by César Aira (Cena, 2006)
translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
New Directions (2015)
101 pp

Aira is a perennial favorite here on The Mookse and the Gripes. Just yesterday I posted my favorite reads of 2015 and included Aira’s collection of short stories, The Musical Brain, at number six, just below Chekhov (you can see the full list here). Thanks to New Directions, we now have eleven of Aira’s novels and a collection of his short stories in English — and we’re just scratching the surface! This is great news because I want to read at least one Aira novel each year from now to forever, which is not an impossibility as long as someone keeps translating them for me since Aira keeps cranking them out. How many has he published in Spanish in 2015? According to Wikipedia, three.

I am always engaged by his sophisticated playfulness, that often explores the strange life we live inside our head, while he plays with form and genre to create unique and often bizarre stories. Dinner, Aira’s latest to arrive in English, takes us back to the place of Aira’s own childhood: Coronel Pringles, so we should be prepared for a book about memory transmitted through years of dreams and nightmares. Aira sets the stage with an engaging dinner conversation and then takes us on a madcap chase through town, à la The Literary Conference (see my review here), only this time, instead of running from giant cloned silk worms we’re running from zombies. Why, yes, that’s a zombie face on the cover.

Dinner Cover

Let’s look at that with a small dinner party that begins the book. Our rather pathetic narrator, a man in his early sixties who is living with his mother and off her retirement income, is having dinner at a friend’s home. The narrator’s mother is there too. None of these characters is named. Often this is not particularly noteworthy, but in Dinner our narrator is a man who cares little for others. As his mother and friend sit and swap stories about the town’s history, the narrator sits there, caring not a bit. “I listened to the names drop, as one listens to the falling rain, whereas for her, each was a treasure full of meaning and memories.”

Where many of Aira’s books are about memory — its faultiness and its power over our present — this one is about a man with few memories, at least, not memories of any individual people.

For some reason, I had never been able, or had wanted, to associate those names with faces or houses. perhaps it was my way of rejecting the life of the town where I had, nonetheless, spent my entire life, and now, with age and the loss of names, here was a curious paradox of losing what I had never had.

Knowing that memory is faulty at best, the narrator simply does not care about this deficiency: “I find fault in everybody’s else’s narrative art, almost always with good reason.” And so, he sits there, judging his friend and mother for their frivolity. When the dinner comes to a close, the friend wants to show them one last thing before his guests head home: an elaborate automaton. At this point, Aira gives us a sly clue that what we’re about to read has some meaning:

The makers of the toy must have wanted to show that the old woman’s death was close at hand. Which made me think that the whole scene was telling a story: until that moment I had only admired the prodigious art of the toy’s mechanics, without wondering what it meant. But its meaning was buried in a superior strangeness and could only be guessed.

At this point in writing this book, it is possible Aira himself had no idea how this story would work itself out and come together. And, indeed, there is a lot to admire in the mechanics of the tale, and in its superior strangeness. But in the case of Dinner, it feels like Aira knew where he was going from the first sentence of page one — the zombies that are coming are part of the mechanics, but there is quite a bit going on in this strange story.

When the dinner party and the showcasing of the automaton are finished, the narrator goes home to watch some television. He has no job, so why not? “Television had become my only real occupation.” As he sits there, ruminating on the evening and on the nature of reality — he says his mother is bitter and wants a different reality than the one she has — he comes across the most amazing news story:

[The news team] were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord. This was as improbable as an adolescent fantasy. It was, however, true.

The dead are rising — all of them — and they are coming to dinner. They seek endorphins, “the little drops of happiness and hope secreted by the brains of the living.” Aira, subtly, hardly tipping his hand that this is not a story about the dead rising but about us being dead, says that they could not have picked a better time than Saturday night “when the worries of life are set aside and people temporarily indulge in gratifying their needs for socializing, sex, food, and drink, which they abstain from during the rest of the week. In their depressing existence in the afterlife, the dead had developed a true addiction to endorphins.”

Aira’s point — we can die while living, we can be automatons in front of the television, we miss out if we do not remember names — is not terribly new, but it is brilliantly explored and played with in the course of Dinner. “Played with” is definitely the best way to approach the book. Here’s some of his typical understated fun:

That’s when there were some escapees. The first was a seven-year-old girl who leapt out of bed screaming and scrambled through the giraffe legs of the corpse that had burst into her bedroom, making his loose tibias knock together like castanets and seriously challenging his balance.

There are few escapees, however; most of the living are amazed and befuddled and cannot believe their eyes. They refuse to until it’s almost too late — well, almost too late for one last conscious thought of realization. It is already way too late for them to live:

Unfortunately for them, the real was instantaneous and without future.

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