Here’s a sad indictment (as if we needed another) of the state of the translated fiction market in the UK: while Argentinian writer César Aira has published over eighty books of fiction and non-fiction in Spanish – as well as being a prolific novelist and story-writer, with two to four short books coming out on average each year, he’s also a translator, an academic and a literary critic – only eleven of those are currently available in English. Sad times for us sad monolinguists. Penguin, though, have belatedly recognized Aira as an international talent, and have reissued three of his novels – Ghosts, An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter and The Literary Conference – in one snazzy package, complete with excellently minimalist cover design and, in one case, a rave blurb from every Anglophone’s South American novelist of choice, Roberto Bolaño. As much as we were impressed by these three, of course, we’d have liked to see the publishers take more of a chance and actually commission new translations, since these books were initially released in English in the US in 2008, 2006 and 2010, respectively. But slowly, slowly, and any translation beats no translation, so we’re pretty happy, all considered.
What particularly delighted us was the range on display. Ghosts is a mixture of social realism (poverty, economics, nascent teenage sexuality, family tragedy), broad comedy (a group of fat, naked middle-aged ghosts hang out in a building site on New Year’s Eve and invite the step-daughter of the site’s night watchman to an otherworldy party) and philosophical ruminations (the literary basis of architecture, the opposition between the built and the unbuilt, the management of social inequalities and the inherent economy of art). Its style is ruminative and analytical as well as bitingly funny – like Saramago’s Blindness – as it guides the reader through a lazy holiday day to (and beyond) the brink of something nasty. In An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter, Aira takes the real-life figure of Johann Moritz Rugendas, a German landscape painter from the 19th century, famous for his ethnographic drawings of South America, and imagines for him a surreally horrific accident – lightening and disfigurement are involved – that impacts in a twisted way on Rugendas’ relationship with his own work. When you think there’s a physiognomical relationship between objects and their character, how do you manage when your own face is destroyed…? Aira’s writing here captures both the precision and systematic artistry of Rugendas’ documentary approach to landscape, and the near-mystical beauty of the Argentinean desert. More importantly, though, he ducks the temptation to psychoanalyze the painter, post-accident; all the questions about aesthetics, representation and endurance are left to the reader to resolve (or not). The Literary Conference stars a (hopefully!) fictionalized César Aira, a writer, translator and mad scientist who plans to take over the world by cloning the best person he can imagine – Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentos. A lovelorn, bitter, monomaniacal schemer, grotesque blue worms, and a ropey dramatic production of a sci-fi Genesis story in a tiny airport in the Andes – for a book that clocks in at under 100 pages, this really does seem to have it all; and, crackpot literary corniness and all, it’s a genuine page-turner – if Charlie Kaufman were to turn Argentinean novelist, he’d be producing something like this.
So, range – we can’t remember the last time we read an author with such successful diversity under his/her belt. The other thing we loved was Aira’s brevity: it probably helps with his prolific rate of production, but as much as we’re advocates for the fantastic doorstoppers we’ve seen this autumn from Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt, we do love something that’s short and to the point: Aira’s work here is stripped to the bones and all the better for its concision. Three excellent books in a pack the size of a regular paperback – and three books each of which are more memorable than most of the paperbacks we’ve read in months – now, that’s worth investing in. Flaws? Honestly, we’re drawing a blank: stylistically, you can’t please everyone, and the sometimes fairly arch meta-ness of his all-knowing narrators might irk those of you who want something simpler, but that’s just a matter of subjectivity – we’re converts.
Any Cop? Oh, yes. We’re gutted that there’s only eight more of his titles available in English translation. It’s enough to make a girl learn Spanish.