César Aira: “Picasso”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. César Aira’s “Picasso” (tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) was originally published in the August 11 & 18, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

It’s great to see some more César Aira in The New Yorker! I hope this brings him more attention and that folks will look into his collection of short stories coming from New Directions in early 2015. I’m a huge fan, and in a few days all of his books that have been translated into English will have been reviewed on this site (my review of the latest, Conversations, is in the works). Consequently, I’ve already written extensively (if not thoroughly) on Aira’s famous writing style, on his interests in art, translation/transfiguration, and memory, all playing within the chaos of the everyday. Here’s how “Picasso” begins:

It all began when the genie came out of the Magic Milk bottle and asked me what I would prefer: to have a Picasso or to be a Picasso.

You can see Aira sitting down in his café, forcing himself to dive into this absurd premise. He begins carefully; the narrator confronted with this choice even addresses how strange the choice is. I mean, in any case, encountering a genie is not something we can ever fully prepare for, but in this case, it’s even more difficult because who’s ever had such a choice? The narrator says, “I had it all worked out, but only for the classic ‘three wishes’ scenario.” Nevertheless, the choice (and, for Aira, the game) must be taken seriously. Such stories often result in some misfortune befalling the beneficiary of the genie’s magic, so the protagonist decides to weigh his options carefully.

The story is short, yet a large portion of it deals with the narrator’s decision-making process, allowing Aira to “play” with his more serious philosophical interests, in this case identity and creation and how the borders of your world can change in an instant, leaving you to question everything.

On first glance, the second option, to become Picasso, seems the best because it encompasses the first and has many other advantages — fame, creative energy, wealth, the opportunity to not only be Picasso but a miracle Picasso, Picasso having been dead for some time now — but it has its own problems, problems particularly apt for Aira’s philosophical flights of fantasy. I particularly liked where the narrator puzzles over whether or not he could handle Picasso’s mental state, though, he thinks, his own mental state is worse:

He had been fairly unstable (I knew that much from the biographies), but not as unstable as me, so by becoming him I would improve the state of my mental health to some degree. Still, thanks to a lifetime’s patient efforts, I had made peace with my neuroses, fears, anxieties, and other handicaps, or at least reached a point where I could keep them under control, and there was no guarantee that this partial cure would work with Picasso’s problems.

As happens often with Aira, the story suddenly shifts its focus. The narrator makes his decision and begins to describe “the plot” of a Picasso masterpiece we’ve never seen, one that has at its center a Spanish pun: “Su Majestad, escoja,” or, “Your Majesty, choose,” which can also be read as “Su Majestad es coja,” or, “Your Majesty is lame.” It’s a joke the narrator thinks Picasso must have remembered from his childhood, and yet it reflects on the first part of the story, when the narrator himself was put in the position to choose and contemplated his own composite identity.

Aira undercuts all of this with his conclusion, a conclusion we may expect at the beginning of the story but probably forget about until the end. Nevertheless, what sticks, what I’ll reread this story for time and time again, is the way Aira lets his characters go anywhere they want to as they work out their fanciful problems in the practical world.

Betsy

Cesar Aira appears in this week’s New Yorker with an entertaining fable, “Picasso.” Aira is a prolific Argentine writer and translator. His work can be surreal and comic, with many a leap and twist, but as his translator says, it is distinguished by the way he leads his reader with his utterly clear prose. This story proves the point. On the one hand, it is a twisty and light entertainment; but on the other, it is philosophical and provoking.

“Picasso” begins with a genie offering the fictive César one (and only one) of two wishes. He must choose whether to have a Picasso or to be Picasso. He talks matter-of-factly about having to take some time to make a decision. He says it was obvious that to be Picasso was the choice, because “the power of Picasso, transcending that of any president or king, was invulnerable.” Plus, Picasso owned not one, but many of his own paintings.

But there were drawbacks to becoming Picasso. For one, César would cease being himself. For another, Picasso was even more “unstable” than César. Although Picasso was a “frenetic” artist, he could be subject to a “paralysis of the will” when it came to ordinary life.

