25 March 2008

Unexplainable stories

Last winter's issue of The Quarterly Conversation contains Marcelo Ballvé's wonderfully insightful essay on the work of César Aira, providing several keys to understanding the Argentine's complex yet playful work:
Aira has staked out a very cogent and immensely influential (in Latin America) artistic position that basically says "storytelling at its finest avoids explanations, information, interpretation, etc." In a series of 1988 lectures delivered at the University of Buenos Aires, Aira was clear on this point: "The real story, which we have grown unaccustomed to, is chemically free of explanation. . . . The story is always about something unexplainable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added." [...]

Aira's novels tend to begin straightforwardly, immediately immersing the reader in the climate of the story. These beginnings are done with a natural self-confidence, the entrancing self-possession of the best oral storytellers. Aira understands that to begin a story, no fancy words or purple prose are necessary. Nor are complex situations meant to be presented as such at first. The job at hand is to begin. The story must be allowed to unfold first, before it can be refolded by the author into something strange, with infinite folds—an origami monster.
All of this accurately describes Aira's novel, El mago (not yet translated into English). A lonely magician has a curious problem—he can actually perform real magic. He doesn't know how or why, but he can. One would think that this would ensure him a lifetime of fame and fortune, but the truth is quite the opposite...

He can fly, but suffers from vertigo. He can't pull money out of thin air because bills are numbered and he isn't sure what problems would result. He can't create factories or houses because property is always already owned by someone else and he wouldn't be able to give a satisfactory reason for having them in the first place. But what about simply making gold? He'd have to sell it, sign papers, and it would be too dangerous to make a living out of doing this continually. He tried using the winning numbers in roulette, but it made him nervous, and the worry and paranoia that came from going from casino to casino was just not worth it. (He'd never tried using a winning lottery number because he feared public exposure.)

But what prevents him from becoming a better magician? The sad truth is that it simply isn't his vocation. He chose the job as the best way to hide his abilities and lacks the talent and imagination to be truly great. He rents videos of different magicians worldwide, selects his favorite tricks, and uses them as his own. He always plans on improving them, but is too lazy to make the effort and so the tricks are exactly the same as the originals. He believes himself a failure for not using his talents adequately, condemned to a life of mediocrity. He has a modest apartment, but his wife and teenage children are demanding more. After twenty years in the business, he's determined to change his circumstances.

He resolves to make himself known as the Best Magician in the World at the upcoming convention for professional magicians in Panama. The rest of the story concerns itself with what Hans Chans (whose real name is Pedro María Gregorini) does once he arrives at the hotel hosting the convention and all of the things that do (and don't) happen as a result.
[Aira's] versatility is possible only because at the heart of each Aira novel there is a marvelously ingenious storytelling device—a premise, central anecdote, or plot mechanism—which Aira exploits to the nth potential. He has a vertigo-inducing capacity to suggest a cornucopia of stories even while telling just one.
The magician's basic dilemma of how to find his place among his peers and make a name for himself branches off into other smaller, yet more immediate complications (for example, how to locate the convention's program so he can know when he's scheduled to perform? Is he really the invited "star" of the show? How can he get rid of the obsessive hotel employee that won't leave him alone? And, most importantly, how can he even be sure he hasn't conjured the entire scenario?).

The answer to the magician's problems appears in the most unlikely of places. While searching for the elusive program, the magician meets three publishers who remind him of the three wise men (or "magi"—lots of potential symbolism here, especially the parallel of being at the "cradle" of a new venture). The revelation our sad magician finally experiences at the end made me laugh aloud at its sheer brilliance. Aira takes us through existential dilemmas, angst, and the ennui of infinite possibilities to the beauty of a finite, everyday solution.
At the end of this lecture, citing Argentine writer Alberto Laiseca, Aira compared the writer to a magician: "The greatness and efficacy of a magician is measured by his refusal to use magic. The true magician, the greatest, is the poorest and most unfortunate of all mortals. Because between his magic and his person forgetfulness takes shape, in the form of the world."
This comparison is the key to the novel—a fable on the miraculous potential of fiction.

Aira has a genius for taking something many would wish for, turning it into a surreal nightmare, and revealing how the solution has existed all along—and is even superior to the dream. I look forward to reading more of his work.

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