Monday, January 3, 2011

César Aira: The Fabulist Manifesto

Argentinian author César Aira publishes two to three novellas a year, most of them about 100 pages long. To my knowledge only five have so far been translated into English, so I was greatly pleased to discover, in a bookstore in Toulouse, another of his novels in a French translation and further to find on the inside flap of the book the titles of 14 others translated into French, only one of which seems to overlap with existing English translations. Aira writes some of the most exciting contemporary fiction I’ve read. Despite their brevity, each of his remarkably compact novellas seems expansive and expanding, a small, swirling galaxy. They remind me of those early two-minute long Herb Alpert tunes – brief, perhaps, but able to convey a whole universe and seem absolutely epic. I love tight, wildly surprising writing like this – although I’m not sure there even exists a “like this” when referencing Aira, given his astonishing originality. His little novels - fantastically fertile, displaying a tremendously energetic and talented imagination - seem as though they just dropped onto earth out of the sky, with almost nothing at all familiar about them. And despite the compactness of these works, the economical quality of the writing isn’t the obvious feature it is with some other writers who seem to pride themselves on economy of language (I’m thinking, for example, of Annie Ernaux’s La Place, with its athletic writing as terse as a slogan on a t-shirt – and that’s a book I happen to like very much). Aira’s writing may be tight, but it’s also surprisingly lush. These novels are marvelous confections – strangely serious confections sometimes, as in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but confections nonetheless (it seems somehow appropriate that two of the Aira novels I’ve read feature ice cream as an important plot element). Simply knowing that there are many more of his works ahead of me makes me feel as though I’ve been handed a box of those astonishing savory-sweet delicacies from Damascus, those improbable rhapsodies of rose petals, pistachios, cardamom, apricot, nougat and the like. They’re so transporting that you don’t want to eat them all at once, but you feel enormously fortunate to have them around for when the urge strikes you.

The Aira novel I picked up in Toulouse, La Princesse Printemps, is certainly the wildest, most fantastical and amusing of the Aira books I’ve read, laugh-out-loud funny in places, but the effect that dominates it above all is its incomparable, nearly delirious originality. One of the themes of the novel is in fact that serious fiction must strive to create something new, and La Princesse Printemps appears to do this on every page. For this reason, I’m reluctant to give away anything about the novel, since its surprises are so myriad and captivating, a succession of strikingly original conceits that, despite their strangeness, have nothing to do with the sort of adolescent gravitation towards the weird and exotic that marks, for example, so many contemporary American writers. I think I won’t give much away, though, if I reveal that La Princesse Printemps is intentionally a fable, with a princess who, in her island idyll, spends her time translating mediocre mass-market fiction into Spanish until the day a dark cloud and a black ship appear on the horizon. La Princesse Printemps, like Aira’s other novels, also manages to touch on more weighty questions of history, philosophy, literature and translation – his work consistently engages the very nature of literature - but its fabulist quality would make it a terrific book to read aloud some night with friends. I suspect even children - even though they might not understand a lot of it - would greatly enjoy hearing this novel read out loud.

Aira is one of those rare writers who make me feel as though anything I might say about him would be entirely superfluous and probably best replaced with the gesture of simply pressing one of his books into another reader’s hands with firm, silent insistence. So rather than say anything more about the novel itself, I’ll frame it between two favorite poems it called to mind. This is not the first time one of Aira’s novels has prompted thoughts of poetry more than prose (though I’d never think of describing one of them as a prose poem). If I were to append an epigram to La Princesse Printemps, Charles Baudelaire’s “A Landscape” would be a natural choice, here rendered into English by F. P. Sturm:

            I would, when I compose my solemn verse,
            Sleep near the heaven as do astrologers,
            Near the high bells, and with a dreaming mind
            Hear their calm hymns blow upon the wind.
            Out of my tower, with chin upon my hands,
            I’ll watch the singing, babbling human bands;
            And see the clock-towers like spars against the sky,
            And heavens that bring thoughts of eternity;

            And softly, through the mist, will watch the birth
            Of stars in heaven and lamplight on the earth;
            The threads of smoke that rise above the town;
            The moon that pours her pale enchantment down.
            Seasons will pass as Autumn fades the rose;
            And when comes Winter with his weary snows,
            I’ll shut the doors and window-casements tight,
            And build my faery palace in the night.
            Then I will dream of blue horizons deep,
            Of gardens where the marble fountains weep,
            Of kisses, and of ever-singing birds –
            A sinless Idyll built of innocent words.
            And Trouble, knocking at my window-pane
            And at my closet door, shall knock in vain;
            I will not heed him with his stealthy tread,
            Nor from my reverie uplift my head;
            For I will plunge deep in the pleasure still
            Of summoning the springtime with my will,
            Drawing the sun out of my heart, and there
            With burning thoughts making a summer air.

And the coda I’d choose for this strange, memorable little book would most certainly have to be this excerpt from Walter Arndt’s translation of Christian Morgenstern’s “The Moonsheep”:

            The moonsheep, lo, at dawn is dead.
            Itself is white, the sun is red.
            The moonsheep.


  1. I wonder when it's coming out in English. I'm surprised to learn that the number of French translations surpasses the English. What are the English publishers thinking?

  2. Good question, Rise. From what little I can tell, there's one additional Aira title coming out in English this summer (NOT, alas, La Princesa Primavera). I've found that in general French publishers appear to be far more aggressive about publishing foreign authors in translation than are publishers in the U.S. or Britain. There's apparently a firmly established tradition of translation there that surpasses anything yet to emerge in the English-speaking countries.