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!


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

Dinner
By César Aira
Translated by Katherine Silver
Reviewed by Lori Feathers
96 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9780811221085
$13.95
A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

Read More >

Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

Read More >

Melancholy
Melancholy by László Földényi
Reviewed by Jason Newport

In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

Read More >

The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

Read More >

Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >