The Cultural Genetics of César Aira

In his novel, The Literary Conference, the Argentinian author César Aira, via a narrator also named César Aira, cautions us against any interpretation of his work, saying, “The rest of the world has no inkling of the mental whirlwinds swirling under my impassive facade, except, perhaps, through the amplification of that impassivity, or through certain digressions I engage in and abandon without warning.”

Too true, Mr. Aira, too true.

A series of digressions and abandonments are perhaps the best way to describe the end result of Aira’s fuga hacia adelante (in English, flight forward), the technique Aira uses to write his novels and the starting point of almost every essay written about him thus far, for it is this technique that has managed to produce some of the most interesting and innovative fiction being written today. The technique is rather simple: Every day Aira sits down at a cafe in Buenos Aires and writes for an hour with no looking back, no editing, and no concern for plot development or coherent characterization, until he finds his way to the end of whatever it is he’s working on. For the most part, the results are magnificent. On rare occasions, though, they are boring and a bit pretentious. In certain moments, Aira reaches an inspired state and imparts true wisdom, while in lesser moments he tends to puff up his texts with false profundity. He tells us, with quite a lot of hubris, that, other than a reader who can successfully amplify his impassivity in order to understand his works, one would need to be, “a superhuman literary critic…” And he’s right! Aira proposes no ideology, no point, no overt intentions, and sometimes seems completely aloof to the importance of what he’s doing, which is to produce texts so enigmatic as to require of his ideal critic the power to read minds. So, those of us not blessed with clairvoyance are forced to focus on the digressions and abandonments that Aira has put in, or left out of, his texts.

Aira calls his novels Dadaist. Readers tend to call them surrealist. Upon closer scrutiny, and a digression of our own into history, we find that Aira’s flight forward has, in fact, roots not only in the Dadaists and the surrealists, but also in Aira’s homeland.

Though many Americans first encounter surrealism in painting—think: a dorm room poster of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, with its clocks made of flesh—surrealism was not born in painting; it was born in text. In his manifesto, André Breton, the founder of the movement, defined surrealism as,

Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

Breton worked in a French hospital during World War I that “took in men who had been evacuated from the front for reasons of mental distress…” He says that “[his] stay in this place and the sustained attention [he] paid to what happened there counted for a lot in [his] life, and no doubt had a decisive influence on the development of [his] thought.” Breton took advantage of his situation and began practicing his own hackneyed version of psychoanalysis on the distressed patients. Sigmund Freud’s writings had only recently been translated into French, and Breton used Freud’s texts as his guide. He recorded the soldier’s dreams, doing his best to interpret them, and he claims this to be the seminal moment in the creation of surrealism. “We might already note in passing that these dreams, these kinds of associations would initially constitute almost the entirety of surrealism’s raw materials. We only amplified the ends toward which those dreams and associations were being collected; yes, still interpretation, but above all liberation from constraints—logical, moral, and otherwise—with an eye toward recuperating the mind’s original powers.”

The surrealists’s primary way of accomplishing this mental recuperation was through a practice Breton termed “automatic writing,” which is when a writer writes as quickly as possible hoping that in the “dizzying race the images appear like the only guideposts of the mind… where pros and cons are constantly consumed, where [the mind’s] obscurity does not betray it.”

Aira’s flight forward certainly shares a kinship with Breton’s automatic writing. But Aira himself has always said he identified more with the Dadaists, the group that gave birth to the surrealists. What the Dadaists were seeking, as Jean Arp, one of the founding members of the movement’s Swiss faction, has said, was “an art based on fundamentals, to cure the madness of the age, and a new order of things, that would restore the balance between heaven and hell… Revolted by the butchery of the First World War, [the artists in Zurich] sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all [their] might, [as] the guns rumbled in the distance.” The Dadaists found power in the act of making art rather than the outcome of the art made. Aira seems to hold this same position. The childish, frantic, make-it-up-as-you-go of Aira’s flight forward is the consequence of a writer who, rather than worry too much about the outcome, takes pleasure in his process.

There would be a slight lull in the activity of the Dadaists, a coming to a close, if you will, before the surrealists would come together. Breton, after World War I ended, formed the group as if to pick up the pieces of the men “whom the war had just torn from their aspirations and flung into a cesspool of blood, mud, and idiocy.” For Aira, who was born in 1949, long after both these movements came to an end, the country he grew up in had become its own cesspool of blood, mud, and idiocy. Argentina was a place where reality and logic were so twisted for so long that realism could not be trusted. Realism had to be destroyed, and Aira worked at doing just that.

