The Literary Conference by César Aira (El congreso de literatura, 2006) translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (2010) New Directions (2010) 96 pp
When I first read Aira, I became an immediate fan. I have loved the three books New Directions has offered us: Ghosts, which was quietly disturbing and atmospheric; An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which was full of nature and adventure and how to capture that in art; and How I Became a Nun, which is a bizarre — bizarre — take on childhood memories (ohh! that strawberry ice cream!). I recommend any of them. I couldn’t wait to read the most recent offering, but, due to some postal service mishaps over the past months, it took me a lot longer to get to The Literary Conference. It was well worth the wait! Not at all what I expected (I should know better than to try to predict anything about an Aira book), and showing just how versatile Aira is, this is the funniest book I’ve read all year. No offense meant to Bertie and Jeeves.
The Literary Conference borders on . . . no, devles into the ridiculous — in the best way possible. A superlative stylist (and being translated by the superlative Katherine Silver), Aira’s matter-of-fact tone somehow manages to stay in tact in a book that begins as a puzzle-adventure in Venezuela, turns into a mad-scientist take-over-the-world science-fiction, and ends as a B-movie — and still manages to be about the creation of art.
Allow me to elaborate:
In the first section, “The Macuto Line,” a relatively well known translator and author (named César) is making his way to a literary conference but has made a stop in Venezuela. Near his hotel is the famous Macuto Line, a rope that wraps around a rock and plunges into the ocean. This line, it is said, is a centuries old puzzle that, if solved, leads the way to buried treasure. The line was obviously made by a genius; it is itself a piece of art. No one, in all the years (and, thankfully, the line is still in tact despite the ocean and wind), has solved this great mystery.
On stormy nights the wind made it sing, and those who heard it during a hurricane became obsessed for the rest of their lives with its cosmic howls. Sea breezes of all kinds had strummed this lyre with a single cord: memory’s handmaiden.
César arrives, takes a look at it, and solves it. He admits, “My own intelligence is quite minimal, a fact I have ascertained at great cost to myself. It has been just barely adequate to keep me afloat in the tempestuous waters of life.” Nevertheless, his individual experiences, the events and moods that build up him as an individual, suited him for this task. It’s an excellent, slightly insane, discourse on the complexity of the individual.
Immediately wealthy, he could now skip the literary conference and go anywhere in the world, waking up the next morning to immense luxury. But that is not part of his plan, so, on to the literary conference. On the way, our narrator tells us a story about a mad scientist who has it in his mind to take over the world. He then proceeds to “translate” this story for us: the mad scientist is, of course, himself — César, our narrator, a slightly respected author, newly wealthy, is, it turns out, a bit handy with the science of cloning. For some time he has been hatching a diabolical plan, the central feature of which is to figure out whom he could clone who would best help him take over the world. This discourse is hilarious, and César finally lands on the perfect candidate: Carlos Fuentes. Naturally. And since Fuentes is going to be at this literary conference, César’s new fame and wealth do not deter him.
What does all of this mean? Does it mean anything? Is Aira simply telling us a fun story? Perhaps, and if so, it is still worth the short time it takes to read it. Still, this is Aira, and this book is, among other things, self-consciously concerned with its own inception and with its own process:
And (in conclusion) I have filled these plots with contents that have between them a relationship of only approximate equivalencies, not meanings.
Telling the reader that there is no such thing as “in the meantime,” César sets up his cloning station on a mountain (not for the atmospheric effect, as it might appear, but because the air is more conducive to the process) and, because it takes some time to create an army of Carlos Fuentes clones, he goes down to the town in the valley to wait “in the meantime.” In the chapters that come before the clone army descends upon the town, we go to parts of the literary conference, watch the staging of one of César’s plays he does not remember, and we have a funeral for a tiny insect. Events proceed to escalate, until César seems to realize that it’s all just a bit ridiculous, but —
Since turning back is off limits: Forward! To the bitter end! Running, flying, gliding, using up all the possibilities, the conquest of tranquility through the din of the battlefield. The vehicle is language. What else? Because the valve is language.
Where does this lead us? Well, César himself will tell us:
It seems like the insertion of a different plot line, from an old B-rated science fiction movie.
And, remember that I mentioned at the top that through all of this Aira maintains a matter-of-fact (though energized!) tone, delivering to us this ridiculous plot from the eyes (and mouth) of someone slightly above it all, but who is, I’m sure, having a blast. I don’t know what it all means — how the discourse on the individual relates to the cloned army, how the funeral connects to the plot, or, frankly, how the Macuto Line fits into the plot — but it is fun and interesting because such a frenzied writer is taking us there, and because this frenzied writer is showing us a bit of his mentality as he does so:
Which reminds me of the answer to the questions I left hanging: how to measure the velocity of my thoughts. I am trying a method of my own invention: I shoot a perfectly empty thought through all the others, and because it has no content of its own, it reveals the furtive outlines — which are stable in the empty ones — of the contents of the others. The retrograde cloned mini-man, the Speedometer, is my companion on solitary walks and the only one who knows all my secrets.
I was talking to Barbara Eppler, president of New Directions, a few weeks ago, and she mentioned how she went to Argentina where, lucky her, Aira took her on a tour of some of the museums. Fittingly, they saw many museums in just a couple of hours. I must feel slightly similar after having read this book.