Monday, 23 December 2013

'The Seamstress and the Wind' & 'The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira' by César Aira (Review)

While New Directions have published a fair few of César Aira's books in the US, he's still not really widely known here in Australia (or in the UK) - so my library doesn't have much of his work to borrow.  Recently though, I've been very lucky, managing to obtain an inter-library loan and persuade my local branch to buy one of his books.  Which is why you have a double dose of Aira delights today :)

*****
The Seamstress and the Wind (translated by Rosalie Knecht) starts with a writer in a Parisian café who wants to pen a story.  He already has the title (the title of the real book), but that's as far as he's got.  If only he can think of a story to go with it...

Eventually, he stumbles upon one from his childhood, a tale which starts with a friend's disappearance but quickly becomes ever more surreal.  In the course of a mad dash to Patagonia, the reader makes the acquaintance of a host of unhinged characters, with the addition of a wedding dress, some serious gambling and (of course) the wind...

While some dislike the term, 'magical realism' is the easiest (and most apt) way to describe what's going on here.  When you have a woman flung high into the air, only to land gently on her feet, an invisible lorry, a monster and a woman turning black from shock, you sense that we're no longer in Kansas (or even Buenos Aires).  That's without mentioning the appearance of an armadillo on wheels, racing across the dried-out flatlands of Patagonia...

It's not always easy to tease out the deeper ideas hidden beneath the crazy surface, but one theme Aira works on is memories and forgetting.  In his initial rambling monologue, the writer touches on these ideas, recalling(!) several mistaken memories from his childhood.  He remembers his mother being asleep when he went to bed, even though he's sure she was always up later than him, and his memory of being waken by birds turns out to be mistaken (it was his neighbour's car).

He also enjoys playing with contradictions, frequently starting sentences off only to turn back on himself before we reach the full stop:
"My parents were realistic people, enemies of fantasy.  They judged everything by work, their universal standard for measuring their fellow man.  Everything else hung on that criterion, which I inherited wholly and without question; I have always venerated work above all else; work is my god and my universal judge; but I never worked, because I never needed to, and my passion exempted me from working because of a bad conscience or a fear of what others might say."
p.23 (New Directions, 2011)
The reader needs to stay focused when reading this book.  Like the wind which makes its appearance late in the piece, Aira's story goes off in odd directions...

The Seamstress and the Wind is a great story that feels like it's being made up as the writer goes along - which, of course, is exactly what is happening, both in the story and in real life.  Anyone familiar with the great Aira 'method' will know that he's a writer that doesn't like to plan too far in advance :)

*****
The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (translated by Katherine Silver), the second of my library delights, is a little different from the first.  The book starts with the titular faith healer wandering the streets, and after an adventure in an ambulance (one which he undergoes unwillingly), he goes back to pondering his writings on the theory of miracle cures.  One day, he is summoned to the bedside of an ailing billionaire, and, to his own surprise, agrees to test his theories for the first time...

It's very different from others I've read by Aira, a much denser piece despite its brevity.  In fact, after the first couple of sections (44 of 80 pages), I wasn't really sure if I was enjoying it; I was missing the easy-reading flow his work usually induces.  Then the 'great' doctor goes to work, and you are swept away by the energy and audaciousness of his attempt to bend the universe to his liking.  It's a battle between belief and reason, and Aira and his doctor insist that you've got to believe...

Anyone wanting specifics about the miracle cure will be disappointed as the writer is deliberately ambiguous, which fits in very well with the slippery nature of what Aira's trying to say with his book.  In fact, it's very easy to equate Dr. Aira with the writer, even without the name:
Writing was something he couldn't do in a single block, all at once.  He had to keep doing it, if at all possible, every day in order to establish a rhythm... The rhythm of publication, so checkered due to the imponderables of the material aspects, could be regularized through the installment format, which also took care of the quantity of the product and its basic tone, that of "disclosure".
p.38 (New Directions, 2012)
Hmm - an author who writes every day and brings out regular short works... Remind you of anybody?

I may be completely wrong, but it seemed to me as if Aira was equating the struggle and mystery of producing a great work of art with the art of the miracle cure (or vice-versa).  Just as in the creation of a work of fiction, the good doctor tries to bend the universe in his own fashion; more importantly, just as is the case in writing, it can all go horribly, horribly wrong.

At the end of the piece, we find ourselves asking whether the 'doctor' is a charlatan.  More importantly, perhaps, what about his creator?  Now that's not a question most writers pose about themselves...

*****
That makes four Aira books for me over the past few months, and I'm very happy that New Directions have taken on the job of bringing Aira's *many* works into English - one 'installment' at a time.  Each of the books has had an excellent translation (Chris Andrews was responsible for both Varamo and Ghosts), and with several more translations already out there, I'm very keen to read some more.  Why not give Aira a try?  I'd definitely recommend his work.  He might turn out to be your next new favourite writer...

6 comments:

  1. I am very much intrigued by the contradictions in the first of these titles Tony - great reviews.

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    1. Jo - Contradictions all over the place - and armadillos, of course ;)

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  2. I went looking for César Aira's work after reading about him in the Guardian article The Publisher's Year: Hits & Misses of 2013, Simon Prosser Publisher at Hamish Hamilton mentions his work as Our book that deserved to do better. Sadly, too many of the books mentioned in this category tend to be translated works.

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    1. clairemca - New Directions have really pushed him in the US. He's the next big thing in Spanish-language lit there after the success of Roberto Bolaño (and with most of his books being novellas, and plenty of them, they're being pumped out quite quickly in English).

      Translations overlooked? Hmm, not exactly news ;) I'm doing my best to rectify that here though :)

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  3. Hooray! Another Aira convert. I started out with mixed feelings regarding The Miracle Cures (and Varamo, for that matter) as I read, but it's grown on my slowly and surely.

    Because they are so short I try to ration out my Aira books. I'm on vacation next week and plan to delve into The Seamstress & the Wind and, possibly, The Hare.

    And wait until you get to An Episode In the Live of a Landscape Painter. :-)

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    1. Tara - Here's hoping I can lay my hands on some more soon ;)

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