“My Books Are a Marginal Indulgence”: An Interview with César Aira (Part I)

The following interview originally appeared in the pages of Buen Salvaje, Lima’s premier literary magazine. It comes out bimonthly, and if your Spanish chops are up to the task, the full contents of each issue are available online for free. We highly recommend you check it out! For the non-Spanish speaking, we will continue to feature translations of interviews and articles of interest here in the future. Special thanks to Dante, Paloma, and everyone else at Buen Salvaje for permission to share our translation of this interview, and above all, for their amazing work on a fantastic magazine.

César Aira, one of the most important writers in contemporary Argentine literature, talks to us about his true vocation: that of a pure and irreverent experimentalist. And most of all, about himself.

Interview and text by Paloma Reaño

He writes just a page a day, but he is the most prolific author of his generation. Known for prizing invention above formula, he has published over fifty works—mostly novels, but also essays and plays—often through independent publishers in small print runs, a result of his disregard for the traditional expectations of the literary world. For Aira (born 1949, Coronel Pringles, near Buenos Aires), his mission as an artist is to bequeath to the world something that didn’t exist before he came along. His writing—a building whose foundation consists of digressions, personal experiences, and faded memories—feeds off the more curious figures of the modern world—mutants, gangsters, punks, nuns—whose lives often pass by uneventfully until they are suddenly shaken up by some bizarre event. Aira toys with accepted notions of plot, infusing his writing with ambiguity and vesting it with the surreal air of a non sequitur. But in spite of the apparent randomness of his ideas and the pacing of his breaks, surprises, and cuts in time, he inspires a sort of willingness in the reader to be taken aback; any reader—untrusting or submissive—might enjoy them as if they had pressed “shuffle” on their favorite pop band’s discography.

Aira’s universe—composed of Emma, The Captive (1981), How I Became a Nun (1993), Alejandra Pizarnik (1998), The Literary Conference (1999), Parmenides (2003), Marble (2011), and a lengthy etc.—is replete with suggestive detours, false doors, and exposed framework. Confronted with this degree of absurdity and bold irony, more than one reader will find themselves crinkling an eyebrow and wondering what the story they just read was really about. But the ease with which his most capricious digressions manage to sustain the reader’s expectations speak to the effectiveness of Aira’s writing. In his novels, the characters are eccentric, the settings simple, and the stories threaten to dissolve in their own anarchy. There’s no transcendental destination, but in the midst of all the ridiculousness and delirium, like a worn but beautiful antique, imperfection shines. Perhaps seeking the truth in literature is to miss the point; perhaps what should be sought in it, like a funhouse mirror, is the beauty of absurdity. César Aira places his bets on the pleasure of creation, shorn of any explanation. And gambling on unending imagination is an experiment fit only for the savage and the brave.

What memories do you have of your first contact with literature?
I think what happened with me is what happened with the majority of child readers who become writers: I had two stages. The first covered adventure stories—Salgari, Verne, El tesoro de la juventud (a sort of fairytale encyclopedia – ed.). The pleasure I got from books was interchangeable with that I got from movies or comics. Later, when I was about fifteen, I started to see literature as an art form thanks to Borges, who I began reading then and who has continued to be one of the central authors in my life. The two stages both continue to affect me, as a reader and as a writer. Or at least I try to keep it that way.

What is your impression now looking back on your first book (Moreira was published in 1973) and the Argentine literary scene of those times?
I try not to look back so I don’t get depressed, and I never reread my old books. As far as the second part of the question, things don’t seem to have changed much: in a uniform mass of books so serious and committed (back then, to the future liberation of the people; and now, to the past, with its forced disappearances and dictatorships), my playful books, Dadaist fairytales, were and are a marginal indulgence that is pardoned for being harmless enough.

You’ve studied Copi, [Alejandra] Pizarnik, and [Roberto] Arlt. Why them?
[Translator’s Note: Copi was the pen name of Raúl Damonte Botana (Buenos Aires, 1939 – Paris, 1987), novelist, playwright, and gay rights activist who wrote almost exclusively in French. While in Paris, he was involved in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Panic Group. His best known novels include The Uruguayan (1973), The City of Rats (1979), and The War of the Fags (1983). Alejandra Pizarnik (Buenos Aires, 1936 – 1972) was born into a Russian Jewish immigrant family in Argentina. She was a poet, short story writer, and recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and Fulbright Scholarship. She committed suicide at the age of 36. Roberto Arlt (Buenos Aires, 1900 – 1942) was an autodidact and is considered one of the founders of the modern Argentine novel, with his gritty, urban style. His most famous novels are The Seven Madmen (1929) and The Flame-Throwers (1931).]
I started working on Copi shortly after his death, when the bulk of his work hadn’t been translated yet. I wanted to introduce him to younger Argentine writers, thinking he would be a liberating influence, as he was for me. I feel a bit guilty now, because his influence was excessive. With Alejandra, I was looking to do justice. Everything that was being written about her was in the self-pitying terms of her own metaphors, the “little castaway” and all that, completely ignoring just how intellectual and innovative her work was. I wrote a book totally free of any sentimentality, even though—or maybe because—I was a friend of hers and I loved her dearly. The “Pizarnikians,” that plague, hated me for it and they still do. As far as Arlt, I wanted to rescue him from the anonymous ghetto of social protest and put him in his rightful place as the refined expressionist he was.

Do you see yourself as postmodern? Do pastiche and discontinuity in literature reflect your ideas about the nature of the individual?
If what I write says something about the world or about myself, then it’s unintentional. The only thing I do is write literature.

Why the constant use of irony?
Irony is a courtesy, a secondary effect of good manners. It involves distancing yourself, opening up a space for ideas or positions other than your own. I’ve never taken myself very seriously, which has given me permission not to take anything or anyone very seriously. Ultimately, irony toes the dangerous line of disdain. I guess it depends on the person using it. I think my irony is tinged with kindness, it’s more humorous than acid, a smiling acceptance of the world just as it is.

Is your use of elements from television, comic books, and other subgenres a sort of exaltation of the present?
I’m a very highbrow reader; I only read the classics, or the most demanding of modern literature. When I come down off that pedestal, I go to the other extreme: trash TV, exploitation comics, vulgar comedy, political programs. The material I use to write my books comes about half-and-half from those two sides: a bit of Proust, a bit of Ren and Stimpy. There’s nothing deliberate there, it’s just what I enjoy.

You also play with fading memory and personal experiences in your novels. Is this a way of creating a tension between the plausible and the fantastic?
I use gaps in memory as a way to make jumps in time, give my stories a less linear rhythm, and create surprise. It’s also a very plausible technique; it’s quite realistic, because our lives are made up more by what we forget than what we remember. Generally speaking, I’d say I’m a fan of forgetting; it’s liberating, and usually errs on the side of happiness, while memory is a burden. It’s an ally of remorse, resentment, nostalgia, and other sad emotions.

Part II of this interview is available here!