Recent English editions of César Aira’s books often carry a blurb from the translator Natasha Wimmer describing him as the “Duchamp of Latin American literature.” While this description might flatter Aira, who has written on the modernist provocateur and likes to describe his own work as “Dadaist,” I don’t think it totally fits. A better comparison would be Picasso. Like Picasso and unlike Duchamp, Aira has never really turned his back on the expressive potential of his chosen medium, prose fiction, even as he has handled it in ways that seem irreverent, even careless to conservative onlookers. Also like Picasso, Aira is a tireless worker who cares more about the process of artistic invention than its results, writing every day and publishing at least two (allegedly) unedited short novels of highly uneven quality per year. His oeuvre, which consists of over eighty short books, mostly novels, is above all a documentation of the course of his imagination over the past four decades, the individual books being mere artifacts of various stages in his development rather than self-contained works. With a few notable exceptions, such as his excellent 2000 novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira doesn’t set out to write masterpieces. The gaps and incongruities, even the slovenliness of much of his writing, is the point.
The most recent work of Aira’s to appear in English is Shantytown, a 1998 novel that is being republished this fall by New Directions in a translation by Chris Andrews. This work is highly characteristic of Aira in that flashes of brilliance alternate with sections that are almost shocking in their ineptness. It starts off with a lyrical description of the protagonist, Maxi: a hulking simpleton from a privileged Buenos Aires family who spends his evenings selflessly assisting the residents of a nearby “shantytown” collect garbage from the side of the road before the trash collectors arrive. Maxi’s wordless interactions with these people are touching and poignant. His charity is impulsive, mediated by neither guilt over his own privilege nor a sense of outrage at the state of affairs that force so many of his city’s residents into the degrading work of scavenging. To the contrary, Maxi views the shantytown’s disorganized, spontaneous layout as absolutely enchanting. Night after night, Maxi approaches the glowing village while hauling carts of scavenged trash, but is forced to turn backward before reaching it due to the extreme fatigue that overcomes him, like clockwork, exactly at nightfall. When he finally reaches the shantytown one night, he is in a state of dazed exhaustion and becomes fascinated by its layout: a perfect circle with many roads that lead clear across to the other side and never intersect. For Maxi, the most intriguing and unsettling aspect of this layout is that it means no road leads to the shantytown’s center.
The plot of the book, described by New Directions as an “urban noir,” really gets moving with the introduction of a fantastical drug called “proxidine” that has reached epidemic levels of popularity in the novel’s dreamy version of Buenos Aires. Proxidine is an interesting twist on ordinary hallucinogens. Instead of allowing users to transcend the boundary between self and other through an illusion of ego death and cosmic oneness, proxidine promises something much more modest: the illusion that objects in the world are closer than they really are. In the context of Shantytown, this absurd drug makes a great deal of thematic sense, as the book tends to present the outside world as something far too large and chaotic to be understood – grasped – by a single subjectivity. This is certainly the case for Maxi, a character of extremely limited intelligence who severely misinterprets nearly every bit of sensory data he encounters.
This idea of not being able to get close enough to something to really know it–be it the center of a shantytown, the secret behind a mysterious crime, or another person–is almost certainly intended to be seen as a metaphor for literature, which for Aira never really makes good on its promise to illuminate the world. To read a novel is to be led through a garden of forking paths, motivated by a sense that some kind of resolution, or knowledge, might lie at the end of this process. The evasiveness of this sort of ultimate resolution is what makes every reading experience ultimately unsatisfying. Through metaphorical conceits like proxidine and the circular shantytown that contains mysteries inaccessible to all who remain on the beaten paths, Aira presents us with a model of literature in which every reading is a failed reading, a ritual we enact not in order to gain knowledge but to make peace with the fact that texts, like life, have always already exceeded our powers of interpretation. This is not a new idea, of course. It shares much with Borges, much with Derrida, and much with Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” but Aira is unique in the seriousness of his commitment to producing texts that force the reader to enact this strange ritual where the initial intoxication of high aesthetic experience gives way to abrupt disappointment.
And make no mistake, Shantytown is unsatisfying. The entire climax and denouement of this novel are like something out of a bad action movie, an effect that is compounded by Aira’s insistence on cutting between descriptions of the novel’s events with descriptions of the media’s real-time depictions of these events. Inspector Cabezas, a character who in the first third of the novel is introduced as a dynamic villain whose monstrosity is borne out of an ignorant conviction that the world must always conform to his prejudices, reappears at the end as a cartoonish demon pronouncing his commitment to the pursuit of evil for its own sake. Worst of all, the major player in the end of the novel, a renegade police commissioner, is introduced for the first time within the last thirty-five pages and is for that matter rather lazily sketched. All of the major ideas that had previously made the novel interesting, including the philosophical implications of proxidine and the way the lives of the underclass can come to seem magical and otherworldly to a wealthy young man incapable of analytical thought, are more or less dropped. At the novel’s abrupt close it is hard not to feel a bit resentful of a text that had so many good ideas, and such promise, and ends thusly.
The disjointedness of this alternately wonderful and terrible book is of course a result of Aira’s notorious method, which he refers to as a “flight forward” (fuga hacia adelante). This process is characterized by a lack of editing, or Aira’s commitment to digging himself out of corners by writing more, rather than going back and changing what he has already written. As with Picasso, who toward the end of his career was both extremely prolific and extremely inconsistent in terms of the quality of his output, Aira’s process is both a result of his serious theoretical ideas about art and of various quirks of his personality. It is important to not underestimate the degree to which a short attention span might account for the manner in which Aira works. His anti-perfectionism is open to the same sorts of critique John Berger offered to Picasso when he described the great artist’s infatuation with the random whims of his genius as a form of narcissism.
I am not interested in saying whether anti-perfectionism is better or worse than perfectionism. All I will say is that for the patient reader willing to indulge a messy, improvisational writer of staggering imaginative energy, Aira should not be missed. Shantytown is perhaps not the best place to start – How I Became a Nun and Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, just to pick two examples, are superior in every conceivable way – but it is also not altogether unworthy of Aira’s best works. Indeed, the way Shantytown pushes forth, dubiously forward, without stopping to forge meaningful links between its different sections might place it among his most characteristic works to date. Though it can make for frustrating reading, Aira’s commitment to a vision of writing that is tolerant and comprehensive, embracing of flaws and narrative disjunctures, is very moving, at least to me. After all, there is something rather stodgy and dead-seeming about flawless, authoritative “great works”. In contrast, Aira’s is a life-affirming artistic praxis.