Wonderful Writers You Might Not Have Heard Of: Cesar Aira

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cross posted from The Dream Antilles


Cesar Aira

Maybe this should be an occasional series.  I don’t really know how many wonderful, creative Latin American writers’ works I have come to admire, but which have received completely insufficient notice in the US. These would include works by writers with too few English translations, and works revered in their writers’ own countries, but virtually unknown to US readers.  The authors of these works, like the one in this essay, are the writers you might not have heard of.

Wiki tells the basics about Cesar Aira:

César Aira (born on February 23, 1949 in Coronel Pringles, Buenos Aires Province) is an Argentine writer and translator, considered by many as one of the leading exponents of Argentine contemporary literature, in spite of his limited public recognition.

He has published over fifty books of stories, novels and essays. Indeed, at least since 1993 a hallmark of his work is an almost frenetic level of writing and publication, two to four novella-length books each year.

Aira has often spoken in interviews of elaborating an avant-garde aesthetic in which, rather than editing what he has written, he engages in a “flight forward” (fuga hacia adelante) to improvise a way out of the corners he writes himself into. Aira also seeks in his own work, and praises in the work of others (such as the Argentine-Parisian cartoonist and comic novelist Copi), the “continuum” (el continuo) of a constant movement forward in the fictional narrative. As a result his fictions can jump radically from one genre to another, and often deploy narrative strategies from popular culture and “subliterary” genres like pulp science fiction and television soap operas; on the other hand, he frequently deliberately refuses to conform to generic expectations for how a novel ought to end, leaving many of his fictions quite open-ended.

I have to cite the Wiki and include the link because this is potentially confusing territory when it comes to Latin America literature. I don’t want you to think I’m following in the footsteps of Roberto Bolano’s novel, Nazi Literature In The Americas, which followed in the gigantic footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, and that I’m possibly writing a review of a fictional writer’s book that was, in fact, never really written.  But could have been.  Or that I’m following Ricardo Piglia’s example and providing you with a fictional piece I’m attributing to someone (Piglia chose Roberto Arlt in his wonderful novel, Assumed Name) who didn’t write it, when, in fact, I did.  But I digress.

Cesar Aira is real.  Rest assured of that.   And he’s an incredibly gifted, prolific writer, whom you might not have heard of.

An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter, written in 2000, is a beautiful, short (87 pages), brilliant, gem of a novella.   It was a great read.  I can’t believe that so few people in the US know of the book or of its writer.

A jacket blurb:

An astounding novel from Argentina that is a meditation on the beautiful and the grotesque in nature, on the art of landscape painting, and on one experience in a man’s life that became a lightning rod for inspiration.

The novella is about a fictional trip of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), an actual painter, and a painter colleague of his, to the pampas of Argentina to paint landscapes which, according to the theories of Alexander von Humboldt, will achieve a “physiognomic totality” of places he paints.  Unfortunately, along the way, a grotesque and dreadful accident intervenes (you’ll not get the details of this from me) and the accident completely and savagely changes Rugendas and his art and the journey.  Rugendas is physically destroyed by the accident, but he continues nevertheless to paint.

Aira tells the story compellingly and unemotionally.  His writing, even in translation, is elegant and fluid.  And it’s true that it goes ever forward.  The book is a short, eye opening masterpiece.  I am delighted to have found it, and I consider it in the class of Juan Rulfo’s seminal work, Pedro Paramo. I consider it a “must read.”

As far as I can tell, only two of Aira’s novellas have been translated into English.  The other is How I Became A Nun.   What a sad state of affairs.


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  1. I don’t really know whether this essay belongs here at dd or not.  As I think of it, I’m not sure really what belongs.  And what doesn’t.

    If it doesn’t belong, let me know and I’ll take it down.  If you want me to consider another in the same series in the future, I’ll consider that, too.

    As always, thanks for reading.

  2. this post certainly belongs here, in my opinion. For what that’s worth.

    I look forward to your series, if indeed it becomes such.

    • kj on August 10, 2008 at 17:39

    i have a longing for an ad hoc on-line book reading group.  tried to start one years ago but failed.  

    so, i dunno.  right now i want to read “Let the Wind Speak” via your other It’s About The Love essay, but that might take a week or two.  i wonder if you could throw out a title or two in advance to give someone (like me, heh) a chance to read before you discuss?  i always feel like i’m playing catch up with you literary types.  😉  or would that be too organized and too much trouble for you?

    • 3card on August 11, 2008 at 10:07

    A friend, of Portugese ancestry, told me that I should read  Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, starting with “The Alchemist”.  I’d never heard of him either. (which isn’t surprising as I’m a bit of a provincial heathen)

    I’m always open to and appreciate rec’s for a good read and find it coincidental to get two for South American authors in two days.

    Any thoughts on Coelho?

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