Aira was born on February 23, 1949, about 350 miles southwest of Buenos Aires in a small town called Coronel Pringles. About three years before Aira came into this world, Argentina witnessed a birth of its own: Perónism.

In Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina, Robert Crassweller treats Perónism as something so new that he resorts to describing it by what it was not. It was not fascism, not communism, not socialism, not Nazism, not a move to the left or to the right, not a dictatorship, not a labor movement, not capitalistic, and not anti-capitalistic. It was simply Perónism, a political ideology unlike anything the world had ever seen. To give a quick example of how Perón viewed things, we can look to his concept of democracy, something he believed in deeply, but in his own (somewhat non-democratic) way:

Now, the concepts of liberty and democracy are undergoing a rapid evolution. Liberty will be less and less the right of any one to do as he pleases, and will be more and more the obligation to do what is profitable for the community… woe to the peoples that… persist in establishing an incompatibility between the powers of the state and the ideals of liberty and democracy!

For nearly ten years after taking office in 1946, Perón was popular and Argentina was stable. Then, things began to go awry. In 1954, Perón chose to set up a public form of education and remove the primary schooling of Argentina’s children from the hands of the Catholic Church, where it had been for decades. The move caused unrest, and it didn’t help his image when, after Eva Perón’s death, Perón began dating a fourteen-year-old. So, with Perón’s tide of popularity ebbing, anti-Perónists in the military saw their opportunity and took it. They attempted a coup d’etat. Perón supporters organized a gathering in front of the Rosa Casada to show that they were behind him, while Perón, having learned that an attack was imminent, fled after failing to make contact with supporters to close down the demonstration. As the pro-Perónists marched through the streets, the coup-backed air force flew overhead and began to drop bombs. Civilians were slaughtered by the dozens. The entire city began to tear itself apart, and Buenos Aires fell subject to a dizzying number of subsequent coups until Perón was allowed back in 1973, at which time he won the presidency, only to die a year later. This was the Argentina of Aira’s childhood, an Argentina that seemed to fly forward in a narrative arc that resembles, at least structurally, one of Aira’s stories—it all seems as if it was being made up on the spot.

Aira had moved from Coronel Pringles to Buenos Aires in 1967, a few years before Perón’s return to power and just in time to watch the country become an even stranger place. After witnessing the coups that led to Perón’s restoration to the presidency, after witnessing Perón’s physical decline and subsequent death, after witnessing Isabel Perón’s taking of the presidency (with her Rasputin-like warlock in tow), after witnessing a jump in inflation the likes of which no one had ever seen, and after witnessing yet another coup that would depose Isabel Perón, claiming she had embezzled money from the government, Aira would witness the beginnings of the Dirty War, a form of state terrorism that targeted leftists and their sympathizers. Disappeared citizens became known as the desaparecidos, and all told, over 10,000 would never be heard from again.

During this thirty-year period, from the rise of Perón to the end of the Dirty War, Aira would be born, would be raised, and would eventually begin to write. A cesspool of blood, mud, and idiocy had given birth to yet another writer who would go on to challenge the traditional rules of literature, much like Breton and his gang had done forty years before.

In an oft-quoted interview (he has not given many) with BOMB Magazine, Aira explains how the factor of chance plays in his work. How, if a bird flutters by while he’s writing at the cafe it might wind up in the story he’s working on. If, say, he’s writing about two lovers having an argument, the bird might make its way into the lovers’ room and Aira will then work to justify the bird’s existence. And though all this might sound whimsical, Aira tells us that he writes novels “out of love for verisimilitude. However, with my use of chance—the little bird, my innate taste for surrealism—verisimilitude is a challenge.” To this, some of us might ask, in shock, That’s what makes verisimilitude a challenge for you? Not the baby-headed monster of The Seamstress and the Wind? But oddly, his flights of imagination demonstrate exactly what he means by working for verisimilitude. In The Seamstress and the Wind, after the wind tells the seamstress that he can bring her whatever she wants, the seamstress thinks of her house. She has been wandering Patagonia for pages at this point, lost, looking for the wedding dress she made. And what she most desires is her home. But she decides, in a turn towards verisimilitude, that it’s best not to ask for her house because she is afraid that if the wind carried out that wish, her house would be torn from its foundation and dropped, only to crumble apart.

