Whether or not César Aira is Argentina’s greatest living writer, he’s certainly its most slippery. His novels, which number more than sixty, are famous for their brevity—few are longer than a hundred pages—and for their bizarre, unpredictable plots. In How I Became a Nun (2005) an innocent family outing climaxes with murder. The weapon? A vat of cyanide-laced strawberry ice cream. In The Literary Conference (2006) an attempt to clone the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes causes giant blue silkworms to attack a Venezuelan city, and in Aira’s latest book to appear in English, Varamo (2002), two spinsters get caught smuggling black-market golf clubs.
Aira loves to keep readers guessing—he once said that he deliberately writes the opposite of whatever fans praise—and several of his novels are actually works of probing psychological realism. But for all the variety of his novels’ plots, what has remained consistent during the thirty-odd years he has been writing is his taste for blending genres. Social realism and haunted-house tale mix with architectural theory in Ghosts (1990). Biography, pioneer tale and biogeography melt together in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000). The B-movie plot of The Literary Conference is peppered with asides on myth and translation.
Critics in the United States have typically tried to account for Aira’s oddball complexity by classifying him as a Dadaist or a Surrealist. In this they have followed the lead of Aira, who has praised Marcel Duchamp and declared that he might have been a painter if the job weren’t so tricky (“the paint, the brushes, having to clean it all”). Yet Aira has also said that his books “come from the things I see, that I live,” and that “I’ve never liked surrealism for surrealism itself.” He has even gone so far as to criticize other contemporary Argentine writers for producing novels that are too “frivolous” and insufficiently concerned with Argentina’s “social and economic problems.”
Aira began writing fiction with commonplace ambitions. When he moved to Buenos Aires from a small rural town in 1967, at 18, he was, by his own account, “a young militant leftist, with the notion of writing big realist novels.” Such political and artistic inclinations were typical in Buenos Aires’s young bohemian scene. After the Cuban Revolution, the idea of armed leftist rebellion had spread throughout Latin America, and one of its key tenets held that the revolution would be led by middle-class intelligentsia, that is, by people like Aira and the artists and thinkers he admired.
Armed revolution wouldn’t have enticed so many Argentines if the country hadn’t already been a caldron of discontent. During the 1930s and ’40s Argentina had been among the richest nations in the world, but by 1960 most of its prosperity had evaporated. The canny populist Gen. Juan Perón had organized the working class during the 1940s and raised their expectations about what kind of respect, money and power they deserved. Under his watch the epithet descamisado (“shirtless person”) was transformed from an insult into a badge of honor, and in 1946 he rode a wave of working-class enthusiasm straight to the presidency. But in 1955, six years after Aira was born, Perón was overthrown by a coup and his party was banned.
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For the next eighteen years Argentina lived through what the late Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell has termed “the Impossible Game.” The game had two rules: any genuinely free election would lead to the selection of a Perónist, as the working class vastly outnumbered the military and upper class; and the election of a Perónist would inevitably lead to a reactionary military coup, as the military and upper class had a lock on Argentina’s hard power. Under these circumstances, the left reasoned that to win the Impossible Game it needed a revolution, Cuban-style.
Violent realities bred violent aspirations, which led, unsurprisingly, to more violence. By the early 1970s, the British journalist Robert Cox had tallied more than two dozen armed groups in the capital, covering “the political spectrum from strutting Nazis to mad Maoists.” Around this time, Aira was arrested. Bored by a political meeting at the city university’s campus of Arts and Letters, he left without noticing that a pitched battle had erupted between students and police who’d come to clear the campus. Surrounded by tear gas, he ran—“Surely,” he told me in an e-mail, “I was in a rush to get home and keep reading Proust”—but was nabbed at a street corner. He was 22. He spent the next few weeks in an almost empty cellblock accompanied by three other young people, one of them epileptic. But his stint in jail was surprisingly peaceful. His only contact with real criminals occurred during transfers to the courts. He even volunteered to participate in a lineup assembled to identify a rapist. “They laughed in my face,” he told me. “My appearance was too innocent. And not just my appearance.”
