Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The pampas Utopia -there was always something more to unfold - via César Aira and the current Booker Prize - And pinot noir to boot

Argentinean Doom begins when Argentinean literature begins, with The Gaucho Martín Fierro, “the 1872 epic gaucho poem by José Hernández,” “the root of Argentine literature.”  I’m quoting myself, why not.  The title cowboy takes a beating from the world until, finally, he “Martín takes a drink, smashes his guitar, steals some horses, and disappears across the frontier.”  Quoting myself again.

One of the current Booker Prize nominees, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron (2017), spins its title character out of Martín Fierro.  China Iron is Fierro’s wife, barely mentioned, a commodity with a name that demands its own story.  Cabezón Cámara describes the germ of the book:

I was in Berkeley, California, loving the sun, the clear skies, the trees, having the ocean and the sierras close by. And pinot noir to boot…  And I started writing with an overwhelming feeling of happiness.

That sounds, I won’t kid myself, great.  Not necessarily the resulting novel, which I have not read, but the model for living.  Ain’t much doom there.  The novel sounds like it is, if anything, a direct counter to her literature’s Doom.  The author is going to rescue her character from Doom.

Claire at Word by Word calls the story “a heroine’s journey from dystopia to utopia,” moving from the pampas to a fort (the frontier), and ending among the Argentinean Indians “where even the air feels easier to breathe.” I am turning back to the interview with the author:

I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light.

The weird thing, reading Claire’s review, was that I felt I had just read this book, except it was César Aira’s Ema, the Captive (1981, tr. Chris Andrews), his second novel, in which the prisoner Ema emerges from a brutal journey across the pampas (to a fort) to eventually be captured by or escape to the Indians who live in a utopia based on raising pheasants and printing fiat currency (that Arlt novel also has a money-printing theme, a deep concern for Argentineans).  Here is how western Argentina looks on a map:

Beautiful miniatures stood in for absent inscriptions: the capital with its palaces and bridges, villages in remote clearings, and even the fort in Pringles and the settlement, where Ema was able to recognize the hut in which she had lived.

One of the maps, her favorite, was devoted to the pheasants.  Meticulous drawings represented each of the breeds.  (164)

The novel is full of animals, many of them like the pheasants dubiously Argentinean, but what do I know:

Above all, there were the grotesque dragonflies with their bulging eyes, which could be popped out with a little squeeze to lie in the palm of the hand like two tiny red balls.  They also saw a curious insect, a kind of mantis, which the gauchos called a tata-dios.  It was as big as a dove, and had so many joints that its definitive form remained elusive: there was always something more to unfold. (35)

Ema is early Aira, from when, as he writes in his fiftieth-birthday essay (Birthday, 2001, tr. ditto), “I used to write with the sole aim of producing work of high quality: good novels, better than others, etc.” (57).  Its plot and characters have a kind of novelistic coherence that he would later abandon, but the Argentina represented, as history and landscape, becomes more fantastic as the novel progresses until it has wandered into a true Utopia, Nowhere.  I assume, given the date, that Aira is engaged in a parody of so-called magical realism, perhaps pushing it back to its origins in Surrealism as detailed in Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Lost Steps (1953).  He pushes pretty far.  Early in the book, a French officer imagines writing a novel on anti-Airan principles:

… a novel could be written about those changes of color in the sky and the transformations of the clouds between say, six and eight, so long as the author confined himself to the most rigorous realism.  The resulting novel, a report on atmospheric colors, shifts, and flows, would be the apotheosis of life’s futility.  Why not?  (17-8)

Ema, the Captive is not that book.  Nor, by the sound of it, is The Adventures of China Iron.  Are there more of these books in Argentinean literature?  They are so strangely close, like “jolly historical pampas travesty” is an established genre.  I hope it is.


  1. Oddly enough, I don't miss Berkeley. Earthquakes, housing prices, lack of public transit. Too much sun. Though reasonably priced and readily available pinot noir I do miss.

    Jolly historical pampas travesty, however--I'm missing that already.

  2. I assume the housing for the writers-in-residence is included, and is pretty nice. And I'm afraid the California pinot is no longer reasonably priced, although that might be different at this exact historical moment.

  3. Sideways was a good movie, but it killed off reasonably priced pinot noir, at least the drinkable variety. But back in the day, I scored some great stuff: Chalone, Mondavi Reserve, a Kistler so deep and powerful I dream about it to this day... And the average wine-lover could buy top-notch Burgundy too, in those bygone days of yore. Now I drink Woodbridge merlot. How the mighty are fallen!

  4. My understanding is that the most recent wild ride of California pinot prices was caused by a tidal wave of Silicon Valley money flooding Napa Valley. Much of that wine went to the restaurant trade, so I bet there will be some bargains this year.

    Oregon pinots are worth exploring. Bargains relative to Napa, with high quality. Lots of young Burgundy winemakers do tours of duty in Oregon.

    As for actual Burgundy, yes, sigh, now I go to France for that. We need the 1990s exchange rate to return.

  5. Not going there on the pinot question, other than to second the preference for Burgundy. It does highlight how much I notice wine in my readings, such as being jealous whenever I read Eça de Queirós and his love of Margaux. (See The Maias, especially)

    Another example, in reading Embers by Sandor Marai, I remember wondering how a less-than-grand-cru wine over 50 years old served was still laudable, much less drinkable. I may be misremembering something there.

  6. Forty years, according to the NY Times review. If they are drinking tokaji, that stuff can age for ages, like yet unlike the magical vin jaune from Jura.

    With literature, it is nice to know things, and wine is a thing to know about, even if one does not care about it specifically.