Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

October 20, 2010

The Hare (César Aira)


Prolegomena to César Aira

"The longer a book is, the less it is literature," the Argentinean novelist César Aira said in an interview. With this standard, The Hare (248 pages), Aira's longest fiction available in English, is presumably the least literary of the lot. The rest of his translated fictions are of novella length, from An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (87 pages) to Ghosts (139 pages).

Brevity seems to be the general rule. The exceptions, as with The Hare, are rare. Brevity denotes focus. Spontaneous combustion of ideas. Short gestation of larvae. Fleeting span of attention. Quick entertainment. Literary lite. Aira's stories court all of these characteristics. Then briefly, without warning, they suddenly pull away from their encasing, take flight on newly-minted wings.

In addition to their compact form, a distinct quality of Aira’s works is their sharp turns of plot. His style is of the improvised sort. His narratives are digressive. They go off tangent. They leap quantum mechanically. The plots become entangled. This owes in part to the method of writing that Aira adopted for himself. He never edits his work, never plans ahead what he is going to write, and just writes whatever comes to mind. He calls it the el continuo ("continuum") or la huida hacia adelante ("forward movement").

It's not that everything on the page is drawn by random chance. It may be to some extent. It could be chance that spurred one to read a book and never look back again. Like what Roberto Bolaño said, once you start reading Aira, it will be hard to stop. Translators from the Spanish need to descend on the books like vultures. Seriously.

A third characteristic of Aira’s outputs is his ginormous number of books. To date, he has produced some xx books to his name. The exact quantity is now never known. But the average production is two books a year. (He is perhaps rivaled only in this department by James Patterson and his minions: Patterson clones.) Thankfully, these works have been slowly trickling down in English. The indie publisher New Directions, who brought out his last half dozen short books in translation, has acquired the rights to several more.

Yet another quality of Aira's experiments (for they are nothing but fictional experiments, pseudo-theoretical ventures, quick business deals, educated guesses, unfinished proofs, hypothetical tracts, to be tested by time and the reader's patience) is their diversity. His oeuvre is a mix of genres, from the low blow to high art. Aira's prose is not so much a hybrid animal but half man, half machine. A literary cyborg: half fiction, half machine. In a shelf devoted to Aira, the fault lines of sci-fi sit snug with a ghost story, memoir gone berserk, child psychology and psychopathology, architectural musings and unbuilt construction, cinematographic battle scenes, and stunning nature writing. He does pick out deliberately several elements from air to fire, like the last airbender.

We can add one more to these identification keys of an Aira book. Each novel, or novella, has a missing key that could perhaps (though sometimes it couldn't, however much budging) unlock the book's architecture. There is a "manual" embedded in the book that could at least approach the gate, if it can't be entered. How to push through the darkness, if one can't see the way. Read on or drop dead. The manual is what often comes in the form of digression. But the keys were also reported to be as inconspicuous as a harmless paragraph, a bent passage, sentence, or phrase. Each book has a purported key that may or may not fit the lock. Each book is probably a key. Only, the keyhole is blocked.

Which brings us to The Hare. It's set in the Argentine pampas sometime in the 19th century, after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, starring an English naturalist and several Mapuche Indians. I can't say I'm prepared for this. I can't say I was ever prepared for an Aira. The senses are trying to be vigilant for telltale triggers. Is it the obvious hare in the title? Will it build upon a wonky premise and progress into a psychedelic trip? As in How I Became a Nun, where a young child was poisoned by strawberry ice cream, an experience that marked her/him forever. As in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, where the artist was stranded by the force of nature and never recovered from the episode. As in Ghosts, where nude male ghosts frolic around a condominium building and never demanded for anything except for the one crucial thing. Or as in The Literary Conference, where a novelist-slash-Mad Scientist attempted a cloning experiment that resulted in something akin to a war of the worlds.

There's something autistic in all of these encounters. They induce a kind of epiphanic panic. Like the word epiphanic, they attract attention to themselves. Much more so when the author self-identifies with the main protagonist, as the young girl César Aira in How I Became a Nun, or as César the novelist-slash-Mad Scientist in The Literary Conference. Authorial presence is another aspect of Aira's fiction. A madcap presence.

