Vol. 16, No. 2
César Aira has become a cult fiction writer in his native Argentina as well as throughout Latin America for his hyperrealist treatment of surreal or implausible scenarios and his aggressive defiance of literary conventions. His trajectory has also gone hand-in-hand with a unique take on genre and the book as medium. The first thing to catch one’s eye upon taking a quick glance at his bio is that he has published a truly staggering amount of books. BOMB was one of the first American publications to publish Aira in translation. When running “The Spy” in 2001, Aira was credited with having published 40 books. New Directions, his American publisher—which will release Chris Andrews’s translation of the extraordinary novella Shantytown this fall—notes that Aira has authored more than 80 titles in Latin America and Spain, which have been translated into at least seven languages.
Aira is undeniably prolific, but he admits that his production might appear more voluminous than it actually is, given that at least half of all his published works are under 20 pages long. In an interview on Denmark’s Louisiana Channel, he explains that he dislikes collections and therefore prefers “one book to one story.” Even a work like “The Spy,” which is closer to a story than a novel, would be more fit for an individual chapbook than a collection of short stories. “Big publishing houses want fat books,” Aira argued, and so his output has been bolstered by the emergence of independent micropublishers in Argentina and Latin America that have been willing to put out his unclassifiable works. Their print runs and distribution might be lacking in numbers, but Aira is actually fond of this model. He likes that his books “don’t go offering themselves to readers—like prostitutes, almost,” and prefers that readers make the effort to go searching for them. He consider himself an “unrepentant reader” who has always been able to hunt down seemingly unattainable works, and as such, believes that if people really want to read his books, they will find them.
And so indeed, after hearing much of Aira but unable to find any of his work translated into English, BOMB commissioned Alfred Mac Adam to render “The Spy” into English for the Winter 2001 Americas Issue. Mac Adam knew of Aira, but recalls that “his works were hard to get in those days, because he published (as he does to this day) in obscure, often provincial presses.” Later Aira was kind enough to grant us a rare interview in 2009. In a typically understated fashion, he states that prior to embarking on a new work, he has no grand ambitions—he’s only a writer when he’s writing.
Mónica de la Torre, Senior Editor BOMB Magazine
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By César Aira
Recommended by BOMB
Translated by Alfred Mac Adam
If I were a character in a play, the lack of true privacy would arouse in me feelings of profound mistrust, disquiet, suspicion. In some way—I don’t know how—I would feel the silent, attentive presence of the audience. I would always be aware that my words are being heard by others, and if that can actually fit in with some parts of my dialogue (there are intelligent things we say to show off before the largest number of people possible, and there are also times when we regret there isn’t an audience to appreciate those things), I’m sure that there would be other parts that would have to be spoken in an authentic and not fictitious intimacy. And those would be the most important parts for understanding the plot: the entire interest, the whole value of the play would be based on them. But their importance would not stimulate my loquacity; to the contrary; I would take the requirements for keeping any secrets very literally, as I always have. To start, I’d prefer not to speak. I’d say “Let’s go into another room, I have to tell you something important that no one else should hear.” But at that point the curtain would fall, and in the next scene we’d enter that other room, which would be the same stage with different decor. I’d look all around, sniff the ineffable… I know there are no seats in fiction, and in my character as a character I’d know that more than ever, because my very existence would be based on that knowledge, but even so…
“No, I can’t speak here, either… ” Of course, finally convinced that the stage would follow me to the ends of the earth, I’d sidestep the issue by saying anodyne, noncompromising things, and sacrificing the play’s interest. But that’s exactly what I could not sacrifice, ever, because my existence as a character would depend on it. So the moment would arrive when there would be nothing else to do but speak. But even then I’d resist, possessed by a horror stronger than I was! My mouth would be sealed, the keys to the situation (at least the keys I controlled) would never be able to come to light, in no way whatsoever. Never! And I would see fade away—as if I were in the impotence of a nightmare—a portion, large or small, perhaps important, even fundamental, of the aesthetic value of the play. And all my fault. The other characters, disoriented and, so to speak, mutilated, would begin to move around and act like so many dummies, lifeless, bereft of a destiny, as in those failed dramas where nothing takes place…
Then, and only then, I would clutch at one last hope: that the audience would intuit what it was all about, despite my refusal to say it. An outlandish hope, because I would be concealing facts and not just mere comments or opinions. If what I had to reveal, to reveal to someone, with the maximum of discretion and with very specific motives, is that I’m the secret agent of a foreign power, and that in all my prior and subsequent dialogues that fact is kept secret (the author, if he’s good, will have made sure of that), how will the audience know it? It’s ridiculous to hope they will deduce it correctly from my silence, from my scruples about privacy, most of all because I could be anything else: instead of a spy, I could be the bastard son of the owner of the house or a fugitive who’s assumed the personality of someone he killed.
But to base that hope on the superhuman intelligence of the audience, as insane and everything as it is, isn’t that the reverse of a fear, also quite absurd but which reality has justified many times—the fear that they’ll figure it all out despite everything? If I refuse to speak, if I exercise such prudence to the point of obeying a mistrust of supernatural degree (such as suspecting that in reality one of the four walls is missing and that there are people sitting in seats listening to what I say), it’s precisely because I have secrets to keep, serious secrets. In harboring the hope that they’ll guess my secret, am I not comporting myself exactly the opposite way I should? How could it occur to me even to call that “hope” in real life? It’s art, in which I launched myself when I became a character, in which I saddled myself with this extravagant aberration. In art there is one condition that takes precedent over all others: to do things well. Which means I’ve got to be a good actor in a good drama: if I don’t do it well, there will be no effect, the show will fall into nothingness. “To do things well” and “to do it” go together in art, fused, as nowhere else. So if my suspicion of being hypersensitive obliges me to disassociate them, I have no other option but hope: a fatal hope, the equivalent of death. Because my secrets are of such a gravity that I would not survive their revelation. That last bit I’m discovering now in the predicament in which I find myself, and I could almost say that I entered the fatal game of art to discover it.