Eight Questions for Chris Andrews on The Musical Brain

It’s early, but The Musical Brain and Other Stories—the first story collection by César Aira to appear in English—is already shaping up to be one of my favorite reads of the year. I’m a die-hard Aira fan, but there are books of his that I feel just aren’t quite as good as they might be. What I’m saying is, some of his conceits work for me, and some of them don’t.

The amazing thing for me about The Musical Brain is that it all works. These are 20 stories, and each of them is virtuosic. In addition to that, they’re all extremely different from one another. It’s almost like receiving 20 Aira novels all at once, each individually formed and compelling in its own right.

Overall, The Musical Brain has the effect of making me realize just how massive talented and creative Aira is, as well as reminding me of just how much lies in wait for us in the Spanish language. In order to learn more, I emailed the translator of The Musical Brain (as well as five of Aira’s other books), Chris Andrews. This is a transcript of our correspondence.

Scott Esposito: The majority of these 20 stories were written in the 2000s, with a handful of them coming from the 1990s. I suppose that makes me wonder just how many César Aira stories are out there, since I presume he’s been writing them more or less as long as he’s been writing novels. Do you have any idea? And can you tell us anything about where Aira tends to publish his short fiction?

Chris Andrews: He likes to scatter it about and give it to micropresses. “Picasso,” “The Dog,” and “In the Café” were published as pamphlets by Belleza y felicidad, the press set up by Fernanda Laguna (aka Dalia Rosetti) and Cecilia Pavón at the beginning of the 2000s (as part of a utopian community project: see the anthology of their writing, translated by Stuart Krimko, coming out this month: http://sandpaperpress.net/belleza-y-felicidad).

Fernanda Laguna was also involved, with Washington Cucurto and Javier Barilaro, in establishing Eloisa cartonera, another community project, involving cartoneros, cardboard collectors, like those who feature in Aira’s novel Shantytown. “A Thousand Drops,” “The Musical Brain,” and “The All that Plows through the Nothing” first appeared between covers made from cardboard boxes and hand-painted by members of that collective.

“The Criminal and the Cartoonist” was published by a micropress called Spiral Jetty, set up by two brothers, Manuel and Ezequiel Alemian, in 2010, I think. And so on. In short, Aira is a supporter of the DIY publishing culture that has developed in Argentina since the big financial crash of 2001.

As to earlier stories, some were collected in a book called La trompeta de mimbre (“The Wicker Trumpet”) published by Beatriz Viterbo in 1998, but Aira took only one of those, “The Spy,” for his collection of short fiction Relatos reunidos (Mondadori, 2013), and he revised it. To judge from the big bibliography in Mariano García’s book on Aira, he hasn’t published all that many pieces of short fiction, but there’d certainly be enough for another book, some day.

SE: How was the selection made for this volume?

CA: Basically it’s a translation of Relatos reunidos with three bonuses at the end, which were proposed by the author: “The Two Men” and “Acts of Charity” (which are both recent) and then, to close, “Cecil Taylor,” the oldest story in the collection (first published in 1987), although Aira revised it for republication in 2011 (Mansalva brought it out as an illustrated book with woodcuts by an artist known as El marinero turco).

SE: How long does it typically take you to translate a book of Aira’s? What are the things that present you with the biggest challenges?

CA: It’s hard to say: more than a year, because I did the first versions of “The Musical Brain” and “Cecil Taylor” a fair while ago now, but I’m not a full-time translator; I have a day job, teaching.

Many of the challenges relate to ambiguous terms. We usually rely on context to resolve ambiguity, but when the context is wild and strange, disambiguation gets harder, because our real-world knowledge doesn’t apply any more, so it’s nice to be able to ask the author. For example in “A Thousand Drops” (which is very wild and strange) I was hesitating over how to translate tallado in the sentence: “El General Panzer Gota Bota dirigía las operaciones, encerrado en un gotero tallado.” Was the General enclosed in a tailor-made / specially shaped (tallado) dropper or an engraved (tallado) dropper? Engraved, it turned out: Aira had a luxurious crystal objet d’art in mind.

SE: “A Thousand Drops” is very wild and strange—the story of what happens when the drops of paint that form the Mona Lisa decide to go live independent lives. That’s a premise only Aira could invent. But on to other things: iou’ve been translating Aira for quite some time—your translation of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter was published by New Directions in 2006, which I think marks the beginning of your work with Aira. So that would be at least nine years. What are some of the things you’ve learned about Aira, and/or about his writing, in that time?