La liebre is translated by Nick Caistor, published by Serpent’s Tail in 1995, and is out of print. Emblazoned on the front cover is the blurb "The Borges of the Pampas." Uh, okay. Labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, puzzles: check. The comparison is perhaps more pronounced in terms of the two writers' blind adherence to innovation and form. Aira's acknowledged masters, however, are the "anti-literary" set of Manuel Puig, Osvaldo Lamborghini, and Copi. Not to mention Marcel Duchamp.

The Hare is about an English naturalist/geographer Clarke who entered Mapuche Indian territory in Argentina to search for an elusive species of mammal, the Legibrerian Hare. Clarke is brother-in-law of a genius named Darwin (yes, the one). The story begins with Clarke consulting Rosas, the historical Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, "Restorer of the Laws" in the Argentine pampas, to inform him of his scientific expedition. Rosas lent Clarke a good horse and assisted him in finding a guide to the area. He was also asked to bring a young watercolor painter with him. Earlier, he also consulted another talented painter who refused to go with him. There are obviously shades of the artistes and their art here as in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

When Clarke eventually arrived at the camps of the Mapuche, he had a guarded conversation with its chief, Cafulcurá. The kind of conversation that skirted the specifics and was more like a battle of wills. While fluent in the tribe's language, Clarke was aware that certain words have double meanings and he was cautious in what he says lest he offend the natives. He was sure that his mission to find the hare was suspect in the eyes of the Mapuche. Is that the reason why Cafulcurá spoke to him seemingly in circles? Suddenly, there was a commotion from outside the tent. Loud cries of a hare sighting were heard and Clarke went to investigate. A "white" hare was presumably spotted but it escaped and took flight in the air. The Indians, young and old, were still craning their necks looking at the sky. Clarke, like the reader of an Aira book, was gradually feeling that he was being had. We know it's hard to shake that feeling.

Here's a striking passage early in the book. Cafulcurá, the chief of the Mapuche, was talking to Clarke:

   "I was just thinking," Cafulcurá said all of a sudden, "of what you were telling me. Your brother-in-law is a genius, there's no doubt of that. When I met him, I thought he was simply a likeable young man; but after what you've said, I'll have to change my judgement. Nothing unusual in that. But I should say: he's a genius in his own field. I myself have sought to convey similar ideas, but – and look what a strange case of transformation this is – I always did it by means of poetry. In matters like these, it's important to win people's belief. But in this particular case, it so happens that we Mapuche have no need to believe in anything, because we've always known that changes of this kind occur. It is sufficient for a breeze to blow a thousand leagues away for one species to be transformed into another. You may ask how. We explain it, or at least I explain it ..."

   He paused for a while to consider how he did explain it.


The Butterfly Effect

It is sufficient for a breeze to blow a thousand leagues away for one species to be transformed into another. The passage can be a clue to the novel's appropriation of scientific concepts: the "butterfly effect", evolution, and ecological connectivity.

In the 1960s, meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered that very slight differences in initial atmospheric conditions can produce very different weather forecast. This principle has been compared to a butterfly flapping its wings in one place (say, Buenos Aires) which can alter the subsequent weather pattern in a distant place (say, a tornado in Texas). This is a debated concept in the science of meteorology, though lately it has been adopted in the modeling of uncertainties in climate change scenarios. Cafulcurá continued:

   "It's simply a matter of seeing everything that is visible, without exception. And then if, as is obvious, everything is connected to everything else, how could the homogeneous and the heterogeneous not also be linked?"

   In the Huilliche tongue, these last two nouns had several meanings. Clarke could not immediately decide how they were being used on this occasion, and asked for an explanation. He knew what he was letting himself in for, because the Indians could be especially labyrinthine in these delicate issues of semantics: their idea of the continuum prevented them from giving clear and precise definitions. On this occasion, however, his sacrifice has not been unrewarded, because Cafulcurá's digression, starting from the sense of "right" and "left" that the two words also had, ended thus:

Connectivity, the butterfly effect, and consequent change support the view of Aira's narrative continuum in the space-time. In terms of the theory of evolution, the initial conditions of the environment and other externalities determine the variation of species. The butterfly effect is a fitting model for Aira's texts. The initial conditions of the story are subtle determinants of next conditions, which themselves are the bases of the final conditions. Cafulcurá's digression ended thus:

   "We have a word for 'government' which signifies, in addition to a whole range of other things, a 'path', but not just an ordinary path – the path that certain animals take when they leap in a zigzag fashion, if you follow me; although at the same time we ignore their deviations to the right and left, which due to a secondary effect of the trajectory end up of course not being deviations at all, but a particular kind of straight line."