Though Argentina was then ruled by a military regime, in those years a judge could still free a detainee held without specific charges. That’s what happened to Aira. Nevertheless, the experience, he told Luis Dapelo of Hispamérica, produced a kind of “break” in him that shattered his hope for any sort of politics. “In fact,” he said, “I never recovered it.”
* * *
In December 1972, the year after his release from prison, Aira finished his first novel, Moreira. A short romp stuffed with broad jokes, linguistic tricks and illogical, sometimes vulgar metaphors—a cow is compared to “the penis of a twelve-year-old boy”—Moreira looks nothing like the big realist novels Aira had once dreamed of writing. Its action unfurls about 300 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, in the middle of Argentina’s famous Pampas. Its hero is a “celebrated assassin” named Moreira who single-handedly confronts 7,000 government soldiers in Aira’s sleepy hometown, Coronel Pringles.
The showdown is predictably outrageous, yet among the absurdities lies a thorn of true subversion. For the novel turns a nationalist symbol—the handsome gaucho—into a leftist hero. “Be marxists,” Moreira declares, shortly before trouncing the army and riding off with a list of the area’s richest ranchers. The effect is like watching John Wayne play a commie cowboy in a script by Ionesco.
Tucked away at the end of a long spiel Moreira gives before the battle—a discourse that’s mostly word salad—is a burst of social criticism that seems to speak to Aira’s own experience of the Impossible Game. “The constant observation of the effects of death around me,” Moreira says, “couldn’t help inspiring me with a few revelations.” People who join the revolutionary fight, he argues, are like vampires who think they are hidden because they can’t see themselves in the mirror. The dead have been denied their rights, so Moreira will study myth, “in search of a new science in which all the propositions of the dialectic would be possible.”
All propositions certainly seemed possible in the months that Aira sought a publisher for his unconventional book. The military government collapsed. General Perón returned from exile in Spain, where he had been living since 1961. On June 20, 1973, hundreds of thousands of people—conservative labor bosses, leftist revolutionaries and ordinary citizens—gathered at an Argentine airport to greet Perón as their conquering hero. A consummate politician, Perón had let each side see him as its champion. But the conservatives and the revolutionaries hated each other, and he did nothing to cool their animosities. Pressed together awaiting his arrival, they shot at each other, killing twenty-five people and sparking pandemonium.
A few months later, Perón won the presidency. The left soon realized that he loathed Marxists, yet he still seemed the one man capable of uniting Argentina’s rival forces. Then in July 1974, nine months after he took office, Perón died of heart failure. In theory, power fell to his widow, Vice President Isabel Martínez de Perón. In reality, “Isabelita” was incompetent, and Perón’s fascist adviser José López Rega took charge. Recognizing the situation, the capital’s fiercest group of leftist guerrillas, the Montoneros, declared war on the government and went underground. The government responded with extralegal death squads. Technically Argentina was still a democracy, but the Dirty War had begun.
Inflation soared to 300 percent. The rich moved their money out of Argentina, and bombs exploded in Buenos Aires. In the midst of this mayhem, the publisher Horacio Achával took a shine to Moreira and decided to bring it out through his private micro-press, Achával Solo. Aira and Achával set to work typesetting, proofing and printing. On the night of March 23, 1976, President Isabel rode a helicopter out of the presidential palace, and a three-man junta led by Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla seized power. All but the cover of Aira’s novel was done.
* * *
Few Argentines were surprised by this latest turn of the Game, and many were even relieved. They had no reason to suspect that the new military regime would be radically different from previous ones. Videla’s junta deposed not only the president and the vice president but also the attorney general, the provincial governors and the Supreme Court. It dissolved all of Argentina’s national and provincial legislatures and banned all political activity. Other military governments had tried to co-opt labor unions and other opponents through forms of collective representation. Not this regime. Its objective was not merely to hold power but to annihilate the opposition, to win the Game by destroying the very idea of political participation.
“A terrorist is not only someone who plants bombs,” Videla declared, “but a person whose ideas are contrary to our Western, Christian civilization.” The accusation lumped together leftist democrats and leftist militants, and labeled as a subversive anyone who opposed the military, its policies or its Catholic neoconservative idea of “civilization.” During the military’s seven-year rule, thousands of Argentines were detained by the government, and another 15,000 to 30,000 were “disappeared.” Groups targeted included not only political activists but also lawyers, journalists, long-hairs and Jewish psychiatrists. Gone were the days of uneventful jail stints. Had Achával finished the cover for Moreira a few months earlier, he or Aira could have been disappeared as well.
