July 2011

Scott Cain

fiction

The Seamstress and the Wind by César Aira, translated by Rosalie Knecht

I don't know much about César Aira. I know he is from Argentina, that he has written over eighty novels in Spanish and that only a handful have been translated into English, that he is beloved in his home country, and, from the blurb on the back of this book, that Roberto Bolaño was a fan. After all the press surrounding the translation of 2666, it's hard to approach any Bolaño book without some notion of the man behind the words. Revolutionary and poet whose life was cut tragically short and who denied the importance of his own novels: that is who we picture when we pick up 2666 or The Savage Detectives. But who is César Aira? I have no image to connect with the name.

Biographical readings of books are tricky. Especially with big-name authors like Bolaño, who died young, or writers who commit suicide. There's always that unanswerable "Why?" in the back of your head, which can drown out the value of the books themselves. For other less romanticized authors, like Aira, who is alive and well but relatively obscure in the U.S., books are sometimes just books. So it was somewhat of a surprise to pick up the newest Aira novel to be translated into English, The Seamstress and the Wind, a novel I've never heard of by a writer I don't really know much about, and find the author talking directly to me, telling me about himself.

This book has two faces. On one hand, it's a surreal road trip: a woman searching for her son whom she believes to be stowed away in the trailer of a neighbor's truck, a powerful wind that traps her in a vast desert and declares his love for her, a husband desperate to reclaim his wife and the missing boy, but who cannot resist risking everything in a high-stakes poker game in a bewitched hotel in the middle of the desert, and, if that were not enough, a hideous demon child stalking through the story, threatening to tear apart the fabric of this magical landscape.

This plot alone makes the book a funny, bizarre read, but there is another layer to the novel. Aira, the novelist, begins the book by describing himself, seated in a café in Paris, proposing the idea for a novel entitled The Seamstress and the Wind. This sounds like the type of postmodern trickery that Paul Auster has built a career out of, but there's something different about Aira's approach. He does not turn himself into a character or step into the story. Instead, he frequently interrupts the plot, brings us back to the café in Paris, tells us about his lack of appreciation for travel, complains that the waiter will not make eye contact with him, that he will be very late for an important meeting if he cannot pay his bill soon, and informs us that he sometimes has trouble communicating with people, that he cannot trust himself to say the right words, which is why he can't just yell for the waiter like anyone else would.

What emerges is a portrait of a sensitive, brilliant writer who is in love with the act of creation, but finds himself unable to write in the traditional fashion; he cannot write the type of planned story he pictures as "a single point, the Aleph, the monad totally unfolded but as a point, an instant." Most likely a reference to Borges, a titanic author that he must feel destined to live in the shadow of, who wrote such precise, carefully sculpted stories. In comparison, Aira sees his style as nothing more than "wasting time in cafés."

But there is more to it than that. True, the plot comes and goes, and Aira often complains that he has lost the thread, but the remarkable thing about this style is that it gives us the chance to actually get to know the author as we read. Borges, Bolaño, Woolf, Joyce, Nabokov: these are monoliths. Aira, here, is talking directly to me, and, like me, he has trouble expressing complex emotional concerns in plain language. Which is why the prose sometimes feels like a purging. It comes forth in gushes, and moves according to rhythm, not logic. I had no trouble imagining Aira, bent over the café table, writing feverishly, halting, wiping his brow, frowning slightly, then continuing, without revision. He cannot go back and rewrite, because he is concerned with the process of creation itself. Characters stumble into confusing situations, and the confusion of the character manifests itself in the prose. After diving into the cabin of a truck, Delia, the missing boy's mother, suddenly finds herself unable to move: "She put both hands to her waist and felt a kind of rigid snake, hard and smooth to the touch, circling her like an impious belt." Sentences later, both Delia and the readers realize that she is caught in the gigantic steering wheel.

Often, Aira will zoom in on a particular detail, blocking out the explanation and presenting only the phenomenon itself. For example, this passage, which comes after Delia has untangled herself from the steering wheel and is gazing out the windshield at the night sky (this passage alone, in my opinion, being enough to justify the translation of Aira's entire back-catalogue into English):

Before her lay marvelous night time Patagonia, whole and limitless. It was a plateau as white as the moon, under a black sky filled with stars. Too big, too beautiful, to be taken in with a single gaze; and yet it must be, because no one has two gazes. The panorama appeared to repose against the pure black of the night, and at the same time it was pure light. It was scored with little black marks, like holes in space, that traced out sharp, capricious shapes, in which chance seemed to have been the determining factor in representing all of the things a fluctuating consciousness might want to recognize, but without recognizing them completely, as if the plethora of figures exceeded the existence of objects.

The explanation of this phenomenon -- "Those marks were the reverse side of the pieces of butterfly wing stuck to the glass of the windshield" -- is less satisfying than the beautiful confusion that Aira draws out and holds on to.

Early in the book, Aira ruminates on the nature of memories: "Taking control of forgetting is little more than a gesture, but it would be a gesture consistent with my theory of literature, at least with my disdain for memory as a writer's instrument." This is the key to the appreciation of this book. The foundation of the story -- the missing child --is based on the real-life disappearance of Aira's childhood friend. In the book, the two boys are playing in their neighbor's empty truck trailer. Aira, struck by a sudden, inexplicable terror, closes his eyes, and when he opens them, Omar, his friend, is gone. While Aira opens up about the autobiographical nature of the story, he cannot explain what exactly happened. The plot moves slowly away from the missing child, as each new fantastical element is introduced; by the end, we are left only with Aira's frustration. My impression is that something truly horrible must have happened, something Aira cannot bear to drag out of the depths of his memory: "I pursue forgetting as well-earned pay for my fatigue and my memories." Instead of writing to preserve the past, like some authors, Aira writes to forget, to drag from his mind images and impressions, to put them on the page, and then to think of them no more. Which makes this a profoundly personal book, written more for the author's sake than for his readers. But I feel a connection to Aira nonetheless. I still have that "Why?" in the back of my head, in response to the fear that Aira felt as a child, to the everyday terror we all feel, but even though he is alive to answer this question, I will not ask it, because I know that, like me, he has no clue why life is the way it is.

The Seamstress and the Wind by César Aira, translated by Rosalie Knecht
New Directions
ISBN 978-0811219129
144 pages