Unmanageable Realities: On César Aira

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. April 10, 2012.

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.”

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Seed Projects: The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. June 17, 2009.

When it was published in Spanish in 2006, Alejandro Zambra's novel Bonsai filled just ninety-four generously spaced pages, and its recent English translation by Carolina De Robertis stretches only to eighty-three. Still, each of these volumes should be considered a marvel of book design and production since in interviews the author has let slip that his original text ran only to forty sheets. Rather than shrink in its conversion to bound covers, as most manuscripts do, Zambra's text has swelled--and its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size. As the venerable Santiago newspaper El Mercurio commented in April 2008, "The publication of Bonsai...marked a kind of bloodletting in Chilean literature. It was said (or argued) that it represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation's letters."

Reading the book a continent away, I would never have predicted such a fuss, though Bonsai is a delightful work. A love story that's both wry and melancholy, the novel opens in 1980s Santiago, at a study session turned party, where textbooks give way to vodka and two university students fall casually into bed. "Julio didn't like that Emilia asked so many questions in class," Zambra writes, "and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort."

Such knowing, cynical observations save the love story of these twentysomethings from sentimentality, and Zambra keeps the zingers coming as he traces the development of Julio and Emilia's "conceited intimacy," which allows them to feel not only loved but also "better, purer than others." The relationship withers by page 35, at which point the novel--this little book has been insistently presented as a full-fledged novel in Spain and Latin America--turns poignant. The brief romance, brimming with heartfelt confessions and adolescent posturing, emerges as the one great love of Julio's dispirited life.

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Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolano's '2666'

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. November 19, 2008. Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

The Part About the Author

Shortly before he died of liver failure in July 2003, Roberto Bolaño remarked that he would have preferred to be a detective rather than a writer. Bolaño was 50 years old at the time, and by then he was widely considered to be the most important Latin American novelist since Gabriel García Márquez. But when Mexican Playboy interviewed him, Bolaño was unequivocal. "I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer," he told the magazine. "Of that I'm absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts."

Detective stories, and provocative remarks, were always passions of Bolaño's--he once declared James Ellroy among the best living writers in English--but his interest in gumshoe tales went beyond matters of plot and style. In their essence, detective stories are investigations into the motives and mechanics of violence, and Bolaño--who moved to Mexico the year of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and was imprisoned during the 1973 military coup in his native Chile--was also obsessed with such matters. The great subject of his oeuvre is the relationship between art and infamy, craft and crime, the writer and the totalitarian state.

In fact, all of Bolaño's mature novels scrutinize how writers react to repressive regimes. Distant Star (1996) grapples with Chile's history of death squads and desaparecidos by conjuring up a poet turned serial killer. The Savage Detectives (1998) exalts a gang of young poets who joust against state-funded writers during the years of Mexico's dirty wars. Amulet (1999) revolves around a middle-aged poet who survives the government's 1968 invasion of the Autonomous University of Mexico by hiding in a bathroom. By Night in Chile (2000) depicts a literary salon where writers party in the same house in which dissidents are tortured. And Bolaño's final, posthumous novel, 2666, is also spun from ghastly news: the murder, since 1993, of more than 430 women and girls in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, particularly in Ciudad Juárez.

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Windows Into the Night: The collected nonfiction of Roberto Bolaño

by Marcela ValdesThe Nation. March 13, 2008

Never one to proceed by half-measures, Roberto Bolaño dropped out of high school shortly after he decided to become a poet at age 15. The year was 1968, a time as wild in Mexico City, where Bolaño and his parents were living, as it was in the United States--but much more dangerous. There, student protests, rock 'n' roll and sexual liberation were the pursuits not only of poets but also of activists and leftist guerrillas, and the Mexican government greeted them with a dirty war. Four unlucky students died at Kent State in 1970; some 300 were killed in the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968. Yet for Bolaño, who'd just arrived from a small country town in Chile, the atmosphere of the big city was intoxicating. Years later he recalled that the capital had seemed to him "like the Frontier, that vast, nonexistent territory where freedom and metamorphosis are the spectacles of every day."

Bolaño's own transformation began with a five-year period of isolation. Rather than join the party, he shut himself in his bedroom to consume book after book after book. The poet Jaime Quezada, who came to visit the family when Bolaño was 18, recalls that the young writer was living like a hermit. "He didn't come out of his bed-living-dining-room," Quezada has said, "except to go to the toilet or to comment out loud, pulling on his hair, about some passage in the book he was reading."

