Who ain’t a captive?

Ema, the Captive, was César Aira’s second novel and the fourth one read by me. I find Aira somewhat difficult, and I’m not sure how much I enjoyed reading Ema. But since I find him difficult, I tried to do an attentive job of it, and one thing seemed worth watching out for: the nature of Ema’s captivity.

At the time, that struck me as, I don’t want to say stupid, but I didn’t think it was a unique insight. I may have been wrong about that, in a way that reinforces the central absurdity of Ema. Sad!

The novel(la) opens on a wagon train traversing the pampa, dull with sameness of routine and landscape. The monotony is broken after a few pages by a bloody massacre (of viscachas): “It was a lively and even colorful operation, given the relentless monotony of the background against which it unfolded.” You can stop reading here, on page six, because that’s it, that’s the whole thing.

But you won’t.

At this point the narrative is roughly realist. We witness the viscacha hunt by the soldiers, then we’re passed on to the officers, where we find out there’s a Frenchman along on the trip, an engineer who emerges as the protagonist of Ema (which is a bit unexpected, but not without precedent in the history of the novel). It’s a frontier novel, perhaps a Western. Duval, our Frenchman, isn’t doing well out here on the way to Pringles, though he has a good time at stopping point Azul. There, we get our first idea of our destination.

The lieutenant, who had been away from Pringles for almost a year, asked for news of the town, but the others could tell him very little. Although they had all been there at least once, the

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The Hare by César Aira

Is it particularly difficult to write about César Aira, or am I just out of practice?

Either way, I’ve been having an exceptionally hard time composing a post on The Hare. But it’s August 31, officially the last day of a Spanish(-Language) Literature Month that was graciously extended by a whole second month, and I need to do it.

My last post on Aira, on his miracle cures, was not so positive. But The Hare is magnificent. Its plot is superficially similar to that of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter: a Romantically educated European goes to South America and wants to see Indians. In this case, the main character is Clarke, a naturalist and geographer, and instead of painting the Indians, he wants to talk to them.

Specifically, he wants to talk to them about the Legibrerian Hare, a leporid that’s very shy, but when it does come out, it can fly. The reality of the Legibrerian Hare—and pretty much everything else in the Huilliche world—is hazy. The picaresque journey Clarke will go on in search of the hare, or the other things he’s seeking, will teach him the ultimate lesson of life for the Huilliche and Voroga, the two warring tribes whose story he’s invaded:

Clarke had never perceived so clearly the need for the novelesque in life: it was the only truly useful thing, precisely because it lent weight to the uselessness of everything.

Clarke’s whole life is later determined to be the “kind of thing [that] only happens in novels…but then, novels only happen in reality.”

There’s a lot of good absurdist stuff in here for me, but also a lot of good normal stuff. Clarke makes a young friend and they talk and have adventures. He experiences growth by

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“The operational tool came from the field of publishing.”

In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, genre is understood as a means to represent the world. Rugendas’s genre is “the physiognomy of nature,” and he believes that if he follows a set of formal rules, his landscape paintings will become accurate representations of the world he observes.

There’s no painting in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, and it may appear at first glance that there’s no art. But attentive readers may remember there is a performance at the end of the novella—and that it’s meant to construct a representation of reality.

The plot of the novella…well, to be honest I am no longer certain. I read Miracle Cures several weeks ago, and I didn’t care for it—unlike An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter before it or The Hare after it. It seems charming enough, and I believe it’s just a quirk of personal distaste. But the plot’s not all that important, because what’s important is what Dr. Aira thinks is happening, and that’s this: he knows the “miracle cure,” the panacea that can save any life, and he’s finally been induced to use it for the first time, after years of theorizing and mockery.

The miracle cure is quite simple. If, in this world, X is going to die, then the miracle “X lives” is excluded by reality. But what if it weren’t? What if, instead, Dr. Aira rounded up every fact about the universe—alles, was der Fall ist, as it were—and then excluded the ones that excluded X’s living?

Just as Dr. Aira’s theories are getting really out there, (not-Dr.) Aira lays this on us:

[I]t was a titanic task, for the listing of the facts was merely the qualifying round before carrying out the operation itself: the selection of

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“An order was implicit in the phenomenal revelation of the world…”

I am way behind the times in reading César Aira. I could have worked through a (tiny) shelf of his tiny novellas by now, and perhaps should have considering my love of the form. But I have finaly got under way, with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

The landscape painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, is a genre painter. His genre is the landscape, more specifically, “the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. As you can see from the Wikipedia link above, this part is “real.” Humboldt, of course, is also real, perhaps real-er—Aira has not latched on to his life, requiring of it an episode fit for a novella. I have not read every bit of writing on An Episode in the Life by any means, but I’ve been surprised not to see any of Rugendas’s paintings reproduced elsewhere. Both of these depict Brazil as opposed to Argentina, where An Episode in the Life is set, but one does include Native Americans, others of whom are significant in the novella.

