The Seamstress and the Wind by César Aira (La costura y el viento, 1994) translated from the Spanish by Rosalie Knecht New Directions (2011) 144 pp
Each time a New Directions catalog comes in the mail, the first thing I look for is a new title by César Aira, so much have I loved what I’ve read by him. Thankfully, it seems New Directions is not slowing down their Aira releases, and we can now read the bizarre The Seamstress and the Wind. Now, naked ghosts roaming a construction site, lightning striking a painter, the Macuto Line giving way to treasure, and cloned silk worms invading a city notwithstanding, I’d still say that How I Became a Nun (my review here) was the strangest Aira I’d read — until now. So it was nice to learn that when The Seamstress and the Wind was first published in Spanish, it appeared in the same volume as How I Became a Nun, whose opening pages of a childhood scene turned nightmare (we’ll get some of this in The Seamstress and the Wind, too) I still read with glee.
Why do I love reading Aira? Well, his books are incredibly immediate. We get the sense (and we’re right on the money) that Aira is writing these events on the fly, as if he’s watching the events occur as he dramatically narrates them to us. There’s so much energy behind his scenes. I’ve mentioned it here before, but it’s worth remembering Aira’s writing process. He sits down in a cafe in the morning and writes whatever comes to mind, even allowing the events in the cafe to invade the story (like a fly, or a drunk man). In this way, his story is not only a story but also a record of its own production. He’ writes himself into puzzles and then writes himself out of them the next day, refusing to make things easy on himself by allowing extensive revision. Not just anyone can pull this off, by which I mean that few writers following this method could come up with something anyone would want to read, but somehow Aira does it, creating something not simply entertaining and certainly not simply interesting because of the method of its production; besides this, he comes up with something meaningful and thoughtful, often something haunting.
On to The Seamstress and the Wind. I just mentioned how Aira writes in a cafe and includes whatever is going on in the writing; well, here we open the book to find Aira in a cafe in Paris, writing about what he’s thinking about as he writes in a cafe in Paris. It’s the new book:
These last weeks, since before coming to Paris, I’ve been looking for a plot for the novel I want to write: a novel of successive adventures, full of anomalies and inventions. Until now nothing occurred to me, except the title, which I’ve had for years and which I cling to with blank obstinacy: “The Seamstress and the Wind.”
It’s a little tricksy, sure, but writing about whatever he’s doing also serves to introduce one the issues he plays with in this book: memory; or, rather, forgetting, losing, maybe never having. We find out that the title he clings to is the result of a dream he had. It was a brilliant dream, a vivid story, a marvel he couldn’t wait to write down, and it had something to do with a seamstress and the wind.
However, when I woke up I had forgotten it. I only remembered that I had had it, and it was good, and now I didn’t have it. In those cases it’s not worth the trouble to wrack your brain, I know from experience, because nothing comes back, maybe because there is nothing, there never was anything, except the perfectly gratuitous sensation that there had been something . . .
So the story itself is gone, if it ever was there. Aira knows it’s pointless to try to remember, but he resists letting it go “and in that resistance it occurs to me that there’s something else I could rescue from the ruins of forgetting, and that is forgetting itself.” Aira goes on to explain how this “taking control of forgetting” is “consistent with my theory of literature.” He expresses a perhaps hypocritical disdain for writers who rely on memory and says, “Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful.”
Which leads Aira to a childhood memory that has its moment of loss and forgetting. He is playing with his friend Omar near a truck’s trailer. Aira is startled to find his friend has disappeared. He’s shocked. Omar was there and now he is not. Aira wanders home and finds out that it is much later than he thinks. Everyone is, in fact, worried about him — he had disappeared, and now he cannot remember the afternoon. He has no idea what happened to that time (even now), but the fact that so much time has passed causes him even more anxiety. After all, he has arrived, and Omar is still missing: “It wasn’t me, they were wrong . . . it was Omar who’d disappeared! It was his mother who had to be told, a search for him that had to be undertaken. And now, I though in a spasm of desperation, it would be much more difficult because night was falling. I felt responsible for the lost time, whose irretrievable quality I understood for the first time.”
Omar’s mother is Delia Siffoni, the local seamstress. She’s working on a wedding dress for the pregnant school teacher when she hears Omar is missing. She freaks out, takes her sewing kit and the wedding dress, jumps in a car and tells it to go! She’s certain that her son is in that trailer and on his way to the abyss — Patagonia. “What else could she do?”
Now, this is where the story gets whacked, and I mean that as a technical term. Coming home to find his wife missing since she’s fled to find their missing son, Ramón Siffoni takes off too. And then someone else takes off after them, and it’s a mad race to Patagonia. There’s a wreck, flight, a monster child, and the wind eventually falls in love. To be frank, it was a bit magical and, for me, incoherent. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, but I admit that it left me a bit baffled at times, and not in a good way. It’s says a lot for the book, then, that I came away still feeling I’d been through something powerful.
There’s a moment with Delia: “Then this is Patagonia? she said to herself, perplexed. And if this is Patagonia, then what am I?” Indeed. Who is she? What is any of this? I don’t know if there is a symbolic meaning to the monster child or the wind or any other of the strange things we encounter in this book. But there’s the forgetting, the loss, and the chase, and Aira doesn’t leave those alone, and they become a powerful look at his own childhood experiences and, perhaps, into the Argentina of his childhood. What was threatening? What was forgotten? What was lost, that perhaps never was? I will close with a passage I loved from early in the book that I think shows that, despite the whimsy, Aira is talking here about something more serious. The passage shows peace, a near surety of peace, yet a peace threatened by something, perhaps only something imagined but that, imagined, is becoming real:
How could we get lost in a town where everyone knew each other, and almost everyone was more or less related? A child could only be lost in labyrinths and they didn’t exist among us. Even so, it did exist if only as a fear, the accident existed: an invisible force dragged the accident toward reality, and kept dragging at it even there, giving it the most capricious forms, reordering over and over its details and circumstances, creating it, annihilating it, with all the unmatched power of fiction.