“How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?” – Jorge Luis Borges in “The Aleph”
In the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction, Between Parenthesis, there is an unfinished speech titled “Sevilla Kills Me.” Here the Chilean author of major novels (i.e. By Night in Chile, The Savage Detectives and 2666) discusses new Latin American literature and lists important writers of the Spanish language. The list: Daniel Sada, César Aira, Juan Villoro, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Ibsen Martínez, Carmen Boullosa, Antonio Ungar, Gonzalo Contreras, Pedro Lemebel, Jaime Collyer, Alberto Fuguet, María Moreno, and Mario Bellatin. Although the speech was written in 2003 it didn’t appear in English until 2011. Perhaps Bolaño hints at the expanse in time created by the work of translation when he punctuates the list saying, “The river is wide and mighty and its surface is broken by the heads of at least twenty-five writers, under fifty, under forty, under thirty. How many will drown? I’d say all of them.”
Bolaño, fortunately, was wrong. One writer who has made it across the translation gap multiple times is the eccentric César Aira. In contrast to previous slim books, like the nebulous Shantytown or the brainy sci-fi The Literary Conference, New Directions published a stout collection of translated short stories named The Musical Brain earlier this year. Within its pages Aira unveils a dazzling reality that eludes predictability.
Consider “Picasso”: a puzzle and roundabout homage to the Cubist patriarch. While visiting the Picasso Museum the narrator is presented a choice by a magic milk-bottle genie: be Picasso or own a Picasso? The narrator, a writer, decides via rational hoops and hypotheses to have a Picasso. A painting appears on the table before him. As quick as it came, the painting gives him what he really wants: the possibility of a new reality. Selling the Picasso would give him money to stop working and start writing. In this purchased-space he can become a “one and only.” Autonomous reality bursts in at the last moment, and thus demands he (and the reader) abandon scientific rationality. How does he suppose that he can leave the Picasso Museum with a Picasso under his arm?
Throughout The Musical Brain reality takes on myriad forms beginning with a fiction manifesto cloaked as a tale of childhood. The narrator in “Brick Wall,” el memorioso, recalls with obsessive precision the multitude of films he saw as a child. The “perfect economy of signs” formed a compact mass of meaning that kept him, and his childhood friend Miguel, returning to films. “To us [movies] seemed like a super-reality, or, rather, reality itself seemed diffused, disorganized, deprived of that rare, elegant concision that was the secret of cinema.” What the narrator sees in cinematic fictions are signs of a broader context—an expanding reality within a sign, a look, a word. “Brick Wall” reveals what the reality of Aira’s stories demands of us: that we become a detective. Every detail is a clue, every narrative was a detective story, inviting us to become a detective that inspects with a black light what lies hidden in the deep fibers of our worlds. Like the narrator in “No Witnesses” the reader must develop the detective’s sight: “The corner was very dark, but accustomed as I was to gloomy places, I could see fairly well.”
Reality in The Musical Brain is a dizzying constellation of images, words and signs. Such a limitless atmosphere overwhelms characters searching for their identity among the stars. The fame-seeking narrator (suspiciously named César Aira) of “The Spy” questions:
“Was I a misunderstood genius or some barely half-talented writer lost in the ambiguous meanders of the avant-garde? Impossible to say. The suspicion that gags and paralyzes me in the theater, with its layering of real and virtual spaces, also suspends the question of my life or death as a writer.”
This paralysis is the result of the narrator’s attempt at living in two realities by acting out two roles: character and writer. In the end, he no longer knows himself from the other. This in-story César sees the abysmal constellation around him and responds “Who am I?” In contrast, the real César, like a true detective, peers into the infinite and asks “Who are you?”
Through “The Infinite” Aira shows that despite reality’s savage and terrible autonomy, it is beautiful. Two boys create a game that names numbers ad infinitum. Each tries to say a larger number than the other. Eventually they realize that numbers are an infinite in the infinite reality of words. An infinity of infinity. One of the boys says, “We distanced ourselves from [words] so that we could see how beautiful, funny, and amazingly effective they were. Words were magical jewels with unlimited powers, all we had to do was reach out and take them. But that feeling was an effect of the distance…” Mastering reality is impossible in the face of the infinite. Colossal conceptions turn to atoms in comparison with the reality of things. But, along with the boys in “The Infinite”, the detective, the writer, the reader, the artist, the human says, “We knew that, and yet some strange perversion, or the lure of danger, sustained our crazy longing to try…”
Out of the stories in The Musical Brain Aira materializes reality as it is: an infinite polyhedron. Multiple faces and images, words and signs, constitute an enigmatic reality that is simultaneously a “chaotic muddle of signs and meaning”and “a whirl, an abyss of irrational atoms.” Aira transcends genre classification and hides the unimaginable universe beneath the stairs of simple prose. Roberto Bolaño remarks: “Once you’ve read Aira, you don’t want to stop.” Even so, César Aira is one name on an infinite list of writers from Latin America and et cetera who have tried, are trying, and will try to circumnavigate an infinite reality with words.