Of all the writers I am excited to see translated from the Spanish, César Aira is one of my very favorites. Aira, who has penned over 50 novels, is known for a writing style he characterizes as a “huida hacia delante” – a flight forward. According to Aira, he writes a page or two per day and never, ever looks back. This technique has led to some really extraordinary material: a wasp scientifically engineered to extract genetic material from Carlos Fuentes; a New Year’s party from beyond the grave; a world in which literature has ceased to exist but whose inhabitants are all descendants of famous writers; a knock-down, drag-out fight with God, who looks suspiciously like a giant spider.
Beyond the fantastic aspect of the stories, however, what makes Aira so exceptional is the way he manages to pack complex commentaries about language and the art of writing into his lively, compact volumes. This combination of readability (his novels can be – and usually are – devoured in one sitting) and complexity have made him the darling of the Argentinian literati and a favorite in the Spanish-speaking world as a whole. Thanks to New Directions, now Anglophone readers can get in on the fun.
Katherine Silver, whose translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s La diabla en el espejo (The She-Devil in the Mirror) was discussed earlier this week, has translated one of my favorite novels, El congreso de literatura, which will be released this month as The Literary Conference. If Aira’s work runs the gamut from meditative to madcap, this novel is decidedly on the latter end of the spectrum. The narrator, a self-proclaimed writer-translator-mad scientist comes upon a fortune in pirate’s gold (which he alone is able to retrieve, he claims, because of the unique combination of books he has read), and with his newly acquired wealth is finally able to pursue his life’s dream: world domination.
Aira, of course, further compounds the complexities of the plot. The mad scientist-translator-writer decides that the best way to conquer the world is to create a man of great genius for the rest of the population to follow. After much deliberation, he decides to clone Mexican author Carlos Fuentes and creates a tiny robotic wasp to extract DNA from the renowned writer at an upcoming literature conference he is scheduled to attend. As is often the case in Aira’s work, this premise serves as a reflection on the art of writing, the construction of worlds in miniature, and of the relationship between mimesis and creation.
As is also often the case in Aira’s work, the best-laid plans of the narrator take a turn for the bizarre, although I won’t say more – so much of the fun of the novel is in following the twists and turns of Aira’s virtuosic and mischievous mind. I look forward to seeing more of his work translated into English; there is certainly no shortage of great texts from which to choose.
Edited to add: Amazon is now offering a preview of the English translation on its website. Check it out!