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.