César admits that the challenge brings up the issue of wealth versus poverty versus peace of mind. So the genie’s challenge “was a message from beyond the grave, sent in the knowledge that my dearest wish was for a truly peaceful life, without problems.” To become Picasso would have meant that César would become unfathomably rich, a situation that might interfere with his peace of mind. So he decides to “have” a Picasso.

Curiously, César almost dismisses the central appeal of becoming Picasso: having a limitlessly creative mind.

The story revolves around a kind of bourgeois suspicion of creativity: that it makes you selfish or strange or apart from other people. Aira makes an argument via his fable on the “I coulda been a contenda” kind of thinking. Yes, you could have — if you were someone other than yourself, if you could tolerate changing yourself into an artist.

Aira is known for his interest in Rimbaud, one of the strangest poets ever, a man who wrote poetry only in his adolescence, someone who had a wild affair with Verlaine only to have it culminate in his having Verlaine arrested, someone who ran away not only from home but also France, and a poet who became a businessman. (Now, Rimbaud is not Aira’s only interest; there are many others, among them Edward Lear and Copi, an Argentinian expat cartoonist and writer.) Aira is clearly interested what makes creativity possible. In the painting that the fictive César summons up via the genie, there is a depiction of a queen, a queen whose psychology is that of a “One and Only.” There are problems with this — much as there are problems with being an artist — artists having another kind of king-like “one and only” existence.

This fable interests me, as in my retirement I play at art. I read, I write, I take photographs. It is in the taking of photographs that I see what being an artist means. The problems photography presents me are the problems facing the adolescent artist: learning the techniques, mastering the equipment, getting a sense of the history, understanding what it is I want most to do, developing my own voice, or eye.

All of this is takes so much time! To do any of this leaves so little time for conventional wifely duty, or work, or even keeping up appearances. When I’m thinking about the photographs, weeks go by in a flash. When I’m trying to solve some nagging mystery of the camera, I am useless for any other endeavor. But I am, have always been, no Rimbaud. I never throw caution to the winds. So art, real art, lies beyond me. After all, if I were to be an artist, I would have to become someone else.

A couple of years ago I attended a “salon” held by the provost’s wife at the university. There were four local artists (my photography teacher among them) and a hundred guests. A painter from Northampton galvanized my thoughts. About my age (maybe a little younger), successful, confident, she talked in her presentation about the decision she had made recently that had made all the difference in her work.

She had given up cooking. Once done, she said she’d had no idea how much time and effort had gone into cooking — time and effort she now had for painting. Lucky her! Her husband, she said, liked to cook, and had made no objection.

Aira’s talking about this: seizing the means to be the person you want to be. But there’s a certain amount of running away from home involved in creativity — one has to be somewhat of a Rimbaud.

Another facet of the fable interests me: the issue of language in art. Not just the spoken word but also culture. Aira makes a point of saying that you can’t understand the painting without understanding a Spanish pun (but, luckily, he explains it to us). The act of translation requires, I think, that kind of aide to the reader, or work on the reader’s part.

The New Yorker has taken up an interest in translation, I think, as they have run several articles on the art of translation, and now this story, which also makes some points about translation and art.

The author interview this week is and old one with Chris Andrews, Aira’s translator (see here). This is such a welcome discussion! I recommend it highly! One thing that Andrews mentions is that Aira’s prose is “limpid,” even when his stories are wildly conceptual, making him an accessible writer in ways that other magical realists may not be. I enjoy that clarification.

I want to recommend three other articles that The New Yorker has run recently on the art of translation, all of which I found fascinating:

-In a May online piece, Elias Muhanna, a professor of Comparative Literature at Brown, and a native speaker of Lebanese Arabic, addressed the problem of translating the Disney movie “Frozen” into Arabic (see here).

-In the May 26, 2014 issue,  Adam Gopnik appeared with “Word Magic: How much really gets lost in translation?” This is a long article on the nature of translation (see here).

