The Musical Brain by César Aira translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews New Directions (2015) 240 pp
When I first read César Aira — back in 2009 . . . I still remember how it felt as time passed around me, how the light changed . . . I could write a long essay just on my experiences holding an Aira book for the first time and then indulging in it — I immediately became a fan. To date, New Directions has published ten of Aira’s novels (most quite short) in English, and I’ve gulped them all down, easily done, as most are quite short. I’ve been hoping for years that we English-speakers would get a translated collection of his short stories, in particular one that included a story called “Cecil Taylor.” Thanks to New Directions and Chris Andrews, we have that, we now have The Musical Brain, a collection of twenty-one stories — twenty-one strange delights.
It’s always with deep pleasure that I return to Pringles, the city of Aira’s youth and memory, and the first story in this collection, “A Brick Wall,” begins just there: “As a kid, in Pringles, I went to the movies a lot.” This grounding in place and time is important to Aira’s structure: while his works are mysterious and, frankly, sometimes nonsensical, they are usually place in a space that is almost tangible: the mysterious and nonsensical corridors of memory. The Musical Brain as the title of the collection, then, is quite fitting.
Returning, for a moment, to “A Brick Wall,” we find Aira’s narrator — in one of those cases where it’s hard to find the line between the author and the narrator — himself returning to Pringles to visit his mother, who fell and is now bed ridden. He’s staying in a hotel: “It’s the first time I’ve stayed in a hotel in my hometown.” In that hotel, he flips on the television and sees a familiar, almost haunting, image from a black and white film he remembers from his past. It turns out to be Village of the Damned, which he’d last seen right there in Pringles fifty years earlier. This leads the narrator to reflect on one characters attempt to build a metaphorical wall in his mind to protect his thoughts from the enlightened children who are terrorizing the village of the damned. The story meanders brilliantly from the past to the present and tracking the various pathways in between, as Aira explores the walls in one’s mind:
I don’t need to be reminded that every memory is a screen. Who knows what this memory — one of my earliest — conceals.
And, by way of memory, Aira moves on, in this brief fascinating story, to forgetting:
That first memory, while still the first, is also a memory of what happened before, of what has been forgotten. Forgetting stretches away, before and after; my memory of the first day of school is a tiny, solitary island.
And, we might have guessed and cheered when we finally saw it coming, Aira turns this to his art, to his efforts to record immediacy, even while trekking through the past. He considers the phenomenon of forgetting that attends the first several years of childhood, perhaps because, as one theory has it, children lack the building blocks to contextualize experience; thus, their experience is free of screening: “The immediate absorption of reality, which mystics and poets seek in vain, is what children do every day.”
While I’ve focused on the intellectual aspect — and I think it’s fair to call it rather playful — of this first story, I want to note that it also contains heart. For in reflecting on memory and forgetting, Aira also reflects on a childhood friend who, he just found out, has died. These mystical qualities of the mind, which are infinite as we live, still flicker out eventually.
So that’s the first story, already taking up a substantial portion of this post. What about the remaining twenty? I’d love to, given the time, go into depth on each one of them; however, as this is a collection best savored and flicked through over time, I’ll leave that to you (also, two of the stories already have been the subject of other posts since they were published in The New Yorker: here are thoughts on “The Musical Brain” and here are thoughts on “Picasso”). However, rest assured that there will be more stories about memory, including a fun one about an attempt to set up a literary magazine in “Athena Magazine”; stories about the past coming back in terrifying ways to affect our immediate perceptions, such as one of my favorites, “The Dog”; stories about craft, such as “In the Café”; and just plain old strange stories, such as “God’s Tea Party,” which really is what it’s about (“According to an old and immutable tradition in the Universe, God celebrates his birthday with a magnificent and lavish Tea Party, to which only the apes are invited.”), and “A Thousand Drops,” about a theft of the Mona Lisa painting — just the paint, not the board; or “The Cart,” about a supermarket cart that speaks two words to its user, but what it says is even more surprising.
But let’s turn our attention in closing to the final story in the book, “Cecil Taylor.” This story came to my attention early in my fascination with Aira, when I heard that Roberto Bolaño considered it one of the five greatest stories he’d read. Given the author and the endorsement, I couldn’t wait to read it. I even tried my hand at translating it a few years ago. I didn’t get far because, well, I don’t really know Spanish (though, looking at my attempt and comparing it to Chris Andrews, I was at least somewhat on the right track; of course, Andrews’ is one of the masters).
“Cecil Taylor” begins by looking rather sordid, indeed, looking a little Bolaño-esque:
Dawn in Manhattan. In the first, tentative light, a black prostitute is walking back to her room after a night’s work. Hair in a mess, bags under her eyes; the cold transfigures her drunkenness into a stunned lucidity, a crumpled isolation from the world. She didn’t venture beyond her usual neighborhood, so she only has to walk a few blocks. Her pace is slow; she could be going backwards; at the slightest deviation time could dissolve into space.
As the long opening paragraph continues, she passes some men and a cat. The paragraph ends:
. . . and before the darkness has vanished altogether, an act of violence will take place.
We don’t get more of this story. Rather, the next, also long, paragraph talks about a narrative problem: continuity.
There’s an excess of continuity. Narrative traction cannot be suspended, even by inserting endings.
Aira goes on:
The stories try desperately to coalesce, they wrap themselves in pearly teleological scruples, the wind ignites them, they fall into the void . . . But maybe no one cares.
And why should anyone care?
He says this applies even to biographies of famous people, that “obstacles that stand in the way of their careers are not placed there by reality but by the stories didactic design.” Thus, “persecution and martyrdom are the instruments of triumph,” just as in the lives of saints.
This is how we get to that great jazz pianist, still living, Cecil Taylor. What comes next is a relatively long, melancholy story about Cecil Taylor’s failures. Most of the stories in this collection are dated, often falling in the 2000s when Aira was getting on in his literary career. Though the story is not dated in this edition, evidence online tells me “Cecil Taylor” was first written in 1988, making it the earliest story here, in most cases by a decade or two. It’s got a different feel to it, for sure, settling itself down for a lengthy, relatively straightforward narrative about a Jazz musician finding his way through his artistic career when most people were not equipped to understand his art.
I’d like to think “Cecil Taylor” liberated Aira to some degree, comforted some of whatever sense of failure or futility he was feeling, and led him to disregard convention in order to create books and stories that improvise greatly, that not only turn corners suddenly but also sometimes seem to jump through time and space completely. Whether I’m right or not there, this is an exceptional collection of invigorating stories that challenge the norm in their emotional and intellectual pursuits.