The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira (Curas milagrosas del Doctor Aira, 1998) translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (2012) New Directions (2012) 88 pp
It’s today, that day when a new Aira hits the shelves! In their ongoing committment to publish one or two Airas each year, New Directions has now provided us with one I’ve been looking forward to for some time: The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira. I first heard about this one when I had lunch with New Directions’ Barbara Epler and Laurie Callahan. Laurie said it was one of her favorites.
But, as much as I loved it, I don’t think The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is a good jumping-off point for someone new to Aira. All of Aira’s short books are loads of fun, but sometimes that fun is had because you see how Aira is playing games that relate to books he’s already written. I think that’s the case here. If you love Aira, you’ll appreciate the fun going on here; if you don’t know him, you may actually be turned off, so strange is the meta-dialogue, and that would be a real shame. Then again, I say that as a devoted fan who doesn’t know how this book would read if I didn’t know Aira. Anyway, if you don’t know Aira, you owe it to yourself to read him, wherever you start.
I think in each of the reviews I’ve written about Aira, I’ve mentioned his writing technique. I’ll briefly mention it here again. Aira sits down everyday in one of the local cafés and writes a page and a half. When he’s done, he leaves, and his project the next day is to write another page and a half while attempting to find his way out of any problems he created for himself the day before. He claims he never revises. Also, and this is extremely interesting to me, he will place in his writing things that are going on around him in the café. For example, he tells of one instance when a bird flew in, and that bird found its way into his story: “Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.” What we get, then, is a book that can go anywhere. Fortunately, Aira sets himself up the task of making things fit and relate, so this isn’t just a random assortment from a mad mind. Aira trusts us as readers to go along on these experiments with him, and it pays off, so we trust him too.
All that said, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is, for me, one of his simpler books in terms of plot. We meet Dr. Aira when he finds himself waking up on an uknown street. He suffers from somnambulism, so this isn’t unheard of, as disorienting as it continues to be. He continues walking, reflecting on his blunders and the fear of future blunders.
Time lifted him out of the shame of the past . . . It had already done so; it had already carried him into the present. Such blunders were cessations of time, where everything coagulated. They were mere memories, stored away in the most impregnable of safe boxes, one no stranger could open.
He is highly cautious. He doesn’t like making these blunders. Unfortunately for him, he has a nemesis named Actyn whose sole purpose in life is to expose Dr. Aira, a miracle worker, as a fraud. Actyn goes to all ends to do this. He’ll hire a large staff of actors, enact an elaborate death scene, all to get Dr. Aira to fail on camera. Dr. Aira is, consequently, suspicious of anyone’s request for a miracle cure, going so far as to walk away at the patient’s last breath when all physical signs say that person really is dying and then dead. He feels a mixture of shame and vindication when the dead person whispers “jackass” to him as he walks away.
To avoid getting caught by Actyn, Dr. Aira performs no miracle cures. In fact, he has never done one. It’s all theory, and he guards it so closely nothing can prove it wrong. Here is an example of how he reconciles this in his mind:
What he imagined was the existence of a unique pair of truly “magic gloves,” made out of thick red leather with angora fur lining — hence very thick — that would have the property of giving the hands that wore them (but only while they were wearing them) the sublime piano-playing virtuosity of an Arrau or an Argerich . . . but they would be useless because one obviously cannot play the piano wearing gloves, and less so with such uncomfortable polar gloves. Hence, their miraculous charm would never coincide with any proof, and the underlying theory would be left untouched. Only by dint of useless miracles could one prevent a theory from degenerating into a dogma.
I love Aira.
The middle part of the novel is a rather extensive explanation of how Dr. Aira performs (or would perform) his miracle cures. In essence he creates miracles “indirectly indirectly, through negation, by excluding from the world everything that was incongruent with it occurring. If one wanted a dog to fly, all one had to do was separate out each and every fact, without exception, that was incompatible with a flying dog.” In the final part of the novel Dr. Aira finally agrees to perform a miracle, and it results in both success and disaster.
It’s very clever and a lot of fun, just on a surface level. But where it really starts paying of is when, as I mentioned above, we see how this relates to his other works and to the aesthetic theories he performs in each book. Dr. Aira is Aira; the miracle theories relate to Aira’s aesthetic theories. Obviously, the miracles themselves are Aira’s books.