Conversations by César Aira
Translation by Katherine Silver
New Directions, June 2014
96 pages / New Directions
There is a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest where Eva Marie Saint shoots Cary Grant. If you look closely at the other diners in the restaurant, you can see a small boy covering his ears before she even pulls out the gun. The boy isn’t acting. He’s anticipating the deafening shots that have been ringing the sound stage every time Hitchcock insisted on filming the scene.
We have all noticed errors or anachronisms in movies, and we wonder how such a thing could go overlooked with the thousands of crew members and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in such productions. But what if we didn’t assume that that plane crossing the sky behind Brad Pitt in Troy as he stands over a slain Trojan was a laughable lapse in verisimilitude? What if we asked in earnest why the director insisted on including a 747 in his portrayal of ancient Greece? The explanation of how it got there just might be interesting. In fact, it might make a good story. A story full of time travel, cramped leg room, and Homeric epithets.
In the turn of a sentence, fiction can fracture the world we recognize, and from time to time the explanation of such a lapse in verisimilitude can render a story worthwhile. At least that’s what César Aira suggests in his novel Conversations, in which two men discuss the appearance of a gold Rolex on the wrist of a poor Ukrainian goat herder in a Hollywood movie. The narrator insists the watch is a blatant mistake by the filmmakers, an accessory the actor forgot to take off before filming the scene. His conversationalist says it’s necessary to consider other possibilities, realities, truths. This disagreement drives the novel, which is more an exercise in discourse than plotted action. In fact, plot is pretty much beside the point.
Aira’s novel defies summary. The story wanders away from its opening scene in which the narrator lies in bed remembering the conversation about the Rolex from earlier that day, obsessively reliving details, dialogues, ideas. The memories give him a certain intellectual satisfaction, as he explains, “It is not so much an issue of finding mistakes in the construction or the logic (that would be too easy) but rather the birth of a certain nostalgia, of partially glimpsed worlds, within reach, but still inaccessible.”
Throughout Conversations, those “partially glimpsed worlds” and philosophical postures ask us to question how our expectations of stories (even ridiculous Hollywood movies) concretize the realities we experience. Why are we so surprised at the Rolex on the goat herder’s wrist or that plane in the sky behind Achilles when lapses in verisimilitude often dictate the course of our lives? And is there a way to investigate our experiences, our memories, to better understand the crucial yet overlooked pieces of day-to-day reality? All questions well worth the brief 96 pages Aira dedicates to them, leaving us with a novel that’s part-philosophical inquiry, part-cinematic farce. The result is inventive, charming, and mildly irritating as we are forced to follow the narrator’s deductive reasoning perhaps a little too closely—so closely that at times the conversation turns to drawn out, didactic syllogisms. But such monologuing traps are side-stepped as the story moves forward. The narrator’s thoughts spiral back on themselves, upending conclusions and confounding rationalizations. We are led into a playful labyrinth of logic and, thankfully, never quite shown the way out.
Conversations is Aira’s ninth novel published by New Directions in the past eight years, but that doesn’t begin to tap the eighty-plus works of similar length he’s published in Latin America over the past four decades. After being championed by Roberto Bolaño as one of the best Spanish writers alive, Aira is rightfully receiving some literary attention north of the equator. From the fraction of his work that has been translated thus far, it’s easy to see that English readers have much to look forward to in catching up on Aira’s career. His voice is fluidly diverse, unafraid of disparate time periods, perspectives, and genres. In Conversations alone, he blends the dense consciousness of his narrator with a maniacal parody of Hollywood films. We can feel Aira enjoying himself with lines like, “They were chased by gigantic bearded Cossacks shooting streams of exo-phosphorous liquid fire at them from their sleds,” or “They received unexpected help from the mountain owls,” or “They used a burning owl feather sprayed with exo-phosphorus to light their way.”
But there’s also an urgency to the novel, a desperate need to come to terms with day-to-day experience. Aira asks us to recognize the significance of not only a gold Rolex in the Ukrainian mountains, but of the relationships we value most, like the narrator’s dear friend who debates him endlessly. Perhaps the point of the conversation isn’t to deliberate on a film’s anachronism, but to gain an appreciation for the people and experiences that challenge us to see beyond our myopic worlds. Our lives are rife with tears in the verisimilar, some more meaningful than others. But who’s to say a gold watch in the mountains is more unique than a fierce friendship, more unconventional than falling in love, or more unsettling than a phone ringing in the middle of the night? It’s something worth losing sleep over, as the narrator does from page one to the novel’s final words, clinging to his memories as if they were proof of a meaningful existence.
At one point, the narrator’s friend remarks, “between fiction and reality, there is an intermediary instance that articulates both: realism.” It’s clear from Conversations and his other recently translated work that Aira uses realism not to find a middle ground, but to corrupt it with the absurd, the romantic, the human. Whether it’s the failed-playwright/mad-scientist attempting to clone Carlos Fuentes in The Literary Conference, the (literally) lightning-struck artist in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, or the feckless office clerk who pens the poem of the century in Varamo, Aira is at his best when he’s folding reality into what feel like improvised and unapologetic shapes. There is a latent energy to his characters, as if they were all secretly waiting for their chance to appear onstage, a stage where the choreographer does not feel he has to answer to anyone. As Aira once wrote, “Impunity: it’s always impunity that gets you dancing.”