The Linden Tree
by César Aira (El tilo, 2003)
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2018)
New Directions (2018)
Though I’ve found Aira’s books incredibly satisfying since I started reading him nearly a decade ago, anxiously flipping the pages of each season’s New Directions catalog to find the next one, I’ve never taken a step back to consider why he writes the way he does. I have spent a lot of time thinking about some of the hows and whats, considering his focus on memory and shifting characters (see How I Became a Nun, The Musical Brain, The Conversation), his attention to adapting the surrounding world into art (see An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Little Buddhist Monk), his declared aesthetic style of pushing himself forward without doubling back to edit (see The Seamstress and the Wind, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, and The Literary Conference). His is a grand literary exercise, and I’ve found a lot of personal value and joy in it. However, I think The Linden Tree may be the first time I’ve seen why Aira has written what he has, that this not just an exercise or a diversion (though I think his work is that as well) but also as a meaningful, personal, life-long project. The why might have been present in each of the books I’ve read over the years, but it stood out in this book, another of his ventures into the strangeness of the past.
Here we go, once again, to Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, where Aira himself grew up. The narrator is a writer, probably about the same age as Aira, looking back on his youth. He begins by introducing the linden tree:
The linden is a small, elegant tree with a slender trunk, seemingly blessed with eternal youth.
There is one particular linden tree in the Plaza in Pringles that was enormous (or, that’s how the narrator remembers it). He remembers that his father would go to the Plaza to collect the linden’s blossoms to make a calming tea, since he (like the narrator) suffered from anxiety and insomnia. When the narrator thinks back, though, he realizes he doesn’t remember if his father collected the flowers, the leaves, or the little capsules the flowers leave behind. Indeed, he doesn’t remember if the linden’s flowers fall and leave capsules behind or if the flowers form from the capsules. This is certainly not an important detail to remember, and Aira doesn’t bring it up here because it is. Rather, he brings it up to show that his memory is of one thing (his dad collected the blossoms for tea), and it might be incorrect (it could have been the leaves or the capsules; and if the capsules, where do the blossoms even fit in). Further, he admits he still lives by plenty of linden trees and could easily sort this out and see if his memory is correct. However, he says, “I haven’t (which shows how totally unscientific I am), but it doesn’t matter.”
No, the factual basis for the memory doesn’t matter nearly as much as the memory itself. When the events pass, it’s the memories that form a life, just as life forms and reforms memories. The past can be as tentative as the future. Aira’s art, then, even his most playful art, seems to be an attempt to capture this, to seek out memories, to find their shape as well as their power to shape. The writer, we hear again and again in this short novella, must live life in reverse.
The Linden Tree is both about this concept of living life in reverse as well as an account of how this narrator — a writer, with a history similar to Aira’s own — comes to learn just what this means (it’s something his father said to him) and, subsequently, endeavors to rediscover his own past, with all of the truths that arise from distortion. And there must be something in here about the palliative effects of this quest, similar to the calming effects of the linden tea. He needs this calm, or, at least, he needs to search for it:
Although these events have been adorned, deformed and enveloped in the prestige of legend, they really happened. It’s hard to believe — they seem made up — and yet they happened, and I was there, not at the top of the tree, but there in those days, in that town, in that world, which is now so far away. My whole life has taken on the unreal color of that fable; since then I have never been able to find a footing in reality.
The Linden Tree, then, feels much more personal than any other Aira work. It’s more serious and, believe it or not, as meandering as the zaniest of them. Are the details all correct? Probably not. Again, it’s the search, the practice, as faulty as it is, as inept as the writer may be:
I too could be practicing a trade for which I am quite unqualified, manipulating objects — memories, for example — of which I know and understand nothing, in a state of utter puzzlement.
Now, this is Aria, so I’m not confident that this story is actually personal, that he’s expressing his soul here. The anecdotes related are certainly not all his memories or related to his own life. This could be another fun game for him, trying to get his character mixed up with him. But I do feel truth here. I feel purpose. This is a bit more Aira without the distancing inherent in his other tales. And, regardless, I feel the tug in my own life. I love how he closes the book:
All that seemed so far away, so different . . . What had happened? How could we have changed so much if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself, which the Plaza’s spatial stories made as unattainable as the sky. I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect linden blossoms, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit . . . So I set out to recover that old self.
Not everyone will warm to this particular Aira book. It’s incredibly loose. The anecdotes come and go, often leaving threads that are never picked up again. There are many that don’t feel important. This could be frustrating, I imagine, for someone new to Aira, looking for a tighter novella. But for me it was catnip. I’ve read it three times over the past few months. I’m okay that not all of the memories pay off. That’s all part of the bigger picture. And this book, I think, is better read as a small part of Aira’s larger work. It holds a lot of beauty, but some of that may only be apparent if we share in some of the memories of Aira’s other work.