Aira describes a certain kind of perturbation wherein the patterns within a chaotic system are not at first evident but later the alignment begins to show when the trajectory of the "secondary effect" is plotted. (The zigzag line of the animals' path makes me think of an unusual pictorial poem. Bolaño, perturbation. I am reminded of Césarea Tinajero's poem, "Sión" in The Savage Detectives.) The idea of continuity/discontinuity was continued again when Clarke spoke to Cafulcurá's son, Reymacurá, who spoke to him in more candid fashion than his father, but no less contradictory.

The "irregular path" was referred to again when Clarke got lost while trying to locate the stream where the young painter under his care was bathing:

   Getting there proved no easy matter. Apart from the fact that all the emotions and riding had left him with his head spinning and feeling drowsy with exhaustion (he had got used to a siesta, and it was exactly that time of day), he had no idea where this oasis was. The previous afternoon he had simply followed Gauna [his guide]. Now, on his own, every direction looked the same. Of course, in the absolute flatness of the salt pans, all he had to do was discover which direction to take – then the shortest route was obvious. But, as happens with every line, there were tiny deviations, and these inevitably produced far-reaching effects. In reality, on this plain, any one point was always elusive.

At the center of the concept of the butterfly effect is chaos theory which deals with how infinitesimal changes in certain variables can cause random effects in complex systems. As with similar insinuations in his short books, Aira may as well be describing his process of writing. The "storyline" usually plunges from one direction into another, abruptly taking a sideways route. Tiny shifts in the plot affect the overall emphasis of the story. The connect-the-dots approach teases out an overall pattern from the various images. The dots, however disparate, are transparently there, plotted as a course toward a certain destination, dotted as with i's. Only connect.

The question insists itself: What does the elusive hare signify? An unattainable treasure, or insight? Or simply the story's closure?

Early in the book, certain motifs already pile up. The double meaning of words in the Mapuche language reflects the delicate relations between the native and the outsider. Where 'government' also means 'path' and where 'right' and 'left' are signified by other words, the communication gap is asking for things to fall apart. The Mapuche word for 'law' itself could mean many things, more than six things in fact, that the difficulty of establishing a common law must be evident. The squinting eyes of the Mapuche (i.e., double vision), which had been mentioned several times so far and also caricatured in the cover of the book, could also be correlated to the double meaning of words. The characters were seeing double, not deigning to separate one image from the other, the real thing from its shadow or artifice or ghost.


The Airaesque

Aira's brief books are very open to critical analysis, which makes them slippery and at the same time challenging reads. Aira is an open interpretation and an open-ended phenomenon. He himself is discovering the limits of narrative stability where realistic representations don't bleed too much on surrealism and whose footing in the fantastic is sure and confident. It's hard to dismiss Aira's unpolished philosophical ideas, not least because they are bound in words of poetry and they are theories-in-progress. There is a searching tone to his character's odysseys.

The long book at hand is already replete with double-edged words and double vision that arise out of the characters' voluntary choice to say or see things the way they want to. In other words, out of a writer's resistance to conform to simple narrative itineraries. I was waiting for the moment when the apparently sideways story align itself and open up to many-worlds interpretations. Or the other way around: when a linear story begins to branch out and go haywire. Early in the book a kidnapping incident took place in the middle of a hunting expedition. It looked like just the ticket to story's self-destruction.

"The Borges of the Pampas" may be better classified as its own genetic species, as The Aira of the Pampas. Let us call Aira's butterfly effect, for simplicity and in homage to another fictive insect – the metamorphosed bug or beetle – as the Airaesque. The Airaesque is characterized by an apparent disjuncture of the narrative, where events are disrupted to give way to quasi-philosophical digressions. The Airaesque is the deliberate and conscious flouting of logic and literary conventions. It is a representation of a literary search for meaning, without due regard for whatever methodical means are used to justify the obscene ends. Where the act of disruptive writing is a reflection of chaotic reading. The Airaesque is artistic gestation nipped at the precise point when the story is just about to escape absurdity, in order to re-enter absurdity. The Airaesque is the climax and ending that resist further epiphanies. The Airaesque is the obsessive-compulsive order.

One may encounter the Airaesque in delightful anguish. As Mallén, the Mapuche shaman, warns Clarke before telling him an apocryphal story: "By now we're in the realm of pure fiction, for which I apologise."


(First posted in Project Dog-eared)

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