April 2015

Matt Pincus


The Musical Brain and Other Stories by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews

A reader enthralled by the hype of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, which was heartily panned by Michiko Kakutani, might be better suited to the stories of César Aira and his latest collection, The Musical Brain: And Other Stories. The Argentinian native has been a prominent figure in Latin American literature for decades, and his writing veers towards invention. As he said in an interview by Bomb from 2009: "In that sense I have no trouble, because in my work everything is invented, and I can go on inventing indefinitely."

Aira is concerned with narrative to dissect its structural, formal techniques, and make a reader conscious of genre expectations in contemporary literature. In his last story, titled "Cecil Taylor," the narrator says, "Narrative traction cannot be suspended, even by inserting endings." All of the stories begin with a premise such as the one in "Picasso" where, "It all began when the genie came out of the Magic Milk bottle and asked me what I would prefer: to have a Picasso or be a Picasso." None of these premises, though, are ever resolved, or in other words they do not take on the narrative traction a reader would expect in continuing the text to a conclusion. However, as Aira notes in the former story: "That level is History, and History has an important role to play, because it allows us to interrupt the infinite series that are generated by the art of thinking." His stories, twenty in all, function as interruptions of a reader's history, and, for an American individual, question what literary, cultural, sociological, or political biases they may hold, specifically about Latin America.

Aira is from a small town called Coronel Pringles, a province of Buenos Aires, where he developed a voracious appetite for literature at the public library. Aira says in the same 2009 interview, "I'm a narrative reader who searches for a good story," but he is also a writer who seeks narrative invention. The story "Infinity" recounts the narrator as a young child in Coronel Pringles, who plays a game with "Omar" where each has to say a number greater than the other. For the narrator, this game becomes more about words than naming a larger number than Omar: "We'd distanced ourselves from them so that we could see how beautiful, funny and amazingly effective they were. Words were magical jewels with unlimited powers, and all we had to do, we felt, was reach out and take them." The paradox of the game being contingent on numbers, not words as signifiers, creates "a mirage" the young Aira grasps for and the older writer César Aira attempts to express through imagination.

One can immediately note from the title story, "The Musical Brain," that Aira is a skilled reader of Proust. The narrator misremembers whether their family passed the traveling circus in town before or after dinner, noting memory is anachronistic to senses of the present moment. "Two Men," about a pair of hermits, one who has oversized feet and the other with oversized hands echoes a sense of Kafka's hapless protagonists and the grotesque surrealism of Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis. If Aira lived, wrote, and had been born in the United States, he would be a major figure spoken of with the same reverence as Steven Millhauser or George Saunders.

Anyone who has read, reviewed, or discussed his fiction says he is an anomaly among Latin American writers. Chris Andrews, a professor at the University of Western Sydney, continues to translate Aira's fiction with a shrewd vibrancy, as he has done for nine previous novellas also published by New Directions. Stories in Latin America, fiction or not (São Paulo's water crisis, the canal planned to be built across Nicaragua funded by a Chinese billionaire, and political corruption of the PRI in Mexico) are shoved out of mainstream American media because of its Islamophobia and obsession with IS terrorists. César Aira's surrealism provides an exhilarating and revitalizing vantage point in the twenty-first century, continuing the legacy of Cortázar and the Boom novelists of the late '70s.

The Musical Brain and Other Stories by César Aira, translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811220293
360 pages