CA: When he came to Melbourne for the Writers’ Festival in 2011, I learned that as well as working as a translator, he had worked for years as a ghostwriter, and that some of his clients had more precise ideas about what refreshments should be served at the launch than about what should go into the book.

I’ve learned that the range of his literary enthusiasms is astonishing, but that he doesn’t feel in the least obliged to admire all the canonical authors (his Diccionario de autores latinoamericanos is very interesting in this regard: some of the Big Names get fairly short shrift, while figures who are not so well known outside their own countries, like the Venezuelan Teresa de la Parra and the Mexican Elena Garro are given more space and praise).

Since 2006, César Aira has published a lot, and I have read more of the earlier books, so my idea of his work has continued to shift and stretch. There are some sequences, books that form little clans (the books set in Pringles, the books set in Flores, the Panamanian “trilogy”: Varamo, El Mago, La Princesa Primavera), but what strikes me about his body of work so far is how openly structured it is, how unpredictably it has developed. Very few writers have been able to renew themselves so abundantly.

SE: As I’ve been reading through The Musical Brain, I’ve been impressed at how Aira manages to transmute his style into the short form. Like in “A Brick Wall,” how he juxtaposes a number of ingenious ideas and connects them all through a very Aira-ian, yet still almost rational, kind of logic. It’s a little like reading something like The Literary Conference, except in just 20 pages. Or then something like “The Dog,” which felt almost Kafkaesque in the way it manages to feel allegorical, creepy, and complex all at once. Or “Picasso,” which takes a premise that seems to come completely out of nowhere—a premise I can’t imagine anyone other than Aira working with—and then makes this intricate, ouroboros-like thing out of it. Can you make any generalizations about how you feel his short fiction differs from the novel-length writing, either as a whole or on a sentence-by-sentence level?

CA: I don’t think there’s much difference at the sentence level, and, as you say, at the structural level, there are some stories that resemble compressed novels: the title story, especially, with its fantastic, apocalyptic ending (an Aira trademark: see The Literary Conference, or El Sueño (“The Dream”), or Embalse (“Reservoir”). Then there are some stories that have a serial, variations-on-a-theme structure, like “In the Café,” “Acts of Charity” and “Cecil Taylor,” but Aira does that in his stand-alone book La vida nueva (“The New Life”) too. There are the stories that lovingly reconstruct childhood games (“A Brick Wall”, “The Infinite”), but that kind of imaginative autoethnography is at the heart of El Tilo (“The Lime Tree”) as well . . . so I’m finding continuities rather than differences.

As you say, there’s often a sinuous, looping thread of conceptual thought that gives the story continuity. But occasionally he’ll snap the thread, as in “The All that Plows through the Nothing” which is a startling juxtaposition of three narrative blocks: the narrator wonders how people keep coming up with conversation topics; then he tries to calculate how many taxis there are in Buenos Aires; then he tells the story of how he was personally (and fatally) transformed into literature. There’s another snap at the beginning of “Cecil Taylor,” after the story of the prostitute, the cat and the rat, which serves as a kind of enigmatic prologue.

Kakfa is definitely an important presence in the background. Aira translated The Metamorphosis and wrote a gem of a preface to it. I’ve heard, or read, that Ricardo Strafacce, the novelist and biographer of Osvaldo Lamborghini, who recently gave a series of talks on Aira in Buenos Aires, and is preparing a critical study, has been insisting on Kafka as a precursor.

SE: You’re right about some of these narratives just snapping off at certain junctures—I think this points to another important fact about Aira, which is that he’s willing to take risks. I can’t imagine too many other authors being willing to potentially ruin a very promising novel or story by suddenly turning it in a whole new—and possibly ludicrous—direction. But, Aira wouldn’t be Aira if he was a conservative writer. What have been some of his novels and/or stories where you feel like he’s taking the most risks?

CA: “The All that Plows through the Nothing,” definitely, and among the novels La Prueba (“The Proof,” or “The Test”), where, on page 54 of the Era edition, the long three-way conversation among Mao, Lenin and Marcia (Mao and Lenin are a pair of punk lesbians who have picked Marcia up in the street) gives way to something altogether different. There’s a continuity at the level of plot, but the genre changes radically. The impact of that kind of discontinuity is, I think, proportional to the size of the continuous parts. A lot of contemporary writing (poetry especially) is discontinuous, but when the discontinuities are coming thick and fast, they can get monotonous. In La prueba, Aira hits you with just one, and he doesn’t signal it on the page in any way, but the effect is massive.

