César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with his mother in his childhood home, in debt, jobless, never married, overly critical of others—who somehow still manages to win our affection with his wry pathos.
The dinner of the novella’s title is at the home of the narrator’s unnamed friend (“the last friend I had”) where the narrator and his elderly mother are the only guests. The friend keeps Mama entertained during dinner with gossipy stories about the families in the town of Pringles, and the two are “perfectly in sync” with their back-and-forth name-dropping. The narrator does not participate in their exchange. He has never attempted to remember the names of Pringles’ residents and considers such refusal his “. . . way of rejecting the life of the town where I had, nonetheless, spent my entire life. . . .” The evening takes a creepy turn after the meal when the friend shows-off some of the mechanical dolls and other fantastical toys that he collects. The dim lighting in the friend’s home, along with the dolls’ strange, mechanical movements and disturbing countenances bring an unsettling ambience to the evening’s end.
At home, after Mama putters off to bed for the night, the narrator turns on the television and happens to catch a program reporting from the local cemetery where the dead are rising from their graves and moving en mass through the town, sucking human endorphins from the brains of the living. As the narrator watches the unfolding crisis, images of the friend’s toys and snippets of his stories, dreamlike, merge with the television coverage. The town’s certain destruction is averted only when a little, old lady unwittingly discovers that the dead will return to their graves if they hear their names:
It came to her from the depth of her being, independent of any mental process, it came to her from the substrata of life in Pringles, from the erudition of many years and a lifelong passionate interest in the lives of others, which in small towns is equivalent to life itself. What came to her was his name.
Despite its entertaining and fantastical premise, Dinner, never strays from Aira’s theme: the very human need to have others to take an interest in who we are. Our names situate us within the genealogy and history of our community and bring organization to the multitude of relationships that exist. And it is in this continual process of orientation that identity and belonging are validated. That is why Pringles’ dead (and living too, for that matter) need to be remembered and acknowledged. Although the narrator is able to recognize nearly all of Pringles’ residents when he passes them on the street, he sees them only in shadow, not as fully realized, unique individuals with their own strengths and vulnerabilities, aspirations and fears. And in his selfish refusal to identify, to connect, the narrator gradually extinguishes his own humanity, his compassion, his ability to empathize. As the friend tells him,
You have to know how to see beyond the interests of survival and make the decision to give something to the world, because only those who give, receive.
How wonderful it would be if every difficult life lesson could come gift-wrapped in a thoughtful and amusing tale from Mr. Aira!