Varamo takes on the philosophy of the authentic directly. It’s a novel about a Chinese bank employee living in Panama who, in his off time, is a taxidermist who makes objets d’surreal and, by book’s end, writes a poem considered a masterpiece. On payday, Varamo is given his salary in counterfeit bills. We never learn how he knows the bills are counterfeit. We do know that “he had never handled, or seen, a counterfeit bill,” and yet, like most of us, “he was quite capable of imagining the forgery of money.” Is there a metaphor for money’s abstractness here? Or is this Aira simply making things up as he goes? We don’t know, and this type of unknowingness is one of the hazards of reading Aira. But Varamo does have a point. It does arrive somewhere, though one must bear with Aira as he finds his way. The story, which is meant to be about how Varamo came to write a “celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, ‘The Song of the Virgin Child,’” switchbacks as it climbs to its promised climax where, after a plethora of happenings, Varamo finds himself assigned a task of the utmost importance: unraveling a conspiracy surrounding Panama’s corrupt government infrastructure.

But wait. Varamo decides everything can be placed on hold; he needs a coffee. He enters a cafe where he meets a group of publishers, strikes up a conversation, and mentions he has taken notes regarding a book he might one day write. The publishers convince him he must write his book. “’I’m afraid it will take me a long time…’ They cut him off before he can finish: ‘What? What are you talking about?’” They go on to say that writing can be “done very quickly. ‘Do you have anything to do tonight? No? It shouldn’t take you more than three or four minutes to fill up a page, if you concentrate.’” And here we find the argument Aira is making with the text. From the first problem (the counterfeit money) to the story of Varamo’s origins (he looks Chinese and his mother looks Chinese, why wouldn’t he be her son?) to the last half of the book, which focuses on speed, all the way up to the very end, when Varamo, having never written a word prior to this episode, and never to write another afterwards, sits down and writes a masterpiece. In this sequence, Aira arrives at a very real question, a lasting question that seems to be bigger than the snap judgments of flight forward: Aira wants to know what qualifies a masterpiece as authentic. But it’s almost as if Aira gets there in spite of himself, in spite of his process, with its professed loyalty to Dadaism, with its wild plot, like a child who won’t stop to take a breath, but also can’t help but give rise to his own intelligence.

In The Seamstress and the Wind, the mere facts of the plot, if recited, sound almost childlike: Me and my friend Omar are playing in the back of a truck. I close my eyes and when I open them, poof, Omar’s gone. Everyone thinks he’s kidnapped. His mom gets a crazy idea her son is in the back of that truck we were playing in. She jumps in a taxi and races off to find him. She forgets what she’s doing and takes the wedding dress she is making for Silvia Balero with her. That makes Silvia Balero really mad, so she goes after her. Omar’s dad comes home from looking for him. He finds out, Surprise! Omar was never missing. Omar’s mom is still gone. So his dad races off to find her. They all end up in the Patagonia. BAM! Omar’s mom gets in a crazy car accident where her taxi gets stuck in the side of a truck. Omar’s dad ends up at a hotel with Silvia Balero. He loses everything in a card game. Silvia, too. No, she didn’t lose everything, he lost her in a bet to Chiquito, he’s the truck driver. Omar’s mom gets lost in the Patagonia. It’s okay because the Wind comes to help her. The Wind can talk. And then Omar’s dad ends up walking around the Patagonia, too, when he finds the taxi Omar’s mom was in. He takes the guts out of it and puts it in a giant armadillo shell to make a car. Oh yeah, and there’s a monster that may or may not eat Omar’s mom. I haven’t decided yet.

But wait, you might say, What in the world is this story about? I just told you. No no, you told me the plot. But what is it about? Oh that, this child-voiced Aira might respond, It’s about memory and loss.

The Seamstress and the Wind, with its implausible plot twists, manages to be about many things, but the most poignant of them is loss and memory. Aira writes near the end: “In loss everything comes together. Loss is all devouring.” We feel this loss in the story. We feel how Aira, in the midst of all the improbable, is able to articulate the problems we face as part of being human. But how, in these hour-long sessions, does Aira arrive at such profound conclusions?