Back to genre. Aira gives a simple and brief disquisition on the value of genre itself as Rugendas and his fellow artist and friend Krause are discussing history and art.

He suggested, hypothetically, that, were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost, since the present generation, or those of the future, could experience the events of the past without needing to be told about them, simply by recombining or yielding to the available facts, although, in either case, such action could only be born of a deliberate resolution. And it was even possible that the repetition would be more authentic in the absence of stories. The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down,

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“That’s what Arturo Belano was like, a stupid, conceited peacock.”

Putting together Tuesday’s post, I naturally spent some time skimming back through many of the narratives, especially the earlier ones. I wasn’t so much amazed at how much I’d forgotten, but at how little I’d realized the tightness and cohesiveness of the section. Tightness, ha, how many narrators are there again? Yet I’m serious.

Take Laura Jáuregui, probably most famous in the world of Savage Detectives quotes as the woman who describes “the whole visceral realist thing [as] a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless.” Jáuregui certainly uses her interviews, conducted in January and May of 1976 and March of 1977, to lash out at her ex-lover Belano. But her comments on visceral realism and her telling of the story of their relationship and breakup foreshadow much of what is to come.

Before the visceral realists even exist, Járegui can tell their future—they will grow up. In January 1976:

And then other poets turned up, poets a little older than Arturo, none of them visceral realists, among other reasons because visceral realism didn’t exist yet, poets like Aníbal who had been friends with Arturo before he left for Chile and so had known him since he was seventeen. They were actually journalists and government officials, the kind of sad people who never leave downtown, or certain downtown neighborhoods, sovereigns of sadness in the area bounded by Avenida Capultepec, to the south, and Reforma, to the north, staffers at El Nacional, proofreaders at the Excelsior, pencil pushers at the Secretaría de Gobernación who headed to Bucareli when they left work and sent out their tentacles or their little green slips.

In the same interview, she also knows what will keep the group together for a while, and why their stories

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On Bolaño, prose, and narration

Selena’s post on The Savage Detectives pointed me to this New Yorker Book Bench blog post, an alleged “user’s guide to Bolaño.” I’m not sure if I’d say so much I “disagreed” with the post as that it “depressed” me; is there a word for some mixture of the two? And it might seem hard for me to disagree per se because I’ve only read two of the books discussed, but I sort of do.

Putting aside the somewhat bizarre first paragraph, a necessary lede, at first I am almost taken in by this nice “For Completists Only” shelf idea. As a sometime-completist, I think these would be very sensible shelves to have. But then, Giles Harvey accuses Bolaño’s prose of being “often as flat as old seltzer water,” giving this as an example of such, from The Third Reich:

Her sweetness, her charm, her soft gaze, put everything else—my own daily struggles and the back-stabbing of those who envy me—into perspective, allowing me to face facts and rise above them

Am I dazzled? No. But wait. Let me go on before I justify this.

Harvey goes on to say that “prose-flatness is not atypical of Bolaño” and that he was “a great novelist who was not a great writer” with “little interest in the sentence” and “disdain [for] Jamesian refinement and polish.” Now, this Jamesian refinement and polish is, let’s not forget, a particular type of “good writing,” not some mathematical proof of it. He goes on to give an example, I suppose, of just this polish, but which Bolaño gives to a “moral toad” of a narrator, proof of said disdain.

But then as Harvey goes on to recommend five of Bolaño’s best works, you realize: gee, he keeps talking about narrators, and what the narrator

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Cutting out and clipping together The Savage Detectives

Since I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly how the second section of The Savage Detectives worked—and who was reporting it, as discussed, for example, here, I decided to actually analyze the darn thing and try to figure some stuff out about it.

First, one possibly interesting observation that struck me as surprising but doesn’t seem super meaningful: other than the recurring presence of January 1976–vintage Amadeo Salvatierra, the interviews pretty much go in chronological order; there is exactly one non-Amadeo interview that is out of order (Joaquín Font, March 1977, page 222 in my Picador edition).

