César Aira’s The Literary Conference (Guest post by Heather Cleary Wolfgang)

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César Aira

THE WORLD IN A GRAIN OF SAND

Greg raised an interesting point last week when he asked why short works are not generally considered ambitious. I agree wholeheartedly that the length of a work is no indication of its scope, and was reminded right away of a book I was thrilled to see translated into English. Published in Argentina in the late ‘90s but only just released by New Directions here in the States, César Aira’s The Literary Conference is a svelte little piece (just shy of a hundred pages) written with the dizzying momentum for which the author is known. It has ambition written all over it. At the very least, how else would you describe its narrator’s aspirations to world domination?

Aira’s novels (now sixty and counting) run the gamut from meditative to madcap, and The Literary Conference is decidedly on the latter end of the spectrum. The story begins with the narrator unearthing a fortune in pirate’s gold. Given the meager income provided by his work as a translator, he decides to dedicate the windfall to his clandestine research on cloning. It turns out the narrator-translator also moonlights as a Mad Scientist and, like any good Mad Scientist, he is working on a plan to take over the world. Not interested in creating a legion of drones, however, he determines that the surest path to world domination lies in cloning a celebrity genius, a great intellect that would maintain “the ability to give orders, and with that, to create.” This man is Carlos Fuentes.

The narrator-Mad Scientist-translator creates a tiny wasp (which, like many of his other clones, actually has “little in common with a wasp”) to extract DNA from the renowned writer at an upcoming literary conference. All appears to be going according to plan: the narrator, in possession of the Fuentes’ genetic material, retreats to his mountain lair to begin the cloning process – then hangs around the hotel pool for a few days, letting his mind drift from one outrageous (but ultimately quite canny) meditation to another, while the procedure takes effect.

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with Aira’s riotous narrative style, which he calls a “huida hacia adelante” or flight forward – never revising, never looking back – that the plot takes a turn for the unexpected at this point. Suffice it to say that the experiment does not go quite as planned; in fact, the narrator finds himself at what appears to be the End of Days and learns once and for all that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

While so much of the fun of this novel lies in following the twists and turns of Aira’s virtuosic and mischievous mind, the ambition – and, I would argue, the appeal – of The Literary Conference is not limited to the narrative elements outlined above. Like many other of his works, including How I Became a Nun and Parménides, the novel is a meditation on creativity itself, on what it means to write. Aira – who is also a translator and who may or may not have a secret lab somewhere in Coronel Pringles – hides his metaphors in plain sight, explicitly aligning his ‘own’ literary practice with the work of his narrative double.

Remember the narrator’s intent to create a clone that would not be subject to the will of its author? It doesn’t take more than a sidelong glance at a dog-eared copy of the collected Roland Barthes to catch Aira’s riff on his requiem for the Author. And those poolside reveries? Touch on themes of miniaturization and monstrosity, which bring us back to the matter of cloning, mimesis, the rendition of life. Satisfyingly, Aira takes us through the looking glass in both directions; literature acts as a stand-in for science, as well. At one point, the narrator describes the sensation of sitting in the audience of one of his own plays as “a nightmare (the mother of all nightmares) to watch the living defects of what I had written materialize in front of me.” We don’t have to wait long for the payoff of this neat bit of foreshadowing; shortly thereafter, a sea of ‘living defects’ floods from the mountain lair where the narrator had been conducting his experiments, destroying everything in its path. Cloning and translation, traditionally regarded as forms of copying rather than creation, are presented here as symbiotic – if not synonymous – with literary invention.

While it is certainly nothing new to write fiction about writing fiction, Aira manages to breathe new life into the conceit. Perhaps this is because he writes such engrossing stories – which is ultimately what they are, despite their wry self-reference and acknowledged ‘hyperactivity.’ It really is impossible not to get caught up in their momentum, whether you agree with Aira’s aesthetic or not. Or perhaps it has something to do with the freshness of his prose, which breathes with the energy of improvisation. This quality is somewhat harder to sense in this novel than in others, though it is certainly still present; Katherine Silver’s translation tends toward the staccato, evoking the “beloved cerebral hyperactivity” of the narrator, whereas Chris Andrews – the translator of three of Aira’s novels, including the recent Ghosts - emphasizes the narrative continuum through a more conversational tone. Of course, Aira is all these things. Thanks to New Directions, readers of English finally have access to a sampling of his work that demonstrates his seemingly limitless capacity for invention and the range of his narrative style.

