Monday, March 30, 2015

Say It With A Book # 7 | The Conversations by César Aira

With Guest Book Reviewer | Emir Gamis

I casually asked my friend Emir if I could copy and paste his review of this book we both recently read, and he promptly agreed. I really believed that he captured Aira's thoughts punctiliously. I also believe that this well-written review will convince you to read the book too.

At the start of How Fiction Works*, under the first chapter Narrating, critic James Wood extols the importance of free indirect speech or style of narration in the novel and with the hands of an expert surgeon proceeds to vivisect the body at hand
“Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge – which is free indirect style itself – between them simultaneously closes the gap itself and draws attention to this distance.”
This narrative distance, the unity of character to story that neither kills or trumpets the author’s presence, is at the center of César Aira’s Conversations, whose narrator recollects his daylight conversations with friends during the night, with memory that “is a prodigious apparatus, one that amazes me night after night with its precision and reach.” Only, as opposed to Wood’s didactic exposition, the point of contention is a movie, one that the narrator and his friend watched, separately and both only in parts. The nameless narrator laughed at the scene where the movie’s protagonist, a humble goatherd in the remote mountains of Ukraine, was shown wearing a Rolex.

The narrator, avoiding the simple conclusion “The actor is not the character.” lest he'd miss the desired mark, launched a long and winding argument to arrive at the same point. 
“…[T]hat story had to be somehow “more,” that is, it had to be more intelligible than real stories, which unfold in a chaos of happenstance and twists and turns. To do this, it had to emphasize one aspect that real stories also contain: verisimilitude. This is a conventional term that includes everything mankind does in its perennial war against the absurd.”

In the narrator’s point of view, the Rolex is an anachronism, an error. This is the equivalent of John Updike’s intrusion on his character Ahmad’s thoughts in Terrorist, as pointed out by Wood.

Aira’s narrator has a good point, right?

But Conversations only begins here. César Aira, as he is wont to demonstrate, shows his magical ability to entangle himself in the most ridiculous positions as the narrator’s friend launched an equally long and winding justification of the Rolex, the main point being “actor and character could coexist”.

What is needed, the friend argued, is “not a static and narrow verisimilitude, which reality itself provides, but rather “emergency” verisimilitude, the ones that arrive at the last minute, like firefighters with their sirens blaring, coming to the rescue in a dangerous mission.”

As Conversations progresses one sees the gap between the author (César Aira) and his narrator collapsing as much as the fissure between the actor and goatherd character heals through the conversations, or the narrator's memory of the conversations. Aira opens up possibilities and his fictional terrain allows all – actor and character, author and character, Civilized and Savage, reality and fiction – “in a vertex of dissolution, of forgetting, of pure reality.”**

Despite or due to its form, inquisitive students of literature will find in Conversations a trove of lessons as it supplies a demonstration and subversion of essential literary qualities as pointed out by critics. But this is sort of a convention for Aira himself: his other works that I have read, specifically How I Became A Nun, Varamo, The Seamstress and the Wind, and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter are demonstrations of creative power that encompasses criticism and dialogue -- all touched with infectious delight. Aira’s convention is subversion, a paradox of the first degree. To him applies the last sentence of How Fiction Works*
“The true writer, the free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.”

And I just can't resist Aira's concluding paragraph in Conversations to illustrate his success in his art:
"Everything is made of words, and the words had done their job. I could even say they had done it well. They had risen in confusing swarm and spun around in spirals, ever higher, colliding and separating, golden insects, messengers of friendship and knowledge, higher, higher, into that region of sky where the day turns into night and reality into dreams, regal words on their nuptial flight, always higher, until their marriage is finally consummated at the summit of the world.

* Wood's great work was recently reviewed by S. Penkevich here.

** Borrowed from "The Seamstress and the Wind", the fuller text is: "Taking control of forgetting is little more than a gesture, but it would be a gesture consistent with my theory of literature, at least with my disdain for memory as a writer's instrument. Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful...and at the root of the dream idea there must have been something of that, because those serial prophecies, so suspicious, lacking in content as they are, all seem to come to an end at a vertex of dissolution, of forgetting, of pure reality."

The narrator of Conversations professes to the same "perfect memory" as the narrator César Aira of How I Became A Nun. I suspect that this perfect memory represents "literary memory", that is the author's style or selection of all the elements of his fiction. And, at the risk of being accused of reading too much from the text at hand, I guess that this "forgetting", which is directly related to this literary memory, is the freeing, generating force behind Aira's works.

Book details:
Title:  The Conversations
Author:  César Aira
Tanslator: Katherine Silver
Publication:  June 26th 2014, New Directions Publishing Corporation
Genre:  Fiction
Rating  ★★★★

Once again, thank you Emir for allowing me to post this review!

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