Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
All posts in this series can be found here. Today we look at the lastest from Cesar Aira—an annual BTBA author—in a piece written by an extrapolation of my 15-year-old self.
The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver
Publisher: New Directions
Why It Should Win: Cesar Aira is due (last year’s Ghosts was a finalist); Katherine Silver is due (two years ago, her translation of Senselessness was a finalist); Spanish language is due (in the past three years, nine Spanish titles have been finalists, but none have won); mad scientists are “in”
When I was a kid, I loved comic books. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, whatever. I still have two huge boxes of comics that represent every dime (and then some) that I earned during my summer jobs, working on golf courses and being pelted by balls from uppity country club members who were better at investments and hostile takeovers than actually golfing. And every time, while digging a sandtrap, a ball narrowly missed me, I wished I had superhero powers so that I could eradicate whatever polo-wearing d-bag just “forgot” to yell “FORE!” I wanted to go all Psylocke on them. Or web them to a tree. Something juvenile, and something more akin to the motivations of the supervillains found in comics than the upstanding, moral superheroes. Cause the bad guys are always more fun.
In addition to the cult of collecting (also loved baseball cards, but that’s a different post), one of the things I loved about comics was the nature of the storytelling. Obviously, none of the comics I read (save maybe The Invisibles) was anywhere near literary, but there was something intriguing and compelling about how the serial storytelling had to work . . . Every reader already knew the comic formula, especially in the 1980s—bad guy tries to take over world, good guy nearly loses, good guy prevails—and it was the goal of the comic writer to vary this in a way that made you want to pick up the next month’s issue. (It was almost Oulipian in its constraints.) There had to be cliffhangers, the planting of seeds of future storylines, etc., etc.
But to be honest—in a maybe dark sort of self-punishing way—what I kept reading for was the idea that one time the bad guy would win. The mad scientist maybe wouldn’t take over the world, but would off at least one minor superhero. If nothing was at stake, if nothing terrible could happen to a character in this imaginary world, than everything I had wasted money and hours on meant exactly nothing.
Which is why The Literary Conference is so cool: it’s about a literary translator turned mad scientist
So, once upon a time . . . an Argentinean scientist conducted experiments in the cloning of cells, organs, and limbs, and achieved the ability to reproduce, at will, whole individuals in indefinite quantities. First, he worked with insects, then higher animals, and finally human beings. His success did not vary, though as he approached human beings the nature of the clones subtly changes; they became non-similar clones. He overcame his disappointment with this variation by telling himself that in the final analysis the perception of similarity is quite subjective and always questionable. He had no doubt, however, that his clones were genuine, legions of the Ones whose numbers he could multiply as often as he wished.
At this point he reached an impasse and found himself unable to proceed toward his final goal, which was nothing less than world domination. In this respect he was the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books. He was incapable of setting a more modest goal for himself; at his level, it simply wouldn’t have been worth his while.
And how is the narrator/translator/mad scientist going to take over the world? By cloning Carlos Fuentes.
So yeah, on one level The Literary Conference is an absurd book, one that ends with huge blue worms descending from the mountains, and our mad scientist turned hero being put in a position to possibly save the day and get the girl.
But to draw out this out a bit more . . . The way Aira builds to this point is so mesmerizing that it’s as if he does have superpowers. His narrator’s tone and way of explaining his goals and ideas (the bit about a person’s uniqueness being constructed from the specific books one has read is brilliant, as is the section on “cerebral hyperactivity”) is spectacular, and Katie did a marvelous job rendering these rhythms and peculiar word choices in English.
In constructing this strange world of clones and world domination, there are hints of something larger, of this all being a crafty metaphor. The main character is named Cesar, who is also a writer of strange, metaphorical works. The idea of clones, of cloning Fuentes, of Aira’s insane literary production (he’s written more than 50 books), of writing unique books, of taking over the world . . . Reading this, I felt there was something more going beneath the comic book surface. That there was a sort of secret plot at the center of this book on secret plots. Or maybe that’s my comic book loving 15-year-old self getting the better of me.
Last week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.
“The Literary Conference”:http://www.ndpublishing.com/books/AiraLiteraryConference.html by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (Argentina, New Directions)
Another post, another project to catch up on . . .
Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a copy of this book yet, so this is truly a “looking forward to reading this summer” sort of preview post. I have read all of Aira’s other books to make their way into English, generally liking each new title even more than the last. And based on what I’ve heard about The Literary Conference, I have pretty high expectations, especially after Ghosts, which New Directions brought out last year, and which quickly became a cult favorite and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. (To be honest, it was a couple of votes away from winning . . .)
The Literary Conference is the fifth Aira book to make its way into English, and may be the most anticipated by everyone—not just me. The plot synopsis is absolutely wild: a translator who has fallen on hard times solves a puzzle, finds a pirate treasure, and decides to use his new found wealth to take over the world by cloning Carlos Fuentes.
As expected, Michael Orthofer has already reviewed this at the Complete Review, giving it a B+ (solid!) and having this to say:
What’s particularly striking about The Literary Conference is the relatively matter-of-fact tone and straightforward narration. César’s account is precise and conventional, the events he describes often downright mundane. Yet the novella is full of the fantastical, inserting the very unusual (that Fuentes-cloning experiment goes really, really wrong, for one thing) in the very everyday.
The Literary Conference constantly keeps the reader guessing: Aira leads down one path, only to radically upset his premises and change route (or, arguably, to take things to their logical conclusion — though it’s not a readily recognizable and familiar logic . . .), while almost all the while maintaining his straightforward tone.
The Literary Conference is one of those books that truly is unlike anything most readers are likely to have encountered (even if they’ve read a few other works by Aira). César makes a point of emphasizing uniqueness; The Literary Conference certainly stands out among most works of fiction, its mix of convention and peculiarity particularly striking.
Another interesting review — from another member of the 2011 BTBA fiction committee — is this one by Scott Esposito in which he elaborates on one of the key passages in Ghosts to try and articulate Aira’s unique aesthetic:
At the very centre of Ghosts is one of Aira’s customary philosophical digressions, a 10-pager that ranges from architecture to the indigenous rite of gift-giving known as “potlatch” to the space of imagination in dreams. The point of this digression seems to be to examine the thought at the core of the book — how art can be both “made” and “unmade” at once — and at one point Aira laments that with most arts there is an insurmountable gulf between the idea and the artefact. However, Aira points out one important exception: “And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimised, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.”
Without attempting a rigorous reading of Ghosts, it seems fair to say that here Aira is elaborating his own theory of literature, as well as suggesting why he keeps his stories perpetually on the threshold of signification, forever forestalling an actual conclusion. He strives to embody that point in between the made and the unmade — to go back and revise would be to risk pulling his writing from this amorphous phase of creation. Instead he constantly runs forward, leaving behind works still burning with their formative fires.
Aira is one of the most interesting, unique Argentine authors writing today, and all of his books are definitely worth checking out.
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