Designed to inflict maximum terror, the disappearances eliminated political enemies and cowed the remaining subjects. Often, right before a nighttime raid, electricity would be cut off in the victim’s entire neighborhood. Squads of plain-clothed paramilitaries would surround the block where the victim lived, then loudly force their way into the home, so everyone could hear the capture. Family members were sometimes forced to watch as a parent or child was tortured before being hauled away. One woman was simply dragged by her hair off a city bus, in front of the other passengers.
According to a human rights report issued eight years after Videla’s coup, “A feeling of complete vulnerability spread throughout Argentine society, coupled with the fear that anyone, however innocent, might become a victim of the never-ending witch hunt.” Among those who fled the military’s so-called Process was Achával, who scrambled over the border, possibly to Uruguay. Moreira, it seemed, had flown the coop with him, never to be published.
But while thousands of Argentines fled the country, many more escaped inward, exiling themselves at home. “For me that wasn’t difficult,” Aira said, “because I’ve always lived and want to keep living until I die in the world of books, which have been my consolation, my joy, my life.” Though Aira wanted to write about politics and suffering, he decided that to do so would be a kind of “opportunism.” Under the circumstances, it may also have been a kind of suicide. By 1977 at least 8,000 people had been disappeared, though censorship kept news of the kidnappings, the rapes, the torture and the 340 military detention centers out of the media. In Buenos Aires, a large obelisk was hung with a banner that warned: Silence is health.
* * *
In this eerie environment, Aira wrote his second novel, Ema, the Captive. A nineteenth-century historical novel inspired by the Gothic novels Aira was translating for cash, it has nothing in common with Moreira except for its setting in southern Argentina. Ema presents a collage of captivities, both horrifying and idyllic. The book opens on a caravan of convicts crossing the Pampas under military escort. Tried in Buenos Aires, the convicts have been sentenced to life on the southern frontier, but their months-long journey there—shackled in uncovered wagons and fed starvation rations—seems designed to kill as many of them as possible.
Among the prisoners is a young mother barely out of girlhood: Ema. Like the other female captives, Ema is raped regularly by her military escorts. Once the caravan reaches its destination, she’s made into a kind of house slave, first for an officer, then for a soldier. Given these plot points, one might assume the novel reads as grim as Justine, or at least as haunting as Jane Eyre. Instead it waxes romantic and pastoral, relaying scenes of domestic tenderness and natural wonder. Page by page it feels astonishingly placid.
Such serenity springs entirely from Ema’s character. (Before Aira adopts her point of view, the prose smolders with brutality.) Treated like goods to be used and traded, Ema nevertheless maintains her sense of self, securing an internal freedom that belies the fact that she is kept captive by a succession of men throughout most of the novel. Held by natives for two years, she learns to raise rare pheasants and meets a legendary concubine, who teaches her that melancholy leads to frivolity, and that real courage means looking this “frivolity in the face” and breathing “it deep into the bottom of [your] lungs.”
Ultimately, Ema, the Captive is a novel about survival, about making life worthwhile despite cruel conditions. As one colonel says near the end, “Life is an art: the art of staying alive. Everything else is deception.” The choice is clear in the book’s final pages when Ema and a group of friends take a trip to the cursed caves of Nueva Roma. There they find two neighboring caverns. The first contains bloodstains and shackles, evidence of rebels killed years before. The second once housed the rebels’ oppressor. In it, Ema and her friends smoke and sleep and talk and make love—and discover, at the end of a tunnel, a sublime view. Writing Ema may well have been Aira’s own consolation, his art of staying alive. On the novel’s back cover, he explains that while working on it he “turned into Sei Shonagon, Scheherazade”—comparing himself to a woman who spun stories inside a walled court and another who crafted tales to dodge her own beheading.
Aira finished the manuscript in October 1978. By the time it was published three years later, the military regime had begun to crumble. One cause was economic. Many Argentines had welcomed military rule because they were desperate for an end to political and economic chaos, and in its first few years the junta did achieve a kind of economic order. But by 1981 inflation had once again entered triple digits. No one, not even the technocrats who facilitated the military’s seven-year reign, could deny that Argentina’s economy looked little better in 1981 than it had in 1976.
In an effort to woo back supporters, the military provoked a war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. All it won, however, was swift humiliation—a defeat that hastened the government’s collapse. Agitated by these failures, in December 1982 Perónists joined forces with leftists and human rights activists. Together they orchestrated a massive protest in the capital’s most prominent square, La Plaza de Mayo, where thousands of protesters chanted, “Up against the wall!”
In 1983 Argentines went to the polls to cast their votes for the first elected Argentine president since Juan Perón. For Aira, the return to democracy brought several surprises. The first was the reappearance of Horacio Achával; the second was the publication of Moreira, which Achával excavated from a basement. The last was the brief return of his hopes for Argentine politics.
* * *
President Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín was the first candidate in Argentine history to defeat the Perónists in free elections. His victory signaled the end of the Impossible Game, and exposed an enormous misstep by the Perónist Party. The strongest political organization in the country had lost because it had secretly promised not to try the military for human rights abuses if it came to power. During his campaign, Alfonsín denounced this clubby deal and, upon entering office his top priority was to corral the very men who had intimidated the country for nearly a decade.
Alfonsín slashed the military’s budget and legally limited its function to external war, a maneuver considered controversial at the time. He also gathered reliable information about the military’s crimes, choosing the novelist and physicist Ernesto Sabato to lead the National Commission on Disappeared People. This commission’s stunning 1984 report, Nunca más (Never Again), paved the way for the state’s official recognition of its crimes during the Dirty War and led to the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of several top military leaders, among them General Videla and Adm. Emilio Massera, who were sentenced to life in prison in 1985. These trials shattered the military’s imposed silence over its atrocities and forced citizens to confront the fact that they had lived through the most gruesome era in modern Argentine history.
In this newly shaken environment Aira completed Ghosts, one of his most moving novels. Set in an unfinished luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires, the novel recounts a day in the lives of a group of construction workers who can see the dead. The ghosts hover around the building’s concrete skeleton, and look much like the workers they haunt. They’re strong young men “with small feet, and rough hands”; they’re covered with a “fine cement dust” that looks “dirty.” The building’s wealthy owners, and their architects and decorators, can’t see the phantoms. But the workers treat them with familiarity, grabbing the ghosts’ hilariously elastic penises and shoving bottles of wine down their throats—a technique that not only cools bad wine but also improves its quality.
A few details suggest that the ghosts may be desaparecidos. The first is their gender and youth: 70 percent of the disappeared were men, and 81 percent of them were between the ages of 16 and 35. The second is their revulsion at the sight and smell of grilling. When the workers cook steaks for lunch, the ghosts “disappeared…as they did every day when the smell of meat rose from the grill, as if it were detrimental to them.” In the slang of Argentina’s detention centers, the word for “grill”—parrilla—was also the word for the metal beds where captives were tortured with electricity. As one survivor recalled, “Despite the bonds [tied around captives’ hands and feet], when on the ‘grill’ one jumps, twists, moves about and tries to avoid contact with the burning, cutting iron bars.”
At the novel’s midway point the focus shifts to a worker’s 15-year-old daughter, Patri, who has suddenly become the object of the ghosts’ “ostentatious, senseless amusement.” On New Year’s Eve only Patri notices that, as night approaches, the ghosts change: “The dust that covered them had become a splendid decoration [that] allowed the dark golden color of their skin to show through, and accentuated their musculature, the perfection of their surfaces.” Seeing the ghosts’ youthful beauty, Patri experiences a spasm of love and pain. “Stop! cried her soul. Don’t go, ever!” And so amid the novel’s jokes and surreal juxtapositions emerges a poignant, enigmatic tale about a “frivolous” young woman who discovers she can’t resist following the dead.
