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Favorite Reads of 2010: The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira


All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

If I could be King for one year, what I’d do is call together 10 or 15 of the best Spanish-languge translators I could find, and I’d set ‘em loose on Cesar Aira. Between the translators’ skills, Aira’s naturally beautiful writing, and the fact that his novels tend to be very short, with any luck we’d get through a good quarter of the 80+ Aira titles that remain to be translated into English.

Maybe we could even establish the Cesar Aira Press and just publish Aira titles exclusively over the next 5 – 10 years. His books are all so different from one another that I bet we could cultivate different readerships for each one (plus the people who already know and love Aira and will read whatever he publishes). And given Aira’s continuing (even accelerating) productivity, he’d keep us busy after we polished off his backlist.

To see why I’m such an Aira adherent, go ahead the look at The Literary Conference, the one Aira title to make its way into English this year (New Directions has plans for more next year, one hopes, more thereafter). Reviewing it in The National, I wrote:

The kernel of the plot is the idea to take a cell from Fuentes and clone it into an army, a metaphor for Aira’s own status as a prolific writer, firing off experiment after experiment and conquering his rivals by sheer ubiquity.

Later on there will be further conflations of fiction and reality: a play-within-the-novel (authored by César Aira, of course, and performed at the literary conference in his honour) about Eve as a “clone” of Adam; a love story involving a beautiful woman from Aira’s past; and, last but not least, enormously destructive worms that make mincemeat of the Venezuelan army.

That’s a lot to fit into 85 pages, and Aira is indeed an author who loves to keep multiple balls in the air at once, yet he has a way of making his novels feel extemporaneous and fun despite the heavy metaphors and philosophical implications seething out of almost every sentence. Aira writes with what Italo Calvino called “lightness” – a quality the latter held in the highest esteem and which he likened to Perseus (the writer) beheading Medusa (reality) while viewing her through a mirror and standing on the “very lightest of things, the winds and clouds”. Aira is just the kind of writer to assault reality while seeming to dance about around it on a current of nothingness. His wispy books rarely run far beyond 100 pages, and he continually employs an ironic, bemused tone that can turn even the heaviest matters to comedy.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

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6 comments to Favorite Reads of 2010: The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira

  • bert hirsch

    The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira
    This was the first book I have read by Cesar Aira. Having read essays and reviews about him for some time I anticipated with excitement reading a piece by this “prolific and experimental modernist” from Argentina. Aged 62, he has written over 60 books with only a few translated into English.
    The Literary Conference is a brief piece, more a long short story of fantasia than a full length novel or even novella. The book starts with Mr. Aira solving a centuries’ long riddle, The Macuto Line, an anchored rope line lying off the coast of Venezuela near Caracas. The legend is that if solved, the discoverer will find a hidden treasure and rest assured the narrator pulls on the rope at just the right time of day and angle and after vibrating with great import the hidden treasure rises out of the sea and Mr. Aira finds himself with fame and fortune.
    What had initially brought him to Venezuela was a Literary Conference and his plot to clone an exact copy of the Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes. Why Fuentes? One can only assume that it is a joke and Fuentes is the butt of it. The cloning experiment quickly goes awry and a catastrophe of great proportion besets the city.
    Interrupting the action is a strange performance of one of Aira’s earlier plays performed by University students at the local airport. Attended by all of the conference’s participants (including Carlos Fuentes and his wife); it, too, is a great success and again Aira becomes the toast of the conference, fawned over by students and writers during a night of wine and celebration.
    Interspersing the story is Aira’s longing to be re-united with an old flame, Amelia.
    The cloning experiment goes terribly wrong. Instead of cloning Fuentes, a single cell of his silk tie is cloned, and giant silk worms the size of football fields descend from the mountains surrounding this city in Venezuela threatening the lives of thousands. In a mad dash, Aira commandeers a car and drives into the mountain reversing the experiment and everything returns to normal.
    What to make of this tale is hard to fathom. I was left mildly disappointed. Its brevity saved it for I had not invested too much time and effort in reading it.
    Is it a major joke on Fuentes; on literary conferences; on the vanity of writers; on the quest for fool’s gold; or, just a hallucinatory psychedelic dream Aira had while intoxicated one night? The reader is free to make a choice.
    A humorous tale worth reading for a glimpse into the imaginative world of César Aira.

  • Scott

    Hey Scott–

    A new Aira, The Seamstress and the Wind, is up for pre-order at Amazon, with a 30 June 2011 release date. There are also new ones from Enrique Vila-Matas (Never Any End to Paris) and Horacio Castellanos Moya (Tyrant Memory)and of course Roberto Bolano coming in 2011

  • Neil Griffin

    I’m about to start Ghosts, which is one of his that I haven’t heard anybody rave about. I wish I’d started off with this one instead, since I hear he’s hit or miss.

  • Neil: I’ve said a number of very nice things about Ghosts on this site. Plus, is came extremely close to winning last year’s Best Translated Book Award. It’s a great book.

    And in my experience, Aira has been all hit.

  • Muzzy

    Those worms! Those crazy blue worms!

    Up until that last chapter and the arrival of the worms, I was all over loving this little book.

  • Neil Griffin

    Thanks Scott. I’ll check it out in the next few weeks.

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