-And in the June 2, 2014 issue, Joan Acocella’s “Slaying Monsters” talks about Tolkien’s translation work (see here).

Finally, though, there is “Picasso,” Aira’s story. I enjoyed very much where it led me, and it makes me very interested in his other work and what Andrews calls his “deep strangeness”.

13 thoughts on “César Aira: “Picasso””

  1. avataram says:

    Terrific little story. The end was a bit predictable, but no less satisfying.

    The playfulness of the story – the connections between the choices in the story and in the fable depicted in the painting – really mesmerizing. Borges said that some of the best stories are Dreams within Dreams, but this one has a fable in a fable, or rather a fable in a painting in a fable.

  2. Matteo says:

    There is a splash of Borges: if the narrator had decided to go for the genie’s second choice, we’d have a fable similar to Shakespeare’s Memory (also published in The New Yorker). Very pleased to see Aira in the magazine again. It was typical of his humour that his narrator should find the genie in a little bottle of ‘Magic Milk’ which he’s noticed all the tourists drinking.

  3. Betsy Pelz says:

    This week’s “This Week in Fiction” is an interview by Willing Davidson with Barbara Epler, New Directions publisher. (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/week-fiction-barbara-epler-cesar-aira-2).

    New Directions will bring out Aira’s collection of stories (The Musical Brain and Other Stories) next year, making it their eleventh title of his in English. .

    Davidson’s interview with Chris Andrews appeared in 2011 on the occasion of the New Yorker publishing Aira’s story “The Musical Brain”. (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/this-week-in-fiction-chris-andrews-on-csar-aira). Both interviews are well worth reading.

  4. Betsy Pelz says:

    One element of “Picasso” is the value of money – asking which will bring more wealth, being Picasso or having a Picasso.

    For Argentinians, how to preserve the value of the money they earn has been a serious question for a long time. Economic chaos has been Argentina’s lot for decades. Periods of hyperinflation have necessitated the revaluation of the peso several times, and if it’s possible, citizens of Argentina buy dollars. It seems as if Aira’s fable (“Picasso”) challenges people to rethink the nature of wealth – whether it’s money or one’s own self that creates independence.

    Carolina Drake, writing for Aljazeera America, has written an account of what it is has been like to come of age in Argentina recently. Her article, entitled “Humanizing Argentina’s Inflation” appeared in February of this year.

    She talks about the “gasolero lifestyle” – trying to stretch a peso the way a diesel car stretches a gallon. She also says:

    “I was 18 years old when the 2002 economic crisis — punctuated by 41 percent inflation — hit Argentina, pushing millions, including my family, into poverty. ” (http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/2/humanizing-argentinasinflation.html). This, several years ahead of our own economic crash.

    The New Yorker ran a piece by Dan Rosenthal on August 7th that explains in detail Argentina’s most recent crisis.
    (http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/argentinas-rational-default)

    Aira’s fable appeared in the New Yorker a few days after the most recent default. While it never mentions Argentina’s long history of economic challenges, “Picasso” does discuss the issue of the “portability” of wealth. The fictional Cesar thinks he’s better off with a real painting, but the author seems to be pleading a case for the value of the creative spirit.

  5. avataram says:

    Betsy – that is a great comment – also in Argentina, at times of such crises, there are limits on how much of your own money you can withdraw from a bank- somewhat similar to what happens to the author at the end of the story with the painting.

    Matteo’s comment is a very illuminating one – that Borges has already written the story of what would have happened if the narrator chose to be Picasso. Couple of years ago, Hisham Matar read exactly that story “Shakespeare’s Memory” in a New Yorker podcast:

    http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-podcast-hisham-matar-reads-jorge-luis-borges

    The only confusing thing for me is that there is no Picasso museum in Argentina – somehow I felt that Aira may have set his story in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona – but in a story with a genie in a bottle of magic milk, surely there can be a Picasso museum in Argentina.