Young and broke, Bolaño stocked his shelves by shoplifting from bookstores all over Mexico City. His captures included volumes by Pierre Louÿs, Max Beerbohm, Samuel Pepys, Alphonse Daudet, Juan Rulfo, Amado Nervo and Vachel Lindsay. But the book that changed his life was Albert Camus's The Fall, in which a lawyer who hangs out at an Amsterdam bar named Mexico City resigns himself to a life of calculated hypocrisy. Bolaño explains in his essay "Who's the Brave One?" that after reading it, he was possessed by a desire "to read everything, which, in my simplicity, was the same as wanting to or intending to discover the mechanism of chance that had led Camus's character to accept his atrocious fate." Bolaño's library was his own private Frontier.

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Rules of the Game: A fresh translation of a Portuguese classic offers a poignant portrait of a country's decline

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. December 3, 2007.

As a diplomat who served in England for fourteen years, from 1874 to 1888, the great Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós had no illusions about his country's position in the world during the mid- to late nineteenth century. The five novels that he published during his lifetime--The Crime of Father Amaro (1875), Cousin Bazilio (1878), The Mandarin (1880), The Relic (1887) and The Maias (1888)--satirized the faults of Portuguese society in order to save it. Yet he was well aware that the stratified Catholic society he dissected was already in its endgame.

Its apex had been reached a century earlier, under King João V, who had the good luck of ascending the throne in 1706, just seven years after Brazil began shipping gold to Lisbon. Midway through João V's reign, Brazil offered him another source of booty when diamonds were discovered in Bahía. By then, the tone of João V's rule was well established. He transformed the area around the capital with extravagant churches, palaces and convents. He fathered children with at least three nuns. He built the University Library at Coimbra, where Eça de Queirós would later study law. And shortly after he died in 1750, the country entered a long, precipitous fall.

The first drop came on November 1, 1755, when Lisbon was hit by the worst earthquake ever recorded in Europe. Like the 2004 quake in the Indian Ocean, the Lisbon quake was followed by an enormous tsunami, with waves that reached as far as the Caribbean Sea. As many as 60,000 Lisbon residents died in the ensuing fires, floods, famines and epidemics. In its time the disaster was notorious enough to inspire £100,000 in aid from Britain and a poem by Voltaire.

The next catastrophe marched in from France. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal through Spain, sending the Portuguese royal family scampering to Rio de Janeiro. In their absence, Portugal's old ally England stepped in to its defense, launching the Peninsular War. Together Portuguese and British soldiers eventually drove Napoleon's army completely off the Iberian Peninsula, but the first three years of battle were fought mostly on Portuguese territory. (The rest were fought in Spain.) By the end of the war, in 1814, 100,000 Portuguese had died and much of their country had been laid waste.

The coup de grâce, however, was delivered by Portugal's own rulers. Having acquired a taste for the tropical luxuries of Brazil, the Braganza monarchy decided to stay in Rio. For fourteen years they ran Portugal like a colony of its colony, leaving Lisbon under the thumb of an autocratic British overseer, William Carr Beresford. In Lisbon, soldiers and intellectuals reacted to this neglect by assembling a Constitutional Cortes, or Parliament, which drafted Portugal's first Constitution. Needless to say, the nobles, the Queen and the Catholic Church were not pleased. But King João VI, who returned to Lisbon to settle the affair, accepted the new government with surprising equanimity--he had a liberal heart.

For a while, it seemed as if Portugal would transform itself into a constitutional monarchy without spilling any blood. Then the prince-regent, Pedro, declared Brazil an independent nation; João VI died; and Pedro's brother, Miguel, usurped the Portuguese throne. The nation plunged into a civil war. Liberal Pedro defeated reactionary Miguel in 1834, with the help of England, Spain and France. A few months later Pedro died, leaving the Portuguese Treasury near bankruptcy and the country irreparably behind England and France in terms of manufacturing, literacy, science and architecture.

By 1845, when Eça de Queirós was born, Portugal had turned into a B-list country. His most famous novel, The Maias--which has recently been given a vibrant new translation by the talented Margaret Jull Costa--reminds us of this situation from its outset. In 1858, it tells us, an ambassador from the Vatican wanted to rent a property in Lisbon called the Casa do Ramalhete. Though its garden was a mess--abandoned to weeds, with a dried-up waterfall, a choked pond and a marble statue of Aphrodite turning black--the monsignor liked the home's interior. The negotiations, however, went sour as soon as a number was named:

The rent proposed by old Vilaça, the Maias family's administrator, seemed to the Monsignor so extortionate that he asked, with a smile, if Vilaça thought the Church was still living in the age of Pope Leo X. Vilaça retorted that the Portuguese nobility were likewise no longer living in the age of King João V.

A Catholic ambassador and the manager of an aristocratic fortune squabbling over who's employer has fallen into worse decline? What a lovely way to begin a book!

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