Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bolaño, Aira, and the Argentinean Literature of Doom

Roberto Bolaño’s contribution to the Spanish issue of The Hudson Review is flattering.  It’s a post I wrote last year, on the extraordinary riches of Argentine literature.  His essay is maybe just a little different than mine, superior in terms of knowledge, skill, breadth, depth, humor, and every other virtue associated with good writing and good criticism, but is otherwise much like what I wrote.

Post-Borges Argentine literature has become, Bolaño claims, “the literature of doom,” a “literary nightmare, literary suicide, a literary dead end.”  That sounds worse than he means – better literary nightmares than real ones.  Bolaño thinks of Roberto Arlt, for example, as a great writer, but here’s his metaphor for Arlt’s anti-novels:

Seen as a closet or a basement Arlt’s work is fine. Seen as the main room of the house, it’s a macabre joke.  Seen as the kitchen, it promises food poisoning.  Seen as the bathroom, it’ll end up giving us scabies.  Seen as the library, it’s the guarantee of the death of literature.

An aside – I would not want to argue that this is the way all literary criticism has to be written.  No, not all of it.

The strain of doom that has only recently wandered into English is that of the mysterious Osvaldo Lamborghini and his disciple César Aira.  Bolaño describes Lamborghini’s novels as “excruciating,” readable only two or three pages at a time, smelling of “blood, spilled guts, bodily fluids, unpardonable acts.”  If someone could report back on this, I would appreciate it.

That is not at all how I, or Bolaño, would describe the compulsively readable Surrealist César Aira, author of dozens of little novel-like objects.  Five have appeared in English, with another coming in June.  I am surprised to discover that I have read four of them, all but The Hare.  Tess Lewis, in The Hudson Review, has put together a fine and useful, if perhaps insufficiently skeptical* overview of Aira-in-English.

I have written elsewhere, briefly, about a single amazing scene from An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, easily the best Aira novellino I have read (Bolaño prefers the fluid How I Became a Nun), and also the most conventionally novel-like novel, suggesting that I am an aesthetic reactionary.  I read someone – not Tess Lewis – who claimed that Landscape Painter was Aira’s deliberate parody of the well-crafted Modernist novel.  Could be.

The Literary Conference (2006), Englished last year, is about a mad scientist – “the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books” (18) – who plans to conquer the world with an army of clones led by a clone of Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes.  The mad scientist is the narrator, and author, César Aira.  Of course he is.  Who else would he be?

Aira writes his fiction under a regime of self-imposed daily serialization.  My understanding is that he can polish and refine his day’s writing, but can never revise an earlier day’s work.  He deliberately inserts impossible, unsolvable situations to stymie his future self, who is stuck with whatever nonsense he had previously written.  His novels are one-man exquisite corpses.  A close canonical equivalent I can think of is The Old Curiosity Shop, a brilliant improvisatory flight, which often descends into Dadaist lunacy.  As Aira (“Aira”) thinks, watching one of his old plays at the literary conference:

What was this all about?  I didn’t recognize it, it was too Dadaist.  Nevertheless, I had written it. (55)

Now I see my attraction to Aira.  It is as if he is me, reading one of my old posts at Wuthering Expectations.

Another aside – if someone would hurry up and translate Aira’s only short story, “Cecil Taylor,” that would be great.  Thanks.**

* Aira, like Bolaño, is a straight-faced prankster; their own claims about their biographies and methods should be taken as artistic creations.

** According to Bola
ño, one of the five greatest stories he had ever read.  No idea what the other four were.  According to Aira, “No es un cuento” (“It is not a story,” translation by me).  “Cecil Taylor,” accompanied by a perplexing allegorical introduction, can be found in an anthology titled Buenos Aires (1999, ed. Juan Forn).  Someone should translate the whole book.


  1. You left out one of my favorite lines from the Bolaño essay in this otherwise fascinating post of yours: "Let's say, to put it modestly, that Arlt is Jesus Christ." And the kicker: "Argentina is Israel, of course, and Buenos Aires is Jerusalem." Oh, how I laughed over Bolaño's lit crit turn!

    Don't have any inside dope on Lamborghini other than that he's often mentioned alongside fellow Argentine writer Néstor Perlongher by Lat Am bloggers and writers who have way more knowledge of "the Argentinean literature of doom" than I do.

    Forn's Buenos Aires short story anthology, which I had checked out of the library early last year, also includes two top short stories by Fogwill ("Muchacha punk") and Ricardo Piglia ("El fluir de la vida") in addition to the Aira you mention. Those two stories were so good, in fact, that I had to stop and take a break to recuperate before soldiering on with the rest. My loss. The Piglia is all too "typical" of this rich motherload of mostly overlooked material in a way I think you might appreciate, Amateur Reader: loosely presented as a story about storytelling centered on a possible wacko who claims to be the granddaughter of Nietzsche's sister, it's so action-packed in terms of its regional and storytelling detail that I decided it was impossible for me to write about it at the time. Fun historical fact lifted from Wikipedia: sort of like in Piglia's story, the real life sister of Nietzsche married a Nazi who supposedly tried to found an Aryan supremacy utopia in Paraguay at some point (fortunately for one and all, the colony floundered).

  2. That's when I was looking at the anthology, early last year, whenever I wrote that post.

    The book is beyond my Spanish, which is only strong enough for me to understand how much I was missing and be filled with bitter regret.

    Paraguay has the strangest history - the Jesuit Empire, the devastation of the War of the Triple Alliance. Something I should research, someday.

  3. I translated the Cecil Taylor story just for fun. If you want it, email me at

  4. Piromas, how generous! I will email you.

  5. So...did you get to read "Cecil Taylor"?

  6. Yes! 'Tis awesome! Genuinely Aira, but also actually about Cecil Taylor. Not just off-in-the-wilderness crazy like some of the stuff in the novels, but rather a thoughtful parable about creativity.

  7. Ah, thanks for the extra link Tom. It does indeed sound fine.

    I am much indebted to Trevor (Mookse) for putting me on to Aira. As ever the comments here signal further routes to explore.