"The Musical Brain"
by César Aira
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
Originally published in the December 5, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

This is fantastic! I never believed that Aira, one of my favorite authors, would have a short story published in The New Yorker — and certainly The New Yorker is that much better for it. Hopefully it will bring him many more readers from the United States.

I’m very interested in what people think of this story. For me, it very much resembled some of his longer works: it begins in one place, setting up our expectations, and then proceeds to take strange detour after strange detour, finally concluding in a single bizarre episode that is completely unexpected, despite any clues we might have. Indeed, I felt “The Musical Brain” matches and sometimes exceeds the crazed meanderings in some of Aira’s books. Because of this, it’s a fairly good introduction to Aira’s stranger works, like the hilarious The Literary Conference (my review here) and (the to me slightly less enjoyable) The Seamstress in the Wind (my review here). For those who are perhaps attracted to Aira’s prose but don’t find the strangeness appealing, I still heartily recommend reading Ghosts (my review here) or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (my review here); while strange, these two are not quite as strange and are a bit more serious. As a sneak peak, the next title New Directions is publishing is Varamo, which I’ll review closer to its publication date early next year; to me Varamo was a bit of a balance between the bizarre and the serious.

“The Musical Brain” — where to begin? As in some of his other books, the narrator here is Aira himself as he looks back on a strange sequnce of events from his youth in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in the 1950s (no, this similarity in no way makes this story predictable). Early on, we understand that Aira has a faulty memory. He looks back and remembers a time when his parents broke routine by taking him and his little sister to a dining event. They never ate out, for reasons Aira explains, but on this one particular night — and he’ll come up with a few possible reasons for breaking routine — he finds his memory taking him to an evening out, everyone dressed up. In a corner of the room he remembers seeing the librarian, and his high school headmistress, Sarita Subercaseaux rumaging through a bunch of boxes of books. Ah, he thinks, probably his family went out to this particular special dinner to help establish the public library. However, as reasonable as this sounds, apparently this cannot be exactly true:

During my last visit to Pringles, hoping to confirm my memories I asked my mother if Sarita Subercaseaux was still alive. She burst out laughing.

“She died years and years ago!” Mom said. “She died before you were born. She was already old when I was a girl.”

“That’s impossible!” I exclaimed. “I remember her very clearly. In the library, at school . . .”

“Yes, she worked at the library and the high school, but before I was married. You must be getting mixed up, remembering things I told you.”

That’s strange, yes, but not the kind of strangeness I referred to above. Because, at this point, we leave the issue that would seem to take center stage in a piece about the mystery of childhood and memories (I quite like these kinds of books; see William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (my reviews here, here, and here, respectively)). Instead of following on this line directly, the family gets up from the dinner, and Aira takes us to a room by the theater where the mysterious Musical Brain is on display (I’ll let you find out what this is when you read it, though you’re probably imagining it correctly). And, before we get settled, the family is driving somewhere else; Aira took his seat in the back of the vehicle, his favorite place to sit, and while explaining why he so much liked the back seat also briefly describes his literary technique:

There was also a more arcane reason that I liked to travel in the back: since I couldn’t hear what they were saying in front, it meant I didn’t know where we were going, and so the itinerary would take on an unpredictable air of adventure.

Of course, this is exactly what we readers are feeling by this point:  Where on earth is he taking us. Hopefully, we are enjoying the ride and are not too concerned with the ultimate destination. There is another reason for these detours, though, both for the family and for Aira the writer:

[I]nstead of going a few hundred yards in a straight line we’d often end up driving five miles, following a tortuous, labyrinthine route. For my mother, who had never left Pringles, it was a way of expanding the town from within.

“The Musical Brain” expands the town from within beautifully. It’s not that this is a small town portrait (because surely this stuff did not happen in Coronel Pringles or anywhere else), it’s that in a such a short space Aira reproduces the expansiveness of life as it is lived, complete with false starts, lingering questions, inconsistencies, and expanded by the intrusion of something completely unexpected (like a love triangle among dwarves threatening the town — maybe fear of a dwarf with a gun is why they were at that unexplained public dinner), something that makes no sense (well, you’ll get this in the story).

There’s a great Book Bench interview with translator Chris Andrews, who translated this story and several other books by Aira (click here). Here is a good take-away line:

But as anyone who has read [Aira] knows, the “correctness” is only syntactic: his sentences are well formed, as the linguists say, but his stories and his books are, well . . . deformed, swerving wildly, jumping from one kind of fiction to another, as in “The Musical Brain”.

I do recommend reading and rereading this story. Also, if you’re interested, a few years ago I interviewed Chris Andrews for this blog (click here), and it’s still one of my favorite posts.

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