César Aira – The Literary Conference
Let's start with what we know. César Aira, person, is an Argentine writer and translator. César (no last name), fictional character, is a writer and translator in Aira's novella, The Literary Conference. Both César's write, and both possess an astonishing capacity for production, with César Aira (the person) having written over fifty books, possessing the Georges Simenon-like ability to publish three of four works a year, and César (the character) equally, though less tangibly, prolific. There are similarities, then, but also a few key difference. Only one of the two César's wishes to take over the world. Only one of the two César's self-identifies as a Mad Scientist.
The novella opens with César unravelling the great mystery of the Macuto Line, which has baffled scientists, explorers and amateurs alike the last few hundred years. There is treasure buried nearby, with the Line indicating where it is, and also providing the mechanism for retrieving it. The Macuto Line is famous, impenetrable, unsolvable and ripe for the plucking:
It doesn't matter what you know about a famous object – being in its presence is altogether a different story. You must find that sensation of reality, peel back the veil of dreams – which is the substance of reality – and rise to the occasion of the moment, the Everest of the moment. Needless to say, I am not capable of such a feat, I, less than anybody.
So far, nobody has cracked the code, until one day César visits the waters where the Line can be found and, just like that, he solves it. He hastens to inform us that he is not a clever man, hardly smart at all, but that he possesses the exact right amount of intelligence and ingenuity required to solve the riddle. Were he smarter (like so many of those who have come before), he would have failed. Were he less clever, he would have failed. He is, it turns out, ideally suited to achieve this one thing in life. All of us, César reasons, have something unique to achieve, whether it is grandiose or small, world shattering or insignificant. César hopes that there is one more event he is ideally suited to achieve and, now that he has become suddenly rich, believes he might just be able to pull it off.
What is it? Well, first – a digression. The Literary Conference is full of asides and tangents which often, though not always, fold back into the primary story. Considering that the piece is in its entirety only 90 pages in length, it is astounding that there are any satisfactory asides; even more amazing is that there are many such successes. Aira has stated often that he writes without a plan, preferring to ride the trapeze without a net, which means that, when he has inevitably written himself into a wall, a certain level of linguistic gymnastics is needed. So, the novel opens with a rather fascinating examination of individualism, identity, and one's fate and then, just before these themes are exhausted, shifts to a literary conference, attended by César in the hopes of obtaining the DNA of a Genius to assist in his plans to take over the world.
Unwilling to trust fate to afford him the opportunity to obtain a hair or a nail trimming or a flake of skin, he employed one of his most trusted creatures, a small wasp reduced to the size of a period and loaded from birth with the identifying data of the aforementioned Genius; he sent her on her secret mission at noon under conditions of certain proximity (the wasp has a very short flight range). He trusted her blindly for he knew her to be at the mercy of the infallible force of instinct, of never-erring Nature. And she did not disappoint him: ten minutes later she returned, carrying the cell on her feet...
The DNA obtained, César places it into his machine and swans off to enjoy the literary conference. The DNA will take about a week to properly clone the Genius (who we discover is Carlos Fuentes), which leaves him that exact same amount of time to swim, enjoy the sun, and watch the play to be performed for the attendees of the conference (a play conveniently written by himself, though he hardly remembers writing it and has grave concerns for its impenetrability and seemingly deliberate efforts to confound its viewers).
If one has ever wondered the thoughts a Mad Scientist might have whilst sunbathing and swimming by a pool in an unnamed Andean city, Aira provides:
In my case, nothing returns, everything races forward, savagely being pushed from behind by what keeps coming through that accursed valve. This image, brought to its peak maturation in my vertiginous reflections, revealed to me the path to the solution, which I forcefully put into practice whenever I have time and feel like it. The solution is none other than the greatly overused (by me) “escape forward.” Since turning back is off limits: Forward! To the bitter end! Running, flying, gliding, using up all the possibilities, the conquest of tranquility through the din of the battlefield. The vehicle is language. What else? Because the valve is language.
And it is while César thinks that the story is at its most enjoyable. The plot is rambunctious, exaggerated and hurtling toward probable catastrophe (he is a Mad Scientist with plans to take over the world, after all); equally energetic are the protagonists thoughts, his musings on life, art and one's perception of reality. As mentioned above, Aira often jumps to one side to escape the corner he has written himself into, in The Literary Conference this is most often and best achieved by the digressive and entertaining thinking of his narrator. Aira himself is aware of this, of course, and even comments on his proclivities:
But my mania – to be constantly adding things, episodes, characters, paragraphs, to be constantly veering off course, branching out – is fatal. It must be due to insecurity, fear that the basics are not enough, so I have to keep adding more and more adornment until I achieve a kind of surrealist rococo, which exasperates me more than it does anybody else.
When it seems the novella has nowhere left to go, a horde of immense blue worms suddenly attack the city, terrorising citizens and causing massive destruction. At first it is unclear – to César or the reader – whether this attack is real, imagined, dreamed, hallucinatory, or otherwise – but eventually it becomes clear that this is in fact happening, and that the entire city is in danger. How? Why? And who can save them?
Several military trucks, the one we had seen driving past the plaza and others, converged on a road that rose in the direction of the worms. We saw them stop when they reached the one nearest the city. The soldiers got out and fanned out in front of the blue mass. At that moment denial was no longer possible: the men looked like insects next to the monster – and pathetically ineffectual. This became obvious once they began to shoot at it with their machine guns. They didn't miss their target once (it was like aiming at the mountain itself), but they could have continued for an eternity to the same effect, that is, to no effect. The bullets disappeared into the soft tons of blue flesh like pebbles tossed into the sea. They tried bazookas, cannons, hand grenades, even antiaircraft missiles fired from the hood of one of the trucks, all with the same derisive futility.
Why, the Mad Scientist! He does, and in doing so, he even wins the girl, culminating in a remarkably conventional and fist-pumping victory to a novella that refuses to be pinned down into any one genre. The Literary Conference packs an exceptional amount into its 90 pages, weaving action with history and literary musing with energetic discussions on identity. One wishes the character of César could just think, endlessly, on whatever pops into his mind, while at the same time, one wishes that more bizarre adventures could occur, that the cloning machine was used to its fullest potential, that cloned-Carlos Fuentes could, perhaps, wreak havoc alongside the worms, that – well, that anything, really. César Aira is a strong writer, seeming to be in tremendous control of essentially tumultuous and transitory material. It shouldn't work, but it does – The Literary Conference is a funny, clever, serious, antic, manic burst of energy that engages from start to finish.
The Literary Conference by César Aira is one of the titles shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, which is an Award given out by Three Percent, the online arm of Open Letter Books, which is part of the University of Rochester. The winner is due to be announced on April 29, 2011.
Three Percent - Why This Book Should win the BTBA
The Complete Review
The New Yorker
Best Translated Book Award
The Quarterly Conversation - Essay on Aira