The Short Version: After solving a centuries-old puzzle and recovering a lost pirate treasure, author/translator (and Mad Scientist) César Aira sets out to put in motion a plan to dominate the world. Things go awry.
The Review: In some ways, this is the most digestible Aira novel I have read so far. In his embracing of B-movie aesthetics, which are (I now realize) delightfully well-suited to his “flight forward” style of just inventing and inventing and inventing, he’s created something that manages to be both silly and also profound, something intellectually stimulating while also unequivocally tossed off. These dichotomies are what make Aira such a fascinating, compelling author – and I’m glad to’ve gotten one more of his books in before the end of 2016.
When I say that this book is the “most digestible”, don’t for a second think that I’m saying that it’s not banana-pants crazy and silly and strange. It is right up there with The Seamstress and the Wind for wild inventiveness, featuring a mad scientist and a cloning device and a world-destroying ending – but also featuring surrealist theater, long swims in the pool, and the titular literary conference. All of this in under a hundred pages – but none of it feels hurried or rushed or like it didn’t matter. This, my friends, is the beauty of César Aira.
This is also the first book of his where I saw – or, at least, I thought I saw – behind the veil. It’s not the only book where the character of César Aira appears (I haven’t read The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira yet, but do believe it to’ve been him in Conversations) but there seems to be something touching on the reality of Aira in this particular version. He’s a mad scientist brought, unexpectedly, to a literary conference – a conference where he plans to clone a famous author in order to be subservient to said author’s clone in their pursuit of world domination. A smarter psychological mind could go into the depths of what it means for Aira to wish to be subservient to another author, to feel as though other authors are more famous than he – but I can’t help thinking that there is some small dose of self-reflection here. Take the later moment, as character-Aira watches an old play of his restaged (the reason for his coming to the conference). He is both critical and pleased with this early work, looking on it as he does from the perspective of his older self. Does this novel function similarly? This is, I suppose, a matter of one’s interpretation.
Not so subject to interpretation: the hilarious denouement. Aira’s mad-scientist plan goes awry, as mad scientist’s plans often do, because of a simple failing on behalf of a minion – and it’s in this that Aira presents one of his more straightforward stories, if it ends up being perhaps less impactful than something like …Landscape Painter or Conversations. We know rather what to expect from a mad scientist’s tale: the long-winded explanation of what he’s doing, their undeniable brilliance that just happens to be warped in dark ways, their convoluted plan that could’ve been more easily pulled off in a hundred other ways that would’ve been less impressive-looking… and so as the plan falls apart and Aira must save his own life (in so doing saving everyone and becoming a hero), we get the full scope of a traditional villain-to-hero narrative – and that traditionalist arc is genuinely surprising, considering Aira so often subverts such arcs, not even necessarily through purpose so much as coming up with an oddball idea that sends the story spinning off in another direction. As such, you get to the end of the book and find that Aira has surprised in not surprising, as it were.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Genuinely silly and one of (in my experience so far) Aira’s lightest-touch novellas. He takes great joy in the B-movie plotting and this would be a great introductory novel for those trying to see if they can get on board with the strangeness and the wacky tone that Aira often takes. This was my fifth in a year and while I didn’t get the same flush of wonder that I did from some of the others, I still found such delights – and look forward to burning through another one or two on a snowy weekend sometime soon.