Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The novelist as a clone artist

Full title: The Literary Conference
Author: César Aira
Genre: Fiction, novella
Attributes: 96 pages, paperback
Publisher: New Directions (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

César Aira, an incredibly prolific experimental writer of (according to his own admission) a Dadaist creed, experimented here with the very idea of Creation. The novella (his favourite format) is about a failed attempt to clone the Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes. There are complications to this, of course, but when reduced to the most essential, this is the book’s narrative core; its crux.
Since the central element has been disclosed, it may be of use to mention that, in The Eagle’s Throne, originally published in 2002, Fuentes had imagined César Aira as having won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Literary Conference may, therefore, be read as Aira’s return of favour.

Beyond the plot line (complex and multidirectional, hence impossible to summarize without missing something), what needs to be closely looked at in this book is the figure of the protagonist/narrator/implied author, César. He divides his life between improbable science and insignificant literature. He is a creator in and of both. He clones with the ease with which he writes, and he solves century-long mysteries with the bonhomie with which he attends literary conferences. However, no reviews (to my knowledge) have noticed how this character reasons and acts like a deity. One with a very interesting propensity towards forgetting or neglecting his own creations (a deus otiosus, no doubt), but a god-like figure nonetheless.
“My Great Work, my secret labor, is highly personal, nontransferable, nobody but I could carry it out, because it consists of the innumerable psychic and physical instants whose sequence confirms my velocity. The velocity at which I unfold through time.”
But there’s also something awkward, ridiculous, about this pseudo-god. He makes major silly mistakes, surrealist in their expanse, Dadaist in their juxtaposition. Having written a play entitled In the Court of Adam and Eve (if Carlos Fuentes had written his Adam in Eden a little earlier, one would have imagined this to be an allusion!), César, the playwright, gives the Biblical story an original twist, imagining that, while in Paradise, Adam was, in fact, married; but not to Eve! Interesting as it may seem, this innovation turns out to give the author nothing but headaches, as it becomes an unsolvable conundrum.
“I must confess, I didn’t know how to resolve the difficult problem this plot line presented. Because if Adam and Eve were, respectively, the only man and the only woman on the planet, then Adam’s wife – the absent wife whose existence prevented him from living out his love with Eve – couldn’t be anybody other that Eve herself.”
He drives himself into a similar dead corner with the cloning project as well. Here, the initial bulletproof plan (detailed to the minutest of gestures) turns to dust when a wasp, employed by the scientist to collect a relevant DNA sample from Carlos Fuentes, mixes up the genetic information and collects genes from Fuentes’ silk tie. Such mistakes and mismanagements make the protagonist a sad figure of lost causes, who’s brandishing a slogan that says it all:
“I fail because of my precipitousness, my rush to finish, and my desperation to please.”
But this is also what makes him funny. Not unlike, say, Don Quixote, whose endless experiments in reading are met with endless literal debacles. In words that play convincingly the autobiographical tune of César Aira himself:
“Once again I had submitted to nonsense, to the frivolity of invention for invention’s sake, resorting to the unexpected as if it were some kind of deus ex machina!”
Experimental to the point of surrealist unreliability and jovial to the point of mad experimentalism, it’s a pleasure to read this short but alert book, which waxes now philosophical, now satirical, now downright humorous and fun. The density of the text is quite remarkable. Only 90 pages, but whew, what a marathon! Which makes it necessary to talk about it somewhere else, perhaps: in a place that transgresses the condition of a simple book review.
Post scriptum. One must know that the joke of the book was more significant and more loaded at the date of publication, when Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) was still alive. Now, however, it might still be a good joke: the thought of what it would have been like to have cloned Fuentes for real.

It would have been nice, though. Source: Latino USA