Authenticity. Memory and loss. The permeable barrier between literal and figurative thinking in How I Became a Nun. The permeable barrier between the concrete world and the fantastical world in Ghosts. Aira always lands on foundational, central-to-being-human, even traditional points and themes. But if he’s going to arrive where he does, why take the circuitous routes? Why write like this? Why bother with the bird in the lovers’ room? Having Varamo stop for a coffee before untangling the Panamanian government?

It all seems to come down to one of Aira’s central beliefs. And, not surprisingly, we learn of this belief in one of his many digressions.

The belief Aira seems to live by, to write by, to read by, is one of cultural genetics, a quintessentially Argentinian concept. He explains the theory in The Literary Conference when he tells us that “every mind is shaped by its own experiences and memories and knowledge, and what makes it unique is the grand total and extremely personal nature of the collection of all the data that have made it what it is.” Today, at 30,000 feet we can reach into the seatback pocket in front of us, pull out a SkyMall catalog, and order a canvas with our color-tinted DNA printed on it, ready to be hung on the wall of our house or apartment. Imagine, for a moment, that each of those little color blocks were a book you have read, a painting you have looked at, a conversation you have had, a movie you have seen, or a person you have met. These are building blocks. And sure, you and somebody else might have read the same two books but “as soon as we add a third book… that number becomes drastically reduced… One more book, a fourth, and I could be absolutely certain of my solitude.” We get the idea: “all of that, as well as the texture of my days and nights since the day I was born, gave me a mental configuration different from all others.” And so, when Aira sits down to write, he is taking a seat with everything he’s ever experienced. He is saying: This is my fingerprint. These are my concerns. This is who I am. It’s all inextricably linked.

In the most recent of Aira’s books to be translated into English, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, a sleepwalking Dr. Aira finds that when he runs into his own past in the form of a memory, it brings him to a standstill. Whenever Dr. Aira gets caught up like this he must “wait for a fresh impetus to start walking again.” Then Aira—the writer, not the character—says exactly what Time does for Aira—again the writer, not the character—when he says that, “Time lifted [Dr. Aira] out of the shame of the past…” And here we have another reason for why Aira writes the fantastical plots he does:

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… Perhaps there in that eminently benevolent utility, resided Evil’s purpose.

This idea of a deviation from the reasonable through the use of realism being evil is Breton’s and the surrealists’s and Duchamp’s and the Dadaists’s. If it is logic that led to so many brutalities, then realism itself had the inner-workings of malevolence. Aira reminds us, “Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges.”

As freeing as all this is and as profound as Aira can be, Aira’s method does have its problems. A pontificator, Aira is prone to holding court for too long, and has a tendency to fill pages with hot air. The best example of his method’s failure is his longest novel in translation, The Hare, which will be reissued later this year by New Directions. The Hare is one of two books published in English that Aira has set on the Pampas, an area of grassland that covers almost 300,000 square miles of Argentina. The problem with The Hare is simple: when forced to carry a cohesive plot for too long, the flight forward can begin to fall apart. The Hare is worth discussing, though, for its setting.

The Pampas has a long history in Argentina’s literature. One of Argentina’s most famous literary works, the poem “Martín Fierro,” is a history of the Pampas’s gauchos. José Hernandez wrote the first part, “El Gaucho Martín Fierro,” in 1872. He would finish the second part, “La Vuelta de Martín Fierro,” seven years later. Martín Fierro, the main character and voice of the poem, tells the story of his life on the Pampas working to protect his growing Argentina from her “savage” natives. He sings the song of the criollo: “I’m the bull in my own herd / and a braver bull in the next one… I don’t step aside / even though they’re out to cut our throats.”

The tone of the poem is one of anger born from oppression. Many of the workers on the Pampas were terribly mistreated. The only thing it seems the gauchos have to hold onto is their pride in their work. The “savage” native, as described by Martín Fierro, “fixes everything / with his spear and yell. // Your flesh shakes to see them… if you do manage to spill his guts / it won’t even worry him— / he’ll stuff them back in right away, / hunch low, and gallop off.”