  6. Betsy Pelz says:

    Thank you, Matteo and avataram, for pointing us to the Borges story, “Shakespeare’s Memory” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1998/04/13/shakespeares-memory).

    This reminds me of our discussion of almost a year ago regarding what is a conversation with another author and what is an appropriation. Aira seems clearly in conversation with Borges (who was also, by the way, Argentine).

    I would be so interested to hear what other people think of the way the two stories interact. I am untutored in either Aira or Borges – so that my reaction to the two stories feels a little thin for a legitimate comparison. But I am interested in how both stories address the ways we resist “reading” another person’s mind. Also, there is the reply that Aira makes to Borges – that although we can be overwhelmed by the immediacy of someone’s art, that is far preferable to the idea that art is something you trade in (either as an academic, in the case of the Borges story), or an opportunist, as in the case of Aira.

  7. avataram says:

    While I have read some Borges, I haven’t read much Aira, and so I am hoping for a longer reply from Matteo.

    Just adding a few more connections: Borges has explored memory earlier in another story, ‘Funes the Memorious’, about a boy who remembers everything. Sasha Hemon wrote a great piece on the story recently:
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/26/aleksandar-hemon-on-jorge-luis-borges-s-funes-the-memorious.html

    Borges explores memory again in ‘Shakespeare’s memory’, and like Funes, Hermann Sorgel tires of his gift.

    Something similar to ‘Shakespeare’s memory’ has been explored by Graves in this poem –
    http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Poetry/Graves/To_Bring_the_Dead_to_Life

    Seeing all these cautionary tales, Aira’s choice is not a surprise.

  8. Matteo says:

    I believe the stories are part of an older tradition of cursed wishes in literature, Shakespeare’s Memory immediately brought to my mind Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, which is, in turn, very similar to W. W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw which was written shortly after. This is, of course, what we expect when reading Borges and writers influenced by him: constant reminders of the interconnectedness of world literature. In fact, I think Stevenson took his cue from a Brothers Grimm fable.

  9. Good point, Matteo. I like how Aira is explicitly playing with our expectations since we know those types so well, with the narrator saying he knew from stories that there was probably going to be some joke at his expense once he finally made his decision.

  10. Ken says:

    I was not too thrilled–especially after a few stories such as Last Meal at Whole Foods and Wagner in the Desert. To me, this was a glorified Shouts and Murmurs piece and I saw the punch-line coming a mile away.

  11. Sean H says:

    I have to agree with Ken on this one. I’m all for trumpeting Aira’s praises if people are into him, but it’s hard to get worked up in any positive sense on the basis of this particular piece. It reads as clever, even witty at times, but ultimately slight and the ending was incredibly predictable. And I’m not even saying that is some particularly egregious literary sin – people who brag about figuring out a twist or ending are often insufferable and self-satisfied – but for a piece this short, the “substantiveness” of the ending is pretty important. I haven’t read deeply into Aira (or Bolano, or Knausgard, as they are some of our more widely praised international writers of the last five years or so) and am perfectly willing to give his longer stuff a chance when I have time, but all three of these writers have yet to blow me away with their New Yorker pieces anyway.

  12. Try as I might to come up with a good rebuttal to Ken and Sean H., I have to admit that I cannot. The ending is a strange beast, completely predictable (except that, when you read Aira, you don’t expect such a predictable ending . . . so, that kind of makes it unpredictable — but not excusable).

    I can say that for me this one was not about the ending. For all I know, the café Aira was writing in was about to close so he just jotted that down. It’s particularly interesting, I think, because at the beginning of the story he expressly talks about these kinds of endings, how common they are, predictable — and yet he drops us in the same kind of thing. My own admiration for Aira is in the stuff that precedes the ending, all the back-and-forth philosophizing, the examinations of minutiae, constantly taking things much further than most.

    But, to offer some comfort, this is far from my favorite Aira work. So there’s still hope, if you’re ever tempted!

  13. And, Sean H. is right that none of the three authors he mentions — three that I admire a great deal — are well served in The New Yorker. It’s just not the right scope.

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