The Short Version: A man lays awake at night replaying a conversation he had with a friend earlier in the day, about a movie the two of them had seen and their wildly differing conceptions of it – all spinning off the sight of an incongruous Rolex on the wrist of a lowly goatherd…
The Review: Have you ever been talking with a friend – a friend you respect and admire and have known for a while – when they suddenly say something that makes you think, “Oh shit, this person might be an idiot?” If that’s happened to you (and I think it has happened to most of us), you will get along swimmingly with the narrator of Conversations.
I picked up this book during a bout of insomnia a few nights ago, thinking I would either read myself to sleep… or finish the book and have, at least, accomplished something during my sleeplessness. I mention this because Aira’s narrator begins by explaining how he doesn’t sleep so well anymore. He passes his nights by going over the conversations of the previous day, which has the added benefit of helping keep his memory sharp, as he’s starting to approach the point where it’ll only get worse until he dies. On this particular night, he’s remembering a conversation with a good friend of his over a movie that they’d both caught on TV the night before. What begins as a simple “what’d you think” sort of conversation takes a startlingly sharp turn when the narrator expresses disbelief (in an offhand, throwaway kind of way) that the continuity people didn’t catch the Rolex on the wrist of the famous actor playing a Ukranian goatherd.
What should’ve been little more than a casual remark becomes the crux of an entire reconsideration, by both men, of each other’s intelligence – and of the nature of stories, fiction, and perception. The other man, the narrator’s friend, responds rather aggressively in the contrary to the narrator’s snarky comment and explains that he sees it as entirely a part of the film and not an error at all. The two engage in a discussion, then, of verisimilitude and what it means to be a part of a story versus a consumer of that story. It’s all rather high-flying philosophy, even as Aira keeps it entirely grounded in the sort of terms that you and a friend of yours might use while chatting over coffee at your local café. Assuming, of course, that you and your friend might occasionally get in a tiff while using words like verisimilitude – and if you’re reading this review, I’d wager you’re at least more likely to be that sort of person than not.
The disbelief that the narrator feels as his friend takes seemingly absurd stances on the film and topics surrounding it is vividly and hilariously rendered here. That sense of the rug being pulled out from under you suddenly, of slamming into a wall of reality that redefines what you previously thought to be the scope of the room you were in… like I said earlier, I daresay we’ve all had those conversations and suddenly had to reconfigure how we see a person or how smart we believe them now to be. But the real joy in this book comes from the way that the friendship and respect between the two men is in fact reinforced and reaffirmed over the course of their conversation – because the movie turns out to be far more than either of them realized. The late-novel revelations about the ways in which the both of them misinterpreted the goings-on is not only a reminder to be generous to your friends (even when you think they’re being colossally stupid) but a strong defense of the continued existence of movie theaters as opposed to watching films in the comfort of your own home. Also, and this will vary depending on your sense of humor, but I found the whole ending set of revelations hilarious and delightful.
Speaking of delight, the thing I found most wonderful about this particular Aira is its relatively concise scope. We’re reading the late-night thoughts of a man reflecting on a conversation from earlier in his day – and while the plot of the movie they’re talking about takes some interesting and unexpected twists and turns, the ‘narrative’ of this conversation doesn’t suddenly fracture or spin off or disappear entirely. There are no sudden demon children, no surprise romances, no absurd fourth-wall breaks – it’s simply the recollection of a conversation, much as any of us might recall a conversation that we had. In this way, it is the most approachable of any of Aira’s novels that I’ve read so far, because it doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief or acceptance of the absurd/surreal. I’m reluctant to also call it my favorite so far because that would, to some extent, belittle the three novels I’ve previously enjoyed – but I do genuinely think that I liked this one more than any other so far. There’s a moment, late in the novel, where the two men decide (after concluding their argument) that they both liked the film even if they wouldn’t call it good, and Aira indulges in a little digression about the difference between thinking something good and liking it – and the way that you can like something that is not good, because the act of liking is entirely subjective. Which is a nice reminder, as a reviewer, too.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Perhaps the most straightforward of any Aira I’ve read so far – but by no means does that imply it’s simple or easy or lacking in the strange wonder that characterises his work. The late night remembrance of a conversation has never been so captivating and I think one of the great successes of this book is the way that the whole thing feels like, well, what it’s like to sit up late at night, unable to sleep, and to reflect back on something you’d talked about earlier in the day. Not only are you working your memory but inevitably you’re thinking about other things too – and they’re all somehow related in the great swirl of your brain. It’s just that César Aira knows how to deposit the swirl of his brain onto the page in a captivating fashion – whereas most of the rest of us are just lucky to be along for the ride.