Neither could many Argentines, and for Alfonsín this became an unexpected problem. In the wake of his reforms, Argentina’s courts were flooded with thousands of human rights cases, provoking the military to stage several unsuccessful uprisings. Feeling the heat, Alfonsín passed two amnesty laws: the so-called Punto Final, or Full Stop law, which declared that no new human rights cases related to the Dirty War could be brought to court after 1987, and the Due Obedience law, which made it impossible to prosecute military personnel below the rank of colonel because they were following orders. The retrenchment was completed in 1990, three years after Aira finished Ghosts, when Alfonsín’s successor, the Perónist Carlos Menem, pardoned Videla, Massera and other convicted officers and released them from jail in the name of national “reconciliation.” In response, some 50,000 people swarmed the streets of Buenos Aires in protest.
* * *
Despite Menem’s controversial pardons, he became one of Argentina’s most popular presidents, remaining in office for ten years, mostly because he stabilized the currency. The Perónists had clawed their way back into power in 1989 in a climate of hyperinflation. During Alfonsín’s years in office, they had led more than a dozen general strikes as inflation soared to 4,000 percent. Menem solved this problem by pegging the value of the Argentine peso to the American dollar, in effect outsourcing the country’s monetary policy to the United States.
Not until his final years in office did this solution fall apart. Chilled by the Asian financial crisis, Argentina entered a deep recession. National debt rose, real wages dropped, crime and unemployment spiked and shantytowns proliferated. Most Argentines became convinced that the Perónists had skimmed the cream off Argentina’s booming economy and stashed it in personal accounts—an impression reinforced by Menem’s Ferrari-driving lifestyle. In 1999 the country elected Radical Civic Union candidate Fernando de la Rúa, who had campaigned for president on promises to end corruption and reinstate fiscal austerity. De la Rúa also pledged to keep the peso tied to the dollar, a promise he would soon have reason to regret.
Aira finished Varamo the same month de la Rúa took office. A hilarious, Pale Fire–esque story about a lovelorn bureaucrat turned modernist poet, the novel reeks of financial anxiety. It is set in Panama in 1923, and its plot revolves around the turmoil caused in a bureaucrat’s life when his monthly salary is paid in counterfeit bills. Suddenly short on real money, Varamo the bureaucrat searches for a way out of his troubles. But he’s not the only one worried about cash; almost every other significant character in the novel either frets about money or, like the spinsters with their golf clubs, runs an illegal business to gain it.
Even before he’s paid in funny pesos, Varamo determines that “the safest” way to hoard his savings is to plow them into the purchase of instant food: boxes of “mashed potato flakes, dried shark fins, blocks of powdered meat, vegetables, dried pasta, even fruit-juice pills.” So profound is the economic distress in this fictional world that getting paid in worthless money is described as “the reactivation of an archetypal situation, deeply imprinted in the brain.” For many of Aira’s generation, it probably was. Like Americans who lived through the Great Depression and never forgot the sight of breadlines, some Argentines will always remember how during the days of hyperinflation they rushed to spend their paychecks before they became worthless.
Even more notable than Varamo’s obsession with money is the novel’s parody of cause and effect. At its outset, the novel claims it will trace the “perfectly reasonable” chain of events that led from Varamo’s receipt of his counterfeit salary to his construction of a “celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry.” Yet the chain Aira describes is so hysterically improbable (involving, among other things, a madcap car race and the discovery of an anarchist conspiracy) that there’s no doubt the “perfectly reasonable” sequence is entirely contingent on chance and coincidence. Or, as the novel’s narrator puts it, “There was…o reason for the beginning, or the end [of Varamo’s story]: their radical arbitrariness sealed off the sequence of events and set it apart, reinforcing its internal causal links with a cast-iron logic.” That cast-iron is, of course, none other than the logical fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
Such poker-faced uses of disjunction breed humor not only in Varamo but in many of Aira’s other novels, including Moreira. Yet step-by-step illogic functions as more than just a dependable gag; it also reflects Aira’s broader understanding of the world. Reality, he told the journalist Carlos Rubio in 2002, is “unmanageable”; it is “something that, however much we think about it, will always defraud us.”
