July 2014

Matt Pincus


The Conversations by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver

A professor in a fiction workshop this spring at Naropa University told me César Aira will walk to a café, write in the morning, and when he goes home, he burns the pages. The truth of this story is unknown to me, and The Conversations is a book that continually asks what is the fiction or fact of something. The narrator (who more or less seems to be Aira himself) makes one question whether it is a true story, but the recounting of a fantasy about a Rolex watch, a movie star, the goatherd, a conspiracy turned love story creates a kind of fairy tale.

The creation of myth among two men is reminiscent of the novel Absalom, Absalom!, where in the latter half of the text Quentin Compson and his roommate at Harvard, Shreve, recreate, among corroborated accounts, the story of plantation owner Thomas Sutpen. Aira's text is much shorter and lacking the high modernist style and long sentences, but he uses the narrator's conversations as a way to open a philosophical discussion. One key point is verisimilitude, or the appearance of being true or real. The narrator's friend argues the story must appear to be real, while the narrator believes it can just be fiction, as absurd, or creatively twisted as the story itself generates.

The narrator says at one point, "Art was creation, and the first thing it created was its own convention." A page or so later, the narrator tries to reimagine the face of his friend, but can't after proving "through the positive absurd [of the story], that fiction was fiction." Faulkner's Light in August carries the line, "Memory believes before knowing remembers," as if to say the unconscious already recognizes an emotional, or visceral moment of realization before the conscious mind can come to an understanding of it. The conversance between the narrator and his friend is essentially attempting to come to an unconscious realization through the conscious retelling of a possible story instigated by seeing a Rolex watch on a man on television.

The true crux of the text exists in the moments of imaginative and (I almost hate to use this word) surreal aesthetic. The book starts with, "I no longer know if I ever fall asleep, if I do, I remain outside of sleep itself, in that constantly moving ring of icy asteroids that circle the dark and immobile hollow of oblivion." The Conversations attempts to stay in this area outside itself, or rather in a space of "oblivion" where thoughts of imagination can be explored in a fictional space. The conversation acts as a decoy to explore creativity, or how each individual human explores their subjective experience, and reacts to it, as Faulkner once said, "conflicts of the human heart."

Aira, an Argentine writer comes from a lineage of great Latin American novelists and poets who were also indebted to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Aira (though your guess is as good as mine) is no exception. The words of the text, "had risen in a confusing swarm and spun around in spirals, ever higher, colliding and separating," but again they are only conversations.

The Conversations by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811221108
96 pages