Back to the “substance” of this post. Something surprised me over the past few days, reading over others’ entries and comments for the group read—remarks here and there about a multiplicity of interviers, writers, listeners, whatever, in “The Savage Detectives” section. The thought had simply not occurred to me when I read it. Knowing me and knowing Bolaño, there’s probably a nicely hidden reason why the same person cannot have conducted all the interviews, but I decided, for this post, to go under my initial assumption: that one person (or perhaps one very small group of people, say, a duo) went to all the places and talked to all the people him- or herself. I believe that if you make what Nero Wolfe might call a few reasonable assumptions about this interviewer an interesting picture begins to emerge, so let’s suspend our disbelief and do it for a bit of fun.

Here is the story of the interviews, broadly and in chronological order: a long, in-depth interview is conducted in January 1976 with Amadeo Salvatierra in Mexico City. Further shorter interviews were conducted with a variety of visceral realist–types in Mexico City from March 1976 through May 1977, interrupted

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The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Since I didn’t wrap up reading The Savage Detectives until last night, I’ve stayed away, so far, from most other participants’ posts. One of the few I did read, because I could tell right away that she had stopped before the point I had already reached, was Dolce Bellezza’s lament that the second part of the novel, “The Savage Detectives,” put her off. In the comments to his own post on The Savage Detectives, Rise suggests that in some sense this middle portion is the novels version of 2666‘s “The Part About the Crimes”:some people will not make it through.

There was never any question of whether I would make it through “The Part About the Crimes,” though it did start to wear me out, and there was little question whether I would continue my race (compared to War & Peace, at least) through to the end of The Savage Detectives, either, but in the present case things seemed to get much easier as they went along. This is because the narrative surreptitiously changes from one, as Bellezza put it, about “the wild antics of teens who know no boundaries and have no goals” to one about a subtly different group of people, ones who have grown up and realized in many cases that “youth is a scam.”

The first part of the novel, which is really solidly about those wild kids and the crazy things they get up to, ends at New Year’s of 1976, when most of the principal characters are in their teens or early twenties (there are a few of an older generation as well, but this is the age of the core group of second-generation “visceral realists”). Then “The Savage Detectives” begins its stream of interviews or anecdotes: dozens of people,

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Sudden Fiction Latino

Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America, is a rather interesting collection in principle. It gathers fiction shorter than most short stories, but longer than flash fiction, written either in English by US writers of Latino origin or in Spanish by Latin Americans (no Brazilian lit here). I liked the length chosen by the editors, Robert Shapard, James Thomas and Ray Gonzalez: about four pages max, so “short-short stories” is very accurate. It also meant that in an anthology of a totally reasonable length I read about a thousand new authors. Well, dozens at least.

A couple of these are your “modern classics”: Allende, Borges, Garcia Marquez, Bolaño. This was in fact the first time I’d read Allende, and I will certainly give her more of a chance than just a few pages but this particular story (“Our Secret”) wasn’t really for me. The Borges and Garcia Marquez were better, and there were a few other stories I got pretty into. Most, I suppose not surprisingly, were in good-but-not-great range, and while the book did have genuine variety, some did start to feel a bit repetitive.

One of my favorites was “The Scribe,” by Rafael Courtoisie of Uruguay. At a cool page and a half, it tells, or rather, avoids telling, the story of “the conspiracy.” It describes the conspirators, where they come from, where they go, where they return.

Only one of them committed himself to write an account. It needed to be vague and anonymous and constitute a cold approximation of the truth, without mentioning a single detail besides some references to certain protagonists, without giving their names, without revealing the severity of the affair.

That, precisely, was what he did.

Get it? This is the sort of thing that tends to “seem

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Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra

Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai fell into two lucky categories for me; I’m a sucker for the Melville House Art of the (Contemporary) Novella series, and it fit into my meandering Latin American literature theme. This is truly a slim book, even superslim or sleek. A fair number of its 83 pages are at least halfway blank. This is what I love of novellas—tiny, fine creations consumable in a single incredibly satisfying sitting. As a matter of personal taste, the novella is often the exact size, shape, and depth I want of a work of fiction. (Funny for a girl who loves all that Melville, no?)

So what does Zambra do in his short space? His opening is instructive:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Le’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

Plotwise, the novella takes the reader from the beginning of Julio and Emilia’s relationship through the end of it and past her death to what is, it begins to appear, the present-day life of Julio. The two of them meet, begin an affair, sacralize literature through sex, fall apart. Central to their relationship is a literary lie: each has falsely told the other they have read In Search of Lost Time. Proust breaks them up.

Back to that quoted paragraph, though. It’s the give and take that is most instructive, as Zambra will use devices like this one to disorient the reader throughout the book. She dies, he remains alone—no, he was already alone. She “is”—no, she “was.” As

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