César Aira’s many short novels share, even at their most sombre, a headlong momentum; the associative leaps outpace the narratives, which are pushed along not by plot, but by digressions and logical puzzles. It often seems as though Aira is heedless of where the story will eventually end up, though, like many great improvisers, he inevitably loops a few earlier motifs into the finale, as if to suggest a unity between the spontaneous and the planned. I can think of no other writer as concerned with formal and thematic questions of pace (not of time, but of the various speeds at which we feel time passing): not only are the individual books quick-moving, but he’s published over a hundred of them, with no signs of slowing down.
New Directions has now published 17 of Aira’s works, so English-language readers can glean some sense, though incomplete, of the scope of his work. Usually, his style is characterized by direct prose in tension with madcap plots. But last year saw the publication in English of The Linden Tree (2003), a gentle semi-autobiographical novel about the author’s childhood in Coronel Pringles, Argentina; the book recalls Peronism and the invention of a provincial middle class, juxtaposing portraits of eccentric neighbours with meditations on how complex social reality is refracted through a child’s eyes.
In Birthday, first published in 2001, autobiography is foregrounded further, as Aira uses the occasion of his 50th birthday to reflect on his life so far and, more specifically, on knowledge that he’s failed to acquire in that time. The book begins with an anecdote about a conversation the author had with his wife, in which it’s revealed that he doesn’t understand what causes the phases of the moon. This revelation of ignorance quickly cascades into a series of reflections on not-knowing, and on the reciprocal relationship between the swiftness of time, which ensures that we can’t know everything, and our discontinuous experience of time, which make knowledge feel as disjointed as memory.
Some of the material here mirrors the recollections in The Linden Tree (for example, memories of early reading experiences or the magic of electricity’s arrival in a small town), but in Birthday these subjects are explicitly existential, related to the ever-present possibility of death and, perhaps more deeply, the fear of having not lived at all. Aira repeatedly confesses his ‘incapacity to live’. At some moments, this seems like a lament for a life spent in books; at others, like an ontological claim about the holes in memory: ‘If they were only gaps in knowledge, I wouldn’t be so worried; but there are gaps in experience too, and again they can only be plugged by serendipity.’
This notion of serendipity plugging the gaps in experience inevitably reads as self-reflective commentary; Aira’s style is built around serendipitous plot points that tie together (or create the illusion of tying together) the digressions. There are many such self-reflective moments in Birthday, which occasionally reads as an ars poetica. Most importantly, Aira connects the shortness and improvisatory feel of his novels to the quickness of historical change, which is out of sync with the quickness of personal change, especially as one grows older:
Suddenly it hits you: you’re not twenty; you’re not young any more […] and in the meantime, while you were thinking about something else, the world has changed. The succession of my ideas was interrupted, and now it’s hard for me to resume it, because those ideas no longer correspond to anything objective, which means that they’re not really ideas. I want to be completely sincere about this, but to tell the truth I no longer know if I’m thinking or raving.
As an example, he remembers that ‘one of the ideas that implanted itself in my young mind was the indignity of work in a capitalist society’, and admits that he no longer knows how such an idea relates to the world, because now ‘the masses are clamouring precisely for work, and the right-minded, to whose ranks I thought I belonged, are praising it to the skies, as if it were a panacea’. Aira is not whining about feeling out of touch, nor is he disowning his previous belief; rather, he’s remarking on how no individual life keeps pace with historical changes, and that this has an effect on how both experience and history are narrated.
Such discontinuities, then, are what his novels’ fast pace, brevity and acrobatic serendipity seek to represent. Birthday’s self-reflections suggest that, even though such writing does not often read as autobiographical, the style itself is mimetic of personal experience. And, perhaps more fundamentally, it also suggests that Aira’s novels are concerned with the phenomenology of contemporary history, which can feel both immovably stable (as class power remains entrenched) and cartoonishly slippery – a frenzy of nonsensical inversions, one after another, like a seemingly never-ending series of little novels.
Main Image: César Aira, Birthday, 2019. Courtesy: New Directions Publishing, New York