I had almost finished reading César Aira's short novel on my way home from a book launch last night when I stopped at a Chinese takeaway to get my dinner. After placing my order, I sat down to continue reading when an eight year old boy came up to me and asked if I knew I had entered a force field which transported me to another time. I replied I didn't know that and asked what time I was now in. He said we are now in 2008 which is the year he was born. He looked up thoughtfully and reasoned that this meant he wasn't really here yet. Such an unexpected plunge into the realm of fantasy is entirely in sync with this surreal and surprising novel.
The main story involves a car chase. Seamstress Delia Siffoni's son has gone missing. Believing he might be in the back of a neighbour's large truck that has embarked on a long haul drive, she pursues him. Her gambler husband Ramón pursues Delia and in pursuit of Ramón is a mysterious little blue car. Following all of them is a gust of wind named Ventarrón which carries a wedding dress. There's also a sinister monstrous baby let loose on the world after a horrific incident. This might all sound bizarre enough, but it gets a lot stranger. There's an Alice in Wonderland-type journey through the convoluted labyrinth of a truck. One character's skin colour changes. A meteorological phenomenon falls in love. At all times, you are aware that this novel is a construct as it is a story being composed by a writer sitting in a Parisian cafe. In doing so, Aira creates a bewitching tale at the same time as meditating on the meaning of invention, memory and art.
The writer is upfront at the novel's beginning that all he has for this book is a title. How he goes about constructing a story to fill that title is something he pauses to consider in depth. Most would consider that novels are formed out of a blend of a writer's experience and imagination. What else could it be? But Aira is intent on utilizing the state of forgetfulness for his creativity rather than inventing a story: “In loss everything comes together.” He's mistrustful of imagination because he feels it will always draw upon memory which is unreliable. Rather than tie his creation to the past he wants it to exist freely: “Forgetting is like a great alchemy free of secrets, limpid, transforming everything into the present. In the end it makes our lives into this visible and tangible thing we hold in our hands, with no folds left hidden in the past. I seek it, to oblivion, in the insanity of art.” So the novel is a sort of freeform exercise based in what he doesn't recall and the result is a bizarre episodic series of events and descriptions which follow a dream-like logic.
I'm not sure I believe it's possible for Aira or “the writer” to create a story untied to the past. You certainly can't fit the strange images and twists of the story into any neat interpretation, but that doesn't mean they aren't based in part on his lived experience or emotional experience. He tries to hold his characters such as Delia in the present as she is spontaneously created: “Delia is not the luminous miniature in the reels of any movie projector. I said she was a real woman, and I submit myself to my words, to some of them at least... to the words before they make sentences, when they are still purely present.” But details arise, such as how the local housewives who don't work look sneeringly down upon Delia for maintaining a profession as a seamstress even though her husband works. This economic imbalance and sexist social injustice feels like it was inspired by the writer's experience either directly or indirectly. Similarly, there is a touching way how the writer describes his boyhood when the trucker Chiquito created snowmen for him to enjoy. The sentiment of this friendly, playful gesture feels real as well. I'm not saying these things happened to Aira and I never try to interpret a writer’s life into my reading, but how can there be any emotional resonance if it didn’t come from a person with experience? It feels to me like there is an emotional truth, rather than historical truth, which comes through whether the writer is conscious of it or not.
César Aira is an incredibly prolific Argentinian novelist with around eighty novels and novellas to his name. That his output is so rapid isn’t surprising when you read this novel – not because it lacks craft or refinement, but there is a rapid fire quality to the prose where ideas and images are boiling over to form an outrageous plot. His writing has been compared to Borges and it came across like reading an Italo Calvino novel to me or watching a David Lynch film. It’s clearly not cosy fiction, but it’s sophisticated and energetic writing which will leave you scratching your head with curious wonder. I have a feeling certain powerful eerie scenes will stick with me more than his theories on narrative. Most of all, I admire the sheer uncompromising audacity and verve of this novel.