Dinner by CÚsar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver
Born in 1949 in the Argentinian town of Coronel Pringles, which most of his writing is now set in, CÚsar Aira rattles many of our learned reading habits. He deliberately disappoints expectations that we may have built up for the direction of his plots, and instead presents us with surreal, and wholly unexpected twists and turns. Aira is a notoriously prolific author, having published over 80 collections of essays, novels and novellas, with the bulk of his writing falling into the latter category. Aira has produced mostly short but utterly strange works of fiction, his 2005 novella Dinner being no exception to this rule.
When I picked up Aira's slim booklet which, in its English translation just missing the 100-page mark, I confess that I might have been expecting something like a literary homage to Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn's 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, rather than what I was ultimately presented with. Dinner starts out with a somewhat unsurprising setting. The protagonist, a 60-year-old bachelor and his mother visit a friend for dinner. So far so good. We quickly come to know that the novella's protagonist is "fat, wrinkled, stooped; [...] alone, without any family [...] or money, or work, or future." His mother is in denial about her son's life and not only provides him with shelter and money, but also seems to be his only real social contact. Capable of forgiving her son any possible shortcoming, the only thing she cannot let pass is his failing to share her views. This odd couple is off to a somewhat unusual dinner, where their host shares strange anecdotes such as the one of the 88-year-old dwarf that fell off his roof. He goes on to show off his antiques and other collectibles that fill a large part of the apartment, till finally the dinner guests leave with the protagonist's mother going on about their host's unbearable cooking, stories, and his grossly useless collection of things.
The dinner is over, yet we have only made it about one quarter into the book. In the novella's second chapter, Aira, in a sudden change of plot, pushes us into an entirely different world, which gives a somewhat macabre second meaning to the book's title. Ending his Saturday night watching television on his mother's couch, the protagonist comes across a live broadcast of the town's dead rising from their graves. Where Aira set a scene which might allow for the plot to evolve into the protagonist's struggle to overcome his own innateness or his dependency on his mother, it suddenly simply abandons any narrative ties to the first chapter and instead turns zombie apocalypse.
With the "ragged ghouls" overrunning the town of Pringles, the big "slurping" of brains begins; the demons cracking skulls in search of the livings' endorphins. What sounds gruesome never fails to carry quite a bit of humour and irony. The town leaders, barricaded in the Palacio Municipal, reason that "if we all need endorphins to overcome the animosity and tedium of the world, a cripple would need them that much more." This leads them to call in the one-armed "El Manco" (the maimed) and use him as zombie bait while they finally try to break free. Needless to say, the big slurping knows no mercy.
No bullets or brute force seem to be able to halt the advances of the dead. Until eventually, one elderly lady recognizes a corpse as an old friend and calls out his name, upon which the creature stands still and finally returns to the town's cemetery. In this way, the town is saved not by the force of the young, but by memories and connection.
The next morning breaks and we are back at home with our protagonist. Yet, after the previous night's events, his first thoughts are not with the lives lost or with the blatant absurdity of a zombie rising. Instead, he blithely faces his usual Sunday depression and, soon again, his mother. Instead of jumping up in amazement and telling her of what has happened, they take to discussing dinner and how "[e]verything about [...] dinner had been bad for her." He later calls up his friend to thank him again. In conversation, they only briefly touch upon "the invasion of the living dead" and come to see it following a line of other, more worldly misfortunes, which have befallen Pringles in the recent past: "On top of the drought, the crisis, and now this." Aira's novella ends in a few short pages, with the two friends discussing the rich in Pringles, the technical aspects of live broadcast and, lastly, with a plea for "youthful dreams that should never be abandoned."
Aira's Dinner is an unusual construct. It is funny and entertaining, as much as it is bizarre and fragmented. The two stories that live in this novella never become one. Aira throws us from one back into the other without making any real connection or establishing any real impact of one storyline on the other. Whereas we get some insight on the first and last chapter's protagonist, anybody else gets merely brushed over; nobody is really fleshed out. The second chapter, when laying out the events of the zombie apocalypse, jumps from scene to scene without giving us any one character to follow.
Where the literary value of some parts of this book might be doubt worthy, its entertainment value is not. Aira surprises and amuses. Ultimately, Dinner, perhaps, is not for the stylistically ambitious. However, it surly makes for an unconventional and entertaining Sunday read, noteworthy for undertaking the experiment of drawing a splatter movie plot into a more sophisticated literary setting.
Dinner by CÚsar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver