Did I say I’d be back in early November? I must have meant early December; surely I meant early December. Half the time since my last post I’ve spent wandering through China; much of the other half I’ve spent re-occidenting myself from wandering through China. I hope to post about some Chinese literature soon and maybe even float the idea of a Chinese literature challenge. But first, to shake off the dust and get back to posting, here’s a contribution to Caravana de Recuerdos’ Argentine Literature of Doom project.
Even if I’d purposely set out to find an image of Roberto Bolaño’s pronouncement that South American literature was a “literature of doom,” I doubt I could have surpassed the one César Aira provides in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira. Here literature, at least by one metaphoric reading, is a bed-ridden billionaire dying from severely metastatic cancer. Among the novels by Aira I’ve read, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is both the funniest and the one that most directly addresses the condition of fiction and, in particular, of Aira’s writing itself (his own name appears in the title - d'oh!). Unlike other authors titillated by the metafictional aspects of their texts, Aira accepts that the novel, at this stage of its evolution, has, inescapably, become the subject of the novel, and he goes gallumphing in.
This is not to say that such reflexivity need be boring, or that it’s the only operation taking place, because the The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira works simultaneously on multiple levels: metafictional, fabulistic, metaphorical, symbolic, absurdist, realistic (even, in a work where metaphysics features so prominently, physical too). Following one absurdist thread of one realistic layer of this kind of vertically integrated choose-your-own-literary-adventure, the reader finds Aira’s protagonist, Dr. Aira, standing in a street in Buenos Aires extemporizing to a Lebanon cedar while tracing the sound of a siren heading towards him. He cuts a stock cartoon figure - the mad patient wandering the streets pursued by two doctors charged with bringing him to the hospital - but naturally Dr. Aira has an alternate, conspiratorial interpretation: they want him for the miracle cures at which, he tells us, he is so adept. So he pretends to go along only to lull them into a complacency through which this madman/miracle worker/charlatan/artist can leap to his escape. Though the reader can’t definitively extract what’s really going on from Dr. Aira’s head, or from his author’s, or even from his or her own while reading this capering, ambiguous work, following Dr. Aira’s comical surface narrative is one path the reader can take, while on a metaphorical level, the reader may even choose to find a miracle cure directed at doomed literature.
As a build up to this metaphor, Dr. Aira, having attained a certain age, contemplates preserving his miracle cures, which, from the reader’s perspective, remain purely theoretical. He desires to create, for posterity, a library, a series of short books each devoted to a different cure, restricted in page length and possessing physical embellishments such as hard covers, satin dust jackets, and illustrations, something of a delicious self-parody of Aira’s own notorious writing/publishing habits (one swoons contemplating the illustrations César Aira might provide for his books). But when Dr. Aira accepts the challenge of producing an actual miracle cure for the cancer-ridden billionaire, the task (calling to mind the old Yogi Berra quip that, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is”) proves substantially more complicated than nicely packaging his theories in pretty editions.
As Dr. Aira begins his treatment, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira becomes a comical treatise on the novel, about its supposed constitution of a complete world, and a surreal exposition on the creative process. Through antic manipulations of imagination and encyclopedic thought, Aira performs a sort of negative space excavation, blocking off with metaphysical screens everything in the world and every conceivable narrative incompatible (in non-metaphorical terms) with an outcome in which his patient is cured and (in metaphorical terms) leaving only the novel occupying the resulting hole. This Herculean mental feat is represented by an explosively accelerating amplification of the dividing screens that, unfolding in all directions, form multiplying, metaphysical pom-poms (who but César Aira, setting out to save the novel, would think to add a bit of frenzied cheerleading?)[i]. The operation is reined in only by an entropy that necessitates its own end - and what a comical, meta-metafictional end it is (one of Aira’s great strengths is an ability to produce such comic episodes while still communicating a serious substrate: for all its metafictional absurdism, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira subtly conveys a moving sense of the indignities of aging and the loss of faculties, particularly as regards the creative process).
As in other Aira works, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira demonstrates the well-oiled Airaen wrestling match with the problem of creating something novel in the novel, knowing full well that the task may be in vain, that the process itself may be unpredictable, the result imperfect. Something of a trickster himself, Aira repeatedly and coyly hints at his methods without ever giving away exactly what’s in them; in other works he has come off as impishly dismissive of the facile methods of the surrealists and the rigid, linguistically-based creativity machines of Raymond Roussel. How convenient here to have an arguably mad character invoke, as part of his alchemical tool kit, blunders, intuitions, a bit of chance, improvisations that are not strictly improvisations, a pharmacopeian creative arsenal endowed “with a plasticity that resist[s] all definition.” But what a marvel to have this series of short works in which Aira spins whole new worlds to explore the wonders of the metafictional universe, creating for metafiction something akin to what Jules Verne, in his series of Voyages Extraordinaires, did for fiction (and, like Verne, publishing new installments at the rate of about two short books per year). It’s tempting - irresistible, even - to swallow Aira’s metaphors whole-hog, to assume that his tongue-in-cheek representation of the writing of his novels is exactly a series of magical manipulations intended to remedy the grotesquely metastasized, dying state of literature, perhaps even aimed at refuting Roberto Bolaño’s dire prognosis. But whatever César Aira is up to, as long as he keeps performing “the translation of one Universe into another” via his charming, dazzling miracle cures, literature has another day to live. Who cares whether or not the cures may be snake oil?
[i] In this comic scene, I could not help but think of a performance I saw in China by the matriarch of a family of acrobats. Unable at her advanced age to perform physical contortions of the type practiced by her progeny, she’d replaced her earlier talents with card tricks, including, as an astonishing finale, one in which cards, not unlike Dr. Aira’s metaphysical screens, kept appearing from her coat sleeves with an accelerating rapidity until hundreds of them were shooting out in all directions and showering the audience. César Aira seems to have some familiarity with China; at least, he’s written an as yet untranslated work entitled, A Chinese Novel. Maybe he saw the same show?