That’s a case of spectacular risk-taking, but he takes quieter risks as well. In Cumpleaños (“Birthday”) he admits that until he was 50, he thought that the phases of the moon were produced by the earth’s shadow, and goes on to wonder how many other basic facts he has misunderstood. There he risks denting the image of the brainiac author. And in the recent Margarita (un recuerdo) (“Margarita (a Memory)”), he tells a (relatively) straightforward story of young love recognized too late. Where are the experimental fireworks? They are there, scaled down, in the figures, but a reader who goes to Aira for outrageous craziness might be disappointed.

SE: In addition to being an outstanding translator, you’re also a very accomplished poet: you received the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize for your first collection, and your poems have appeared widely, including The Paris Review. What has the practice of translation added to your poetry work, and have your encounters with Aira’s language added anything in particular?

CA: The book that won the Hecht prize was my second, but the first was published by a small press in Australia and doesn’t get around much. It’s hard to say how translating has affected my poetry, and in any case self-commentary is a hazardous activity. I think the combination of clarity and boldness in Aira’s writing is something to aspire to: whether he’s describing daily life or narrating a mad action-sequence, you can see it in your mind’s eye precisely. I also admire the way he has paid homage to the places that have formed him: his hometown, Coronel Pringles, and the not specially groovy neighborhood of Buenos Aires where he lives, Flores. There’s a lesson there for writers who might be tempted to regard their immediate surroundings as hopelessly dull. And finally, Aira is a great example of commitment to literature itself, to the quiet adventures of making and exploring it.

SE: I agree with what you say about seeing Aira’s writing in your mind’s eye. It reminds me of what he said to me when I interviewed him, about how important is it to him to include powerful visual images in his work. I think it’s one of the most characteristic things about his writing. When I read one of his books, I know I’m going to be dazzled in this way, and his writing is able to so precisely and effortlessly construct these visual images. I admire it, too, and I think it’s a thing writers should aspire to. And what you say about there being “a lesson there for writers who might be tempted to regard their immediate surroundings as hopelessly dull” reminds me of the story “In the Cafe,” which is simply about these people in a cafe folding a paper napkins into origami for this little girl. How much more quotidian can you get? And yet, Aira manages to give it those powerful visuals we were talking about, and to turn the premise into a story that is weird and interesting. I think his creativity is astonishing—it’s so diverse and surprising. So I’d like to ask you, insofar as you’ve read Aira, what themes or obsessions do you see emerging in his work? Do you feel like, amid all this plentitude, there are certain things he returns to, or certain aporia that his writing tends to collect around?

CA: One thing he returns to in The Musical Brain and Other Stories is “the dark secret”: the narrator in “The Dog” is literally pursued by an element of the past that he had thought was safely behind him; in “The Two Men,” the narrator’s daily visits to the house where the monstrous men live is a secret that he keeps from his family and friends for decades. The fear of a dark secret getting out is at the heart of his 2009 novel La confesión (“The Confession”). So that’s one thematic node.

He’s also a strongly anticlerical writer: the virtuosic “Acts of Charity” (in The Musical Brain) makes that very clear, but it comes up in the novels too: in El Sueño (“The Dream”), and Las noches de Flores (“The Nights of Flores”).

Then there’s an obsession with starting over, either by making a radical break with the past (as in “The Spy”) or by means of a decisive reorientation (as in Cumpleaños (“Birthday”).

Monsters and monstrosity, too: that’s an obsession that Sandra Contreras discusses in her book Las vueltas de César Aira (“The Turns (or Returns) of César Aira”), which draws a very useful map of the work up to Varamo (2002).

As well as these thematic nodes, and the concepts that are mobilized in the essayistic passages of the fiction (the continuum, the procedure, the flight forward, and so on, which critics, and academics especially, latch onto, naturally enough), there are recurrent motifs that don’t necessarily have a stable meaning: the color pink (in the sunset sky, or in the strawberry ice cream of How I Became a Nun), or the “serious smile” (there’s one in The Musical Brain and Other Stories), or hares (not just in The Hare). There’s fun to be had noticing when these motifs reappear, remembering where they appeared before, and puzzling over the enigmatic patterns they compose.

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