear enjoyment at reading such authors as César Aira, Geoff Dyer, Juan José Saer, and Samuel Beckett. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe has attempted to define the postmodern artist:

The post-modern artist is reflective in that he/she is self-aware and consciously involved in a process of thinking about him/herself and society in a deconstructive manner, “damasking” [i.e., weaving with elaborate design] pretentions [sic], becoming aware of his/her cultural self in history, and accelerating the process of self-consciousness.

In an interesting Chinese blog by Xiaoqing Liu, two characteristics of postmodernism include “a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problem of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative” and the principle that “the perceiving subject cannot be taken out of the equation.”

One result is that postmodern literature can be painfully difficult to read. There is little respect for straight chronology. Sometimes, as in Geoff Dyer’s The Search, surrealism suddenly intrudes and plays havoc with the susceptibilities of more traditionally-oriented readers.

Still, there are rewards. The Godlike narrator is gone, and time and place are twisted out of shape. One interesting result is that reading becomes an activity similar to crime detection; and that’s partly why postmodernism has certain affinities with the mystery genre.

The painting at the top is by the British postmodern painter Francis Berry and is entitled “Tonic Moment: Search.”




Follow the Bouncing Ball

Argentinean Author César Aira

Most traditional literature is somewhat like a series of nested matryoshka dolls: You come back out the way you go in. In the process, all unresolved issues are neatly resolved (one hopes), and one has experienced a real 19th century experience.

Well, that doesn’t seem to be happening any more, except perhaps in some whodunits. It certainly isn’t happening in the slim novels of César Aira, an Argentinean from Coronel Pringles who writes the way a Roomba vacuum cleaner robot cleans: He just moves in a straight line until he encounters a barrier that sends him off in another direction.

In Varamo, we are in the city of Colón in Panama some 20 years after the Panama Canal was built. Varamo is the name of a Chinese-Panamanian who works for one of the government ministries in Colón. The story begins when, as his pay, he is handed 200 counterfeit pesos which he at once recognizes and is afraid to cash. He walks to the cafe one evening and witnesses an accident in which one of the government ministers is severely injured. That makes him late to the cafe, where he runs into three pirate publishers who urge him to write a book, which Varamo gladly does. It turns out to become a Central American poetry classic: The Song of the Virgin Boy.

Along the way, he encounters other adventures, but this will do for now. In the last paragraph, Aira gives a kind of apologia for his own highly individualistic writing style:

The result was Varamo’s famous poem, except that it was less a result in itself than a way of transforming what had preceded it into a result. It produced a kind of automatism or mutual fatality, by which cause and effect changed places and became the same story. Far from diminishing the poem’s initial vigor, this circle intensifies it. Which is, in fact, what always happens. If a work is dazzlingly innovative and opens up unexplored paths, the merit is not to be found in the work itself, but in its transformative effect on the historical moment that engendered it. Novelty makes its causes new, giving birth to them retrospectively. If historical time makes us live in the new, a story that attempts to account for the origin of a work of art, that is, a work of innovation, ceases to be a story; it’s a new reality, and yet a part of reality as it has always been for everyone. Those who don’t believe me can go and see for themselves.

Now there’s a manifesto! Aira’s “new reality” has, with me, fallen on receptive ears. I have read every Aira book that I could get my hands on. They are all relatively short, but always succeed in defying any attempt at speed-reading. This Argentinean knows how to throw curve balls that bounce all over the place. Following their trajectory across space and time is not only great fun, but also profound, in a weird way.

Photo Credit: The above picture—a favorite of mine—comes from the Buenos Aires BAFICI website (dedicated to independent filmmakers).