Birthday
by César Aira (Cumpleaños, 2001)
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2019)
New Directions (2019)
128 pp

Twenty years ago, when he was turning fifty years old, César Aira took a look at where he had been as a writer and where he was going and wrote the lovely, autobiographical Birthday.

I’m not sure where the line between fiction and autobiography is when it comes to Aira, though. Of course, there are plenty of things that are clearly fictional that are left out of Birthday; for example, in Birthday there are no giant silkworms cloned from Carlos Fuentes’s tie (see here), no zombies coming to dinner (see here), no ghosts sharing a building with squatters (see here), and no young boys named Cesar on his, and then her, way to becoming a nun (see here). But so many of his novels — including, strangely, the ones I just linked to — feel autobiographical, pensive and reflective in the best ways. Also, so many of them are filled with statements about his writing philosophy. He has created a body of work that often examines itself. The fantastical elements really feel like entertaining ways of presenting his autobiography. So, even if Birthday is be closer to what we may consider autobiography than the rest of his work we’ve received in English, it feels very much a part of his great oeuvre. As he says in the fictional — perhaps — Conversations (see my review here):

So I said: “Everything is fiction.”

And he, also not one to retreat: “Or, everything is reality. Which is the same thing.”

Birthday begins wonderfully, with an exclamation, almost, of vigor — an exclamation that gets shut down at the end of the paragraph:

Recently I turned fifty, and in the lead-up to the big day I began to have great expectations, but not really because I was hoping to take stock of my life up to that point; I saw it more as a chance for renewal, a fresh start, a change of habits. In fact, I didn’t even consider taking stock, or weighing up the half-century gone by. My gaze was fixed on the future. I was thinking of the birthday exclusively as a point of departure, and although I hadn’t worked out anything in detail or made any concrete plans, I had very bright hopes, if not of starting over entirely, at least of using that milestone to shed some of my old defects, the worst of which is precisely procrastination, the way I keep breaking my promises to change.

Clearly, the playful Aira has come to twist and examine aspects of his life, in particular the passage of time and the creation of art (and how all — life, passage of time, and art — mix and mingle). He doesn’t want to take stock of his past, wants to shed some of his old defects, but one of the defects is “breaking promises to change.” He will break the promise to himself throughout the book, which includes lovely passages that could find themselves in much of his work, like this: “That faraway past is an inextricable blend of forgetting and invention, from which stray fragments emerge by chance.”

Indeed, Aira breaks his goal of keeping his gaze fixed on the future in the very first of the ten short chapters. He is quickly looking back into his childhood — taking stock, of an “inextricable blend of forgetting and invention” — at an embarrassing moment when he clearly saw not just that his understanding of the moon and its phases was wrong, but how obviously wrong, how clearly inane, his understanding was. It’s something he should have known.

We move from that episode to the present. Chapter two begins the day after Aira wrote chapter one. He is sitting in a café (familiar place for his work) and he talks to the young waitress who has lost her dear brother.

From there we get chapters on art and how he has attempted to use his writing to keep himself going and to cover up his defects. He addresses this with one of my favorite funny passages:

To reach the age of fifty, a man with my abysmal defects would have to be a genius, and since I am not, I’ve had to pretend, constructing a laborious and complicated simulation, which was bound to produce an unbalanced figure, with dramatic highs and lows in all the wrong places, that is, the silhouette of a monster.

How does the moon, this mourning waitress, Aira’s art have to do with one another? How does it all come together in Birthday? Oh, it will all come together. Beautifully. It has quickly become one of my favorite books from Aira. It’s so much more than a playful look back. It’s so much more than a gaze into the future. Aira reflects on living and dying, creating and producing, remembering and forgetting, defects that are strengths. He’s constantly philosophizing . . . and presenting that strength as a defect:

All this is well and good for someone who has eternities of free time (especially in the afternoons) to spend sitting in cafés, playing the philosopher, pursuing daydreams that began in reading, and filling notebooks with futile jottings on this and that. Pastime, self-deception and excuse, in equal parts. An excuse, because it allows me to justify my unjustifiable novels as provisional approximations to a Great Work to come, to be realized on the far side of time. But like everyone else, I do occasionally have moments of candid self-appraisal. Involuntarily, but it happens, as with that wretched gaffe about the moon.

In the twenty years since he wrote Birthday, Aira has continued his wonderful, peculiar writing project, publishing two, three, four, and once even five short novels every year. This past Saturday, February 23, he turned 70. Happy birthday! And keep going!

But I really don’t know how to do anything else, so if I stopped writing . . . What would I do? Live? That’s the classic answer. Which presupposes that I haven’t been living up till now. “Living” would be what lies ineffably beyond all renunciations and relinquishments: illumination, the Grand Prize. But no, I can’t believe that. It’s ridiculous, an adolescent cliché. I can’t believe I ever took it seriously, even for a second.

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