The Short Version: When César Aira was a boy, a seamstress lived in his town and had a son about his age. When she believes that the son has disappeared, she jumps in a cab and tears off into the Argentinian countryside with a hilarious and fantastical set of pursuers that include her husband, an angry bride-to-be, the wind, and maybe even the author himself…
The Review: After falling under Aira’s spell with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, I rushed out and picked up nearly all of the rest of the works currently available in English (thanks, New Directions). It was like a compulsion – like something out of an Aira story, perhaps – in that I simply could not rest until I had the total sum of his [English] output on my bedside table. I did this, getting all of them except The Musical Brain (his collection of short stories) at no inconsiderable immediate cost… and found myself faced with a whole new problem: which one should I read next? I knew next-to-nothing about Aira’s work, having not even read the back covers of most of these books, and so I was going in blind. After reading the first page of several, I opted for The Seamstress and the Wind.
I cannot speak to the larger sense of Aira’s oeuvre, but I immediately began to believe that …Landscape Painter might well be an outlier. This novel was immediately so much stranger and more loosey-goosey, opening with some direct address from the author himself – almost diaristic, in fact. Aira tells the reader that he’s had a title – “The Seamstress and the Wind” – in mind for a while but hasn’t figured out the story to go with it beyond those two characters. He tells himself to be open and to go with whatever comes to mind – and so he starts recounting stories of being a young child, of a moment when he disappeared briefly (and perhaps magically) for a few hours. That moment of childish confusion, believing that it was his friend who disappeared, is what incites the novel’s “plot”, if we want to call it that.
The thing is, the friend definitely didn’t disappear – and so there is a level of what I think I have to call absurdity to the proceedings from very early on. Or perhaps not absurdity but fantasticality in the most basic of ways: we never know what will happen next, except that it will be unconstrained by any bounds of reality. Even late in the novel, Aira occasionally drops a comment about how the whole adventure was silly because the boy hadn’t really disappeared and, before long, everyone in the book sort of forgets that that’s why they were tearing off across the pampas anyway. And meanwhile, Aira is interrupting the narrative with more of these diaristic interjections: he’s writing in a café in Paris and he’s struggling to focus (and later, in a scene that felt Ionescoian, to leave the café).
All of this unabashed and unconstrained frivolity should’ve been infuriating. I could see how this book, taken at the wrong moment or even given to the wrong reader, could leave a bad taste in the mouth. But this “flight forward” style of Aira’s, this sense of just continuing to invent even if it flies in the face of everything that came before or even if a plot is left totally unresolved – it’s actually rather joyous. For writers, there is a lesson to be taken here: allow yourself to just invent without constraints. Let the story develop however it will and see what happens from there. Aira is doing that, drawing the reader’s attention to it quite deliberately, and it is through the strength of his imagination that it makes for oddly compelling reading.
There are also surprisingly deep thoughts to be found it what might, at first, seem like nothing more than a yarn spun on a whim. For one thing, Aira’s narrative interjections – that begin to recede slowly but surely before slamming back onto the page – mirror the process of writing and of our distracted attention spans as both creators and consumers: we’re in it, in it, in it, and then WHAM-O, something breaks our attention. But even little exchanges like this one have a marvelous potency:
“Things happen, Delia.”
“But they’ve never happened to me before.”
On the one hand, it is the classic adventure story line of having a boring, uneventful life until adventure strikes. But on the other hand, perhaps because it comes late in the novel and perhaps because it is a conversation between the two characters of the title, there is something grand about this sentiment. Even if the reader has heard it before, it lands quite effectively here – especially because so much has happened. A car accident, a strange road chase, a poker game and a hotel and a birth out of David Lynch’s nightmares… so much has happened and so much will continue to happen, things that seem so beyond comparison precisely because the novel starts with such unassuming awkward mundanity: an author, struggling to come up with a reason for the story he has set out to write. It shouldn’t work, but it does – and it does so well.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The circuitous opening, a little repetitive and meandering as Aira tries to land on the story he wants to give to this title he’s come up with, can be a touch frustrating – but once the journey is underway and the reader has sussed out exactly what the author is up to, it latches on with a delightful trill of energy. I laughed out loud, both at humor and absurdity, and I was impressed by the way that Aira writes only to his own satisfaction as the end draws near. Even though the novella felt slight throughout, it still was a joy and a delight. Now to go pick the next one…