In The Hare, Aira writes of this same brutality. Serpent’s Tail, the house that originally published the novel, marketed Aira as “the Borges of the Pampas.” But while Borges loved “Martín Fierro” and wrote about it extensively, he was no gaucho spirit. Borges was a metropolitan writer; Buenos Aires was his world. Perón, who embraced all of Argentina, especially the Pampas (Perón lived with a copy of “Martin Fierro” on his bedside table), hated Borges, saying, “Men like Borges belong to a human species ‘who don’t touch the earth,’ not exactly because of an archangelic vocation but because of their notorious deprecation of mankind.” At the time of Perón’s rise, Borges had a job that he loved at the library. After clashing with Perón, he suddenly found himself transferred from the library to the department in charge of chicken and rabbit inspections at public markets.

It is impossible to know what Perón would have thought of Aira—his first novel was published the year before Perón died—but we can safely assume that at least parts of The Hare would have delighted him in a way that Borges’s works never did. In The Hare we find the love of horses and adventure that Perón spoke glowingly about. At a restaurant once, Perón told a waiter to “never offer horse meat to an Argentine. It’s like offering human flesh… we have so great a love for that animal that eating its meat would be like an act of cannibalism.” But the problem with The Hare is that when Aira works with a long narrative—at 200 pages, The Hare is about twice as long as Aira’s average length—the reader can feel him struggling to keep the story under control. In the end The Hare amounts to many people simply galloping off on those beautiful animals.

Aira’s other Pampas novel, however, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, is his best. But one must be careful saying so. What makes Episode such a successful novel is how un-Aira-esque it can be. The story is about a German painter, Johann Mortiz Rugendas, who has traveled to South America in the mid-1800s to paint the vegetation of its landscape. The novel’s main focus is the portion of his trip to Argentina, where, yearning to paint an Indian raid or an earthquake, he and his crew make their way across great swathes of land. They come across an area with its vegetation decimated by locusts. Afraid the horses will starve or go thirsty, Rugendas gallops ahead, hoping that just past a cluster of mountains he will find water and food. He is caught in a lightning storm, struck twice, and then dragged along the ground by his horse. The accident tears his face apart and turns him into a sort of monster.

What makes this story so unlike Aira’s others, though, is its touches of the realistic. Rather than create a monster from fantasy, as he does in many of his stories, Rugendas’s metamorphosis occurs naturally. Not only that, but in Episode we find both character development and character descriptions written with a plain straightforwardness not often found in any of his other works. When describing how Rugendas got along so well with his sidekick Krause, despite their difference in age, Aira writes, “Rugendas, at thirty-five, was timid, effeminate and gawky as an adolescent, while Krause’s aplomb, aristocratic manners and considerate nature narrowed the gap.” When we read this type of description, we find it comforting and normal, and we realize that every once in a while a touch of literary tradition can do wonders for Aira, even if the book is meant to be a mere flight forward.

Breton may claim automatic writing for the surrealists. The Dadaists may claim the power to be found in nonsense. And Aira may claim his version of a combination of both as fuga hacia adelante. But, surprisingly, in “Martín Fierro,” a poem almost 150 years old, we find its seed, and discover that it might be possible that Aira is only continuing a form of writing inherent in his culture from the beginning.

After being saved from a showdown with federal authorities by a man named Cruz, Fierro, the hero and storyteller of the poem, gives Cruz an opportunity to speak for a few stanzas. Cruz begins,

Other people can spout verses
like water from a spring,
and the same thing happens with me
although mine aren’t worth anything—
they come out from my mouth
like sheep out of a corral.

And then later…

I’m ignorant, so it’s hard work
for me to make myself clear,
but when I finally open my trap
you can take this for certain—
out comes one verse, and the next one
will be poking its nose round the gate.

So pay attention to me,
you’ll hear me tell about the sorrows
that fill the soul I carry—
because no matter how things are
a gaucho pays for his ignorance
with the blood in his veins.

Aira, like Cruz, always has another sheep “poking its nose around the gate.” And ultimately, behind Aira’s whirlwind plots, we find many of the same sorrows Fierro’s character Cruz spoke of so many years ago. This may in fact be precisely what makes Aira worthy of the attention he’s found in the past few years: whether he’s writing about a baby-headed creature in the Patagonia or an ice cream man poisoning children in Rosario, Aira brings us face to face with the everlasting fears and feelings at the core of what it means to be human. That his methods might be peculiar and his routes crossed with monsters makes the results all the more dazzling.

Alex Estes is a critic who lives in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Full Stop, and 3:AM Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @deskofalex or you can visit his website at or you can do both.