15 February 2013

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (César Aira)

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2012)

César Aira is flooding the market with his books—at least the Spanish-reading market (the English translation market cannot catch up). His is a thorough and deliberate exercise in style: each novel a miraculous variation of each other. The words within a single work are often self-referential, both to the work and to Aira's entire oeuvre itself. Consider a passage in the middle of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.

The first thing was to begin publishing his installments of the Miracle Cures. First of all, obviously, he had to write them ... But at the same time he didn't need to write them because throughout the last few years he had filled an unbelievable number of notebooks with elaborations on his ideas; he had written so much that to write any more, on the same subject, was utterly impossible, even if he'd wanted to. Or better said, it was possible, very possible; it was what he had been doing year after year, in the constant "changing of ideas" that were his ideas. Continuing to write or continuing to think, which were the same, was equivalent to continuing to transform his ideas. That had been happening to him from the beginning, ever since his first idea.

It will not be a spoiler, for it is already obvious, if we say that Dr. Aira's "miracle cures" are also the real César Aira's extra-large quantity of publications. The miracle worker is the novelist himself, but the novelist is not trying to be subtle about it. That both of them share a name only indicates that one of them, or either of them, may be trying to pass himself off as the other.

Every other statement in that passage is a contradiction of the previous one (he had to write them ... he didn't need to write them; to write any more, on the same subject, was utterly impossible ... it was possible, very possible). He attributed this self-contradiction to his perpetual "changing of ideas" ("perpetual flux", he later said) or continuous transformation of ideas. He said it "had been happening to him from the beginning", from the get-go. Let us then consider here the beginning, the first paragraph of the novella.

One day at dawn, Dr. Aira found himself walking down a tree-lined street in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same. His life was that of a half-distracted, half-attentive walker (half absent, half present) who by means of such alternations created his own continuity, that is to say, his style, or in other words and to close the circle, his life; and so it would be until his life reached its end—when he died. As he was approaching fifty, that endpoint, coming sooner or later, could occur at any moment.

Almost every other phrase or clause (unknown streets ... he actually knew quite well) is either a send-up or a comic reinforcement of the preceding. At the level of the sentence, Dr. Aira constantly revises his ideas, inverting the sense where possible.

His miracle cures are much sought after because they are "real" cures for the sick. However, his mortal enemy, Dr. Actyn (the name is quite meaningful), wants to expose the good doctor's methods and so keeps taunting him by setting up a trap for him one after another. That is partly the reason why Dr. Aira is wary of patients propositioning him.

One of the doctor's escapes from this paranoid state of affairs is writing. He decides to publish his miracle cures in installments. Hence, the implied comparison of dispensing miracle cures to novella-writing is so obvious it does not even need to be concealed.

This work, however, turns out to be not only an allegory for writing or the creative process but for the actual publishing process as well. The doctor worries too much about how to include diagrams and illustrations in his planned installments and what other materials to put in, say, an "autobiographical component". He seems to be more concerned about the additional "textual apparatus" and physicality of the text than the contents.

As opposed to other objects, texts withstand time only when they are associated with an author whose actions in life—of which their texts are the only tangible testimony—excite the curiosity of posterity. Such posthumous curiosity is created by a biography full of small, strange, inexplicable maneuvers, colored in with a flash of inventiveness that is always in action, always in a state of "happening".

With this passage as a clue to interpreting the writer's work (and vice versa, a la Varamo), some of his publishing quirks will no longer puzzle us. It partly explains why in Ema, la cautiva (1981), a very early "installment" of the real Aira, a letter is addressed to the "agreeable reader" at the back of the book. Or why the writer takes pains to bring out his installments in as many venues as possible, in as many small presses as possible, including one that bounds books in between cardboards.

More than the art of self-blurbing, more than self-advertising or trying to gain the world record for having the most number of ISBNs, Aira seems to be concerned with encapsulating the modes of production into his own books, dissolving the base into the superstructure, so to speak. More than the commercial and literary considerations of the texts/installments, the accretion of published texts is their concretion, a way to increase a writer's exposure and ubiquity, a way for the writer to actively participate in the merchandise of memory and posterity. Hence, the novels, in addition to being novels, function as their own textual apparatus as well.

And it's not the same César Aira production if there's none of the usual idiosyncratic exploration of the novelist's instantaneous (moment-by-moment) method of writing. The way Dr. Aira performs his "miracle cures" at the final section of the book is very instructive in this regard, at least in terms of understanding the novelist's writing and publishing process. Partly revealed is the secret mechanism behind the doctor and the novelist's careful selection of bibliographic (biographical, fictional) details, the material forces that go into book production.

The doctor's final miraculous act is a scene to behold: "He looked like Don Quixote attacking his invisible enemies". (His actuations are similar to that of the Tom Cruise character in the movie Minority Report [2002, as in this scene, spoiler alert].) Like the other installments in the series, this book provides a peek into the workings and theatrics of the Airaesque.

The first of three chapters of the novel can be read here.


  1. Yay, another Aira post! I haven't read this yet, Rise, but gave it as a gift trusting that it would be as welcome to another reader as all the other Aira works I've read were to me. I was just last night contemplating a post about how frequently Aira invites readers into meditations on his method, on his effort to create something new at every turn (and to defeat method at every turn as well, as you so nicely write about here). There's a passage in The Seamstress and the Wind like this where he makes clear that what he's doing is really anathema to surrealism, at least in terms of that movement's lazy methods and crass juxtapositions substituting for the genuine effort of trying to create something new. That's a really great line about the accretion of the texts resulting in their concretion.

  2. Thanks, Scott. I don't recall the passage in The Seamstress and the Wind but I agree with it. Beyond surrealism, there is something avant garde in the method adopted (and the results) anyway. Let's hope your friend will be receptive to Aira's tricks.

  3. I have not yet read any Aira, but this sounds quite interesting.

    Incidentally, I've awarded you the blog of the year award:


  4. Salamat, Miguel ! It's a big honor to me.