César Aira: “The Musical Brain”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  César Aira’s “The Musical Brain” (tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) was originally published in the December 5, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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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 beautifullly.  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.

11 thoughts on “César Aira: “The Musical Brain””

  1. Paul says:

    About halfway through this story, I started to think I was reading a dream. The story has all the loose ends and illogic of a dream. What happened to the dwarfs? What’s the meaning of the Musical Brain? Where does the monster come from? Things just sort of appear and then lose significance as they’re replaced by other things. Time, too, is discombobulated. Is he in the truck on the way to the hotel, or on the way home? This is exactly the way things happen in dreams.

    I remember once reading about a man’s session with his psychoanalyst. He said he dreamed about his father, but in the dream his father had the face of a horse and was dressed like a woman. The analyst said, “Then how did you know it was your father?”
    The man replied, “That was part of the dream.”

  2. Adam says:

    I disliked the story. I’m glad to see The New Yorker branching out, but if this story had been submitted by an unknown writer, it would have been an immediate rejection.

  3. Trevor says:

    . . . but if this story had been submitted by an unknown writer, it would have been an immediate rejection.

    It’s not that I disagree with the statement, but it says more about the editors of the fiction section of The New Yorker than it does about Aira.

    Aira’s growing reputation is supported by his work, which is refreshing and unique, in this case showcasing an amalgam of styles and modes that somehow come together to celebrate the richness (or horror) of experience and the untapped depths of the human mind. Of course, it isn’t for everybody.

  4. Paul says:

    Would like resp disagree with guy who says it would have been rejected but for author’s fame. I think it’s funny and fascinating. The last sentence (about the symbol for the library) left me in a state of wonder. I loved it.

  5. Tom says:

    I’m not trying to insult this story or anyone’s ways of thinking, but this story is just completely illogical.

    1. Midget wife cheats on husband with midget twin.

    Logical enough, I guess

    2. The twin midgets are gruesomely murdered.

    Gross, but could happen.

    3. Midget woman stumbles out of a statue, with no face and blonde hair. She grows bat-like wings and starts flying everywhere scaring the audience. She then lays an egg, and the town’s librarian, who the reader has been told is dead, commences to place a book on the egg.

    WTF?!?!

  6. Trevor says:

    I agree, Tom. But logic is not the primary concern here. Aira holds to the school of thought that insists on paradox while presenting it as if it’s the most natural thing there is.

  7. Tom says:

    I didn’t look at it from that perspective, but I appreciate it very much. I was pretty surprised to be reading the story with no prior knowledge then have the already strange story take another twist. Thanks for the feedback! :)

  8. Trevor says:

    I do wonder how I’d have reacted coming to this with no knowledge of Aira. I do think his prose style appeals to me, regardless, but I’m sure I incorporated a lot of what I’ve read elsewhere in his ouevre into my reading of “The Musical Brain.” Certainly I’ve given up trying to understand how the narrative gets from point A to point B :) .

    I write a little bit about how Aira composes his stories in some of my other Aira reviews, if you’re interested. I find his process explains a lot of what we get in the story (indeed, as here, his stories often include tidbits about his writing process).

  9. Aaron says:

    Trevor, I’ve left enough comments here for you to probably guess at my response (http://bit.ly/v6oEVD), so I’ll just respectfully add that what you enjoy about the writer is what I find disappointing. I enjoy magical realism because it has its own logic, logic that casts a different perspective on actual events; without that logic — what you refer to as Aira’s paradoxical school of thought — I’m left without a perspective.

    I admit, the idea of expanding the town from within is a good one, but whereas you feel as if you’ve gotten to know the town, I do not, no more than I’ve gotten to know the mother or the son, who you seem to know (from past experiences with the author) represents Aira. Perhaps if the story were edited down to focus on reactions rather than descriptions, such madness might be more palatable and revealing. Instead, it’s a story about creativity, and that seems redundant to me.

    Also, two nagging issues: (1) What’s the story with the book drive at the dinner event? If it *is* a matter of donating books for a free meal, why does the father pay for it? And if not, why bring it up at all? (2) How does a cardboard object shatter?

    I know, I know. There’s so much other stuff left unexplained that I should probably just accept it all, but that’s just not the sort of reader that I am.

  10. Trevor says:

    Always nice to have the other side, Aaron :) . It becomes more and more apparent that much of my Aira reading came in handy when reading this short story, and who knows how I would have reacted with no foreknowledge. I’m quite invigorated by him, to say the least. Some of this is from his prose (which I think I would have liked anyway), but some is from the work of trying to get at him and his work. This story is just a cherry on top for me.

    As for the two nagging issues — I’ll bet not even Aira could answer them! I’m pretty sure he’d say “Who knows?” and leave it at that! Then again, I don’t think he’d expect us to just accept it all, either. “Who knows?” is part of the equation.

  11. Ken says:

    I have to agree with Aaron (especially in his long review). I fully understand what type of story this is. I know it’s not realist but I don’t think it adds up to much besides a series of quirky episodes because it never seems to develop any idea, show character growth or development or involve us emotionally. Far better to place a few unreal elements within a realistic milieu (like Millhauser) which a. creates tension between modes of reality and b. Allows us some more traditional identifications with characters. Instead, this is like a, rather unsatisfying, dream and at the end does seem to cheat by just throwing the kitchen sink of sub-David Lynchian weirdness at us. Lynch too is best with some stronger narrative foundation for his surreal whimsies.

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