All told, if it’s ambition you are after, this book delivers. Within the scant ninety pages of this novel, Aira weaves a singular and fantastic yarn, doing justice to the title of the series in which it appears the process. The Literary Conference truly is a pearl: compact, finely layered, and even more lovely when considered en suite.


Heather Cleary Wolfgang is a translator of poetry and prose from the Spanish. She occasionally gathers her thoughts on contemporary Latin American literature and film at www.mouseinthestacks.wordpress.com.

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4 thoughts on “César Aira’s The Literary Conference (Guest post by Heather Cleary Wolfgang)

  1. Excellent. Thanks, Heather.

    How much does the Fuentes in The Literary Conference resemble the actual Fuentes, if at all? Has Fuentes commented on Aira’s use of him as a character or the use of his name to name a character in Aira’s book?

  2. Thanks, John. I’m glad to have been able to share this book with BIG OTHER’s readers. To start with your second question, I’ve sort of kept an eye out for a statement from Fuentes on the book, but haven’t come across any just yet. In a way it makes sense – is there a dignified way to respond to being fictionalized – particularly in such an outrageous context?

    To your other point – you’re opening quite the can of worms (but one that certainly bears discussion). What, at the end of the day, are we to understand as “the actual Fuentes”? You hint at what I’m about to say in your question, when you make the distinction between “him” and “his name” – the answer is that, ultimately, Aira uses Fuentes a cultural signifier. At no point does he paint a portrait of Fuentes as a man or an artist (either as character or as caricature), but rather uses his person-a as a unit of currency. The name as sign has meaning because of the cultural capital that backs it up. The references to the writer themselves are cursory at most: Carlos Fuentes = genius. Carlos Fuentes spotted in front row of theater performance. Carlos Fuentes seen speeding toward the airport in a fancy car.

    Now, how far removed is this from the “actual” Fuentes? Not very, I would argue, if we take into account the fact that Carlos Fuentes exists solely as an idea to most – some combination of biography and bibliography that blurs the line between the individual and his work. Aira himself suggests as much in an explicit, albeit passing, comment on the inability of most people (especially literary critics) to determine where the man ends and all the rest begins.

    • This reminds me of J.M. Coetzee using Paul West (the author) as a figure in his novel ‘Elizabeth Costello.’ Costello herself is a novelist who goes around the world giving lectures on various topics.

      This is from the NYRB. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2003/nov/20/disturbing-the-peace/

      In Lesson Six, a year after her controversial visit to Appleton College, Elizabeth is once again flying long-haul, this time to Amsterdam, to contribute to a conference on “The Problem of Evil,” regretting that she has let herself in for another demand on her diminishing energy and appetite for disputation. She soon has more reason for regret. What prompted her to accept the invitation was that it arrived while she was “under the malign spell” of a book, a novel by Paul West, The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg, about the aristocratic officer who led the ill-fated July Plot of 1944 to assassinate Hitler. She was impressed by the novel at first, but horrified and disgusted by its description of the execution of the conspirators, who were hanged on Hitler’s orders by the cruelest and most degrading method, and their death throes filmed for his delectation.

      That is a matter of record, but what particularly offended Elizabeth in the novel was the imagined behavior of the hangman, who sadistically torments and humiliates the condemned men up to the point of death. “Through Hitler’s hangman a devil entered Paul West,” and she felt the brush of his leathery wing as she read this part of the book. It is, she thinks, “obscene”—such things should not be thought, or written, or read. That is what she has come to Amsterdam to say. The title of her paper is, “Witness, Silence and Censorship.” Paul West’s book is her main exemplum.

      To her consternation she discovers that Paul West is himself attending the conference. How can she deliver this attack on his book with him sitting in the audience? It is, in a way, a darkly comic situation. She tries rewriting her paper, leaving out references to him and his book, but it is impossible. She looks covertly at the men at breakfast in the conference hotel, wondering which is Paul West. Eventually he is pointed out to her and she confronts him, and warns him of the content of the paper she is going to deliver, not apologetically, but as a courtesy. To her irritation, he listens silently, and says nothing in reply.

  3. Dear Heather,

    Thank you for the great review. Regarding John Madera’s question: As far as I know Carlos Fuentes has not commented on Aira’s use of him as a character in The Literary Conference, but in his own novel La silla del águila, Sr. Fuentes imagines that in 2020, César Aira wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    Thanks again for the review.
    Best,
    Laurie

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