This sentiment has figured not only in Aira’s fiction but elsewhere in Latin America during moments of political disjunction. Take the Chilean alt-weekly The Clinic, born in 1999 while the country’s infamous dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, was held under arrest in a London medical clinic. The Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón had charged Pinochet with committing crimes against humanity during the years he ruled Chile with an iron fist. (Pinochet was the first political figure in Latin America to use disappearances as a systematic tactic of state repression.) Though Pinochet had been pressured into allowing democratic elections, he’d maintained the position of Senator for Life, and before his arrest Chile remained deeply under his sway. Yet the country’s democratic government argued for his release, claiming that he would be tried in Chile. Never mind that at the time, no one in Chile had ever successfully brought either Pinochet or any of his aides to court. In the end, after more than a year of negotiations, Britain flew Pinochet back home, allegedly because he was too ill to stand trial—a rationale that Pinochet immediately rendered suspect by abandoning his wheelchair and waving his cane at supporters shortly after touching ground in Chile.
The Clinic mocked these and other political contradictions, while the country’s oldest and largest newspaper, El Mercurio, supported the government line. The Clinic hailed Pinochet’s return with the headline Pinochet Donates Armored Wheelchair and 45-Caliber Crutches. Since then, the magazine’s bizarre mix of satire, sex and serious journalism—a recent web issue featured articles on both student protests in the Chilean south and penis enlargement—has secured its position as one of the country’s most important publications. As historian Steve Stern has noted, “Its editorial style and success demonstrated a new market: journalistic absurdism for the age of ridiculous news.”
More recently in Venezuela, at a time when President Hugo Chávez has systematically repressed internal news organizations and has stood in public plazas pointing at random buildings and declaring “expropiese” (expropriate it), a similarly mocking web publication, El Chigüire Bipolar, has rivaled the popularity of traditional newspapers like El Nacional. El Chigüire Bipolar specializes in absurd portrayals of Chávez and other Latin American presidents. One of its most successful highjinks was a 2010 series of animated shorts titled “La Isla Presidencial,” in which several heads of state—including Bolivian President Evo Morales, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and King Juan Carlos I of Spain—are shipwrecked on a deserted island and battling one another for survival. The reason for the wreck? A diplomatic cruise smashes into a rock because Chávez and conservative Colombian President Álvaro Uribe can’t agree whether the ship should turn left or right.
“It’s difficult for anyone to battle against the supremacy of humor,” one of the site’s founders, Oswaldo Graziani, told the New York Times. Yet as Venezuelan journalist Boris Muñoz noted in a recent phone interview, such humor is “directly inspired by Magical Chávism.” As such, the existence of the site points to the bipolar state of contemporary Venezuelan society. “Common sense, which creates our sense of logic, doesn’t exist,” Muñoz explains. “Chávez makes it very explicit.” Or as Harvard professor Steven Levitsky once said, when the political “rules of the game” break down, cause no longer seems linked to effect. In such contexts, absurdism may function as a kind of realism, or at least a kind of protest.
Aira’s novels lack the obvious political punch of The Clinic and El Chigüire Bipolar. Nevertheless, engagement with contemporary Argentine politics is an important aspect of his writing that deserves to be taken seriously. Reading his novels, one gets the strong sense that he believes, as Robert Motherwell said of the Dadaists, that “the history of humanity has been a collective fraud.” Those artists turned against logic in response to the massive violence of World War I. Political and economic convulsion has spawned the Latin American absurd as well.
* * *
The chaos of reality surpassed that of Aira’s fiction in the early 2000s, when President de la Rúa’s government failed spectacularly, partly because he stubbornly adhered to austerity measures guided by the International Monetary Fund, partly because he refused to end convertibility and devalue the peso, partly because the public’s patience with his policies fizzled out. The climax occurred in December 2001, after de la Rúa limited bank withdrawals to no more than $250 a week in a desperate attempt to halt a run on Argentine banks. Days later, food riots and looting broke out in more than twenty cities as the poor and unemployed scrambled to steal food for Christmas. According to one New York Times account,
Entire families, including children, climbed over chain fences and filled supermarket carts with cooking oil, food and toilet paper…. In the working-class neighborhood of Ciudadela, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, gleeful people swaggered through the streets with wooden wagons and shopping carts full of food and Christmas trees. Giggling children swilled down bottles of stolen apple cider and adults walked quickly down the street with stashes of wine.
