“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Literary Conference

The Literary Conference
By Cesar Aira
New Directions

Argentinian author Cesar Aira has recently started to gain some recognition in the Anglophone world, due largely to the fact that Roberto Bolaño named him as one of the most important authors currently writing in Spanish. But so far, only a tiny percentage of his work is available in English; although five of his books have been translated, Aira has allegedly written somewhere between 50 and 70 books, although the precise number is difficult to know for certain (even his Wikipedia page only lists a ‘partial bibliography’), as many of his books have been put out by small and relatively unknown publishers.
            Aira’s output is so large for two reasons: first of all, most of his books are novellas of about 100 pages or so, and secondly, if we believe Aira’s own claims (and I’m largely inclined to do so), he never revises his own work. Aira’s lack of revision does not stem from laziness, but rather from an artistic methodology that uses an aleatory technique (i.e. the employment of random chance for aesthetic ends) in the tradition of artists like John Cage and the Dadaists. This ‘flight forward’ technique, as Aira terms it, forces him to be constrained by whatever he has written, and thus find an imaginative way out of any difficult situations he accidentally writes himself into.
            Although such a technique could readily produce a sprawling mess, in Aira’s hands, this approach produces books that are wildly inventive and hysterically funny. The Literary Conference, Aira’s most recent novella to appear in English, is no exception.
            The novella itself tells the story of a writer, also named Cesar Aira, who also happens to be a mad scientist and a world-leading expert in cloning technology. Aira desires to take over the world—as all mad scientists do—but quickly realises that he lacks the will for such a task, so he happens upon an ingenious solution: he will clone the world’s greatest genius and give him the job of taking over the world. After much careful thought and selection, Aira finally settles on the perfect candidate, who is, of course, none other than the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes.
            In order to facilitate the cloning process, Aira travels to a literary conference that Fuentes will be at, and at this point the story begins to unfurl in a variety of even more unexpected directions. Despite it’s absurdist character, however, this is a book not without literary merits; in particular, Aira plays with notions of translation and transformation that are highlighted when he, inevitably, loses control of his cloning machine with hilarious results.
This novella, ultimately, is a comic farce that employs wilfully absurd plot twists in a way that would almost certainly appeal to fans of writers like Flann O’Brien and Jorge Luis Borges. This is the third of Aira’s novels I’ve read this year (which isn’t too impressive given their relative brevity), and every one of them has been a different and entirely worthwhile experience. That being said, those who have yet to read Aira might be better off starting with his book An Incident in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which at least proves that Aira is capable of successfully writing a more traditional narrative when he wants to, and is, above all, an exceptionally beautiful book that shares many thematic elements with Gerald Murnane’s classic novel, The Plains. 

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