Meanwhile, government opponents tended bonfires in front of the presidential palace. After a last-ditch attempt to assume emergency powers, de la Rúa resigned. His replacement, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, announced the government’s default on $100 billion in public debt—the largest government default in history.
As Argentina’s economy disintegrated, Aira enjoyed financial independence for the first time. For years he’d felt that he’d become a writer “by chance” because he didn’t have enough talent “to act, to dance, or to explore the Himalayas.” Then Spanish critics suddenly developed an interest in his work, turning him into a cult writer and declaring him “the best kept secret in Argentine literature.” From Spain the news spread to Mexico City, where in 2001, as Argentina convulsed with riots, a newspaper listed Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter as a “notable” book alongside works by Haruki Murakami, James Ellroy and Naomi Klein. That same year, at 52, Aira began to live modestly off his royalties. Over the next three years, the little publisher that had stood by him since 1991, Beatriz Viterbo, reprinted a dozen of his old books. People began recognizing him in pizzerias.
Argentina’s economy did eventually improve, thanks to a global commodities boom and the economic policies of President Nestor Kirchner. Kirchner also led an unexpected second reckoning with the crimes of the Dirty Wars. Tossing out Alfonsín’s amnesty laws and Menem’s military pardons, he forced the resignation of pro-amnesty Supreme Court justices, revamped the military high command and allowed the extradition of human rights violators wanted in Spain and Britain. As a result, more than forty retired Argentine military officials were arrested, including the 77-year-old Jorge Rafael Videla and Emilio Massera.
These reversals may have inspired one of my favorite Aira novels, La confesión (The Confession), which like Moreira and Ema still has not been translated into English. Brainy and psychologically astute, La confesión is ingeniously structured as a series of catastrophes that spring from tiny incidents. The discovery of a candy wrapper on a staircase, for example, leads to the disappearance of a woman among a mob of Perónist metalworkers. Like all of Aira’s fictions, the novel mashes together assorted Aira fascinations. Its central subject, however, is the terror of being found out.
The novel’s main character, old, dissolute Count Vladimir Hilario Orlov, attends a reunion of the 250-member Orlov clan to charm favors out of his relatives. His plan veers off course, however, when a young boy discovers, and begins toying with, an old photo slide that could reveal a secret from Orlov’s past. The Count has lived his entire life as a series of deceptions, and faced with the possibility of exposure by an innocent child, he freezes “like one of those large reptiles that can remain immobile for eternities,” waiting for the opportunity to snatch the object of its desire. Like the Count’s secret, La confesión contains the possibility of being both prosaic—the story of an old man’s indiscretion—and inspired, an allegory about a country’s reckoning with old crimes brought to light. Its brilliance lies in the way it treads this tightrope without ever revealing the central mystery, and without relaxing the tension.
It’s a trick Aira doesn’t always pull off. His books sometimes feel crowded or truncated near the end, like he’s rushing to wrap them up before they hit page 100. The problem may be compounded by his preference for writing “without knowing too well where I’m heading” and his rejection of revision. Not that Aira worries about the resulting unevenness in his oeuvre. “Guarding a reputation doesn’t interest me,” he’s said. Nevertheless, his reputation continues to grow. Roberto Bolaño wrote that Aira was “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” And in his 2003 novel The Eagle’s Throne, Carlos Fuentes imagined that Aira had won the 2020 Nobel Prize—though that may have been payback for Aira’s declaration in The Literary Conference that Fuentes is “the most unassailable and undisputed genius there could ever be.”
Big-name back-scratching aside, Aira has a well-earned pride in his novels. He doesn’t measure his books against those of Argentina’s greatest writers. “A truly good writer appears once every thirty years,” he told Garzon. “In Argentina, in the 20th century, we’ve had a good harvest…. Borges alone is almost more than enough.” Yet he acknowledged that he’s had “some success”—he no longer has to translate Gothic novels, and his expectations have changed. “At twenty years old one wants to be a genius: Balzac,” he said. “Later you settle for being yourself.” In a world of unmanageable realities, that’s joy and consolation enough.