08 September 2014


Conversations by César Aira, tr. Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2014)

The theory of error states that no measurement is ever exact. From which it can also be deduced that (1) every measurement yields errors, (2) true measurements are never known, and (3) the exact size of errors present is also never known. In the case of fiction, César Aira has his own theory of errors, but instead of measurements it is applied to memories. His protagonist in Conversations, the latest novella from him in English, asserts that his memory is always perfect. At night, during his "nocturnal recollections", he can reproduce all conversations he had had in the morning. He claims he can produce through "rigorous step-by-step memory" every exchange he had with his friends, down to the smallest details, including the nuances in the inflection and tone of voice, the facial expressions of his conversation partner. He leisurely remembers at night what happened exactly in his morning conversations.

Here we almost have the same mechanism of remembrance as Don Juan in Peter Handke's novel of the same name, Don Juan: His Own Version. In the case of Handke the titular protagonist talks to someone about his past one day at a time through remembrance of what happened on a particular day exactly a week before. Eventually Don Juan realizes that there are details in the scene he was remembering that he only ever recognized right now as he is remembering it.

In Aira, as with Handke, remembrance of things past becomes an enriching experience by virtue of repetition. The morning conversations are intensified by "nocturnal representation".

Memory allows me to go more deeply into ideas that pass by too quickly in the course of reality. I can stop wherever I want and contemplate a thought or its expression, analyze the mechanisms that articulate it, discover a defect in an argument, make a correction, retrace certain steps. I look at these conversations, which have become miniaturizations, through a magnifying glass, and my sleepless contemplations render them as beautiful and flawless as jewels. Their very disorder, redundancies, and lack of purpose are swathed in an artistic iridescent sheen because of and thanks to repetition.

While tracing his perfect memory of a particular conversation with a friend about a blockbuster film, the narrator betrays his intellectual pretensions by his constant allusions to the quality of the conversations over coffee he had with his friends, the philosophical flavor of the topics, and a general cultural elitism that makes his reliable narration a bit comical. The way he namedrops Hegel, Plato, and Nietzsche in a matter of fact way while expressing support for blockbuster movies and blasting "cultural" programs on TV – in a manner that seems to say that he is always open to popular fare ("I've always distrusted those intellectuals who have never heard of the Rolling Stone.") is kind of funny.

A crack in the narrator's nocturnal duplication of morning's events starts to appear while he was recalling his long debate with a friend about the problem of verisimilitude in one film's scene. He questions the presence of a Rolex on the wrist of a poor desert goatherd, a character played by a famous actor. Surely that was unrealistic? The conversations that follow become a launching pad for Aira's thoughts on the nature of fiction and reality.

While I was reconstructing the conversation (and there, also, I was implacable in not skipping a single word, and I might have even added a few), I realized that the "actor" was already the "character" in a certain sense: not the character that he would soon embody during the shooting of the movie, but the character of the story that I, marginally and for the rhetorical imperatives of the demonstration, was recounting. [emphasis supplied]

A few words start to slip in. The narrator begins to discover that his memory of the conversation about an actor playing a (fictional) character in a movie also makes the actor a character, this time in his reconstructed story that gradually he acknowledges as becoming less and less objective (i.e., more fictional).

What complicates the conversation is that the narrator and his friend have not actually seen in full the movie they are talking about, being distracted from time to time by various activities like answering the phone and going to the bathroom. The perfect nocturnal representation of a conversation about a half-seen movie starts to disintegrate into unknown territory when the layers of stories within the movie itself become apparent. How much more meta can a meta be?

The narrator's recollection and reflection are distracted by several thoughts about what he is recollecting and reflecting about. The distractions impair the pace of his memory such that the rigorous, hundred percent recollection starts to founder, "So to catch up I had to sum things up and take a leap forward".

The act of "summarizing" a bit of the conversation already introduces a wrinkle in the nocturnal telling. Is he already fictionalizing what happened in the past? Is he violating his conjecture on the ability of memory to perfectly duplicate reality? What does it say about the "fragmentary nature of one's perception" of reality? Is memory, which is "a reality of experience" and also an experience of reality, also fragmented? The narrator asked it tentatively in two ways: (1) "We were in the realm of fiction, right?" and (2) "To ride on a dehydrated goat through the star-studded sky, wasn't that fiction?"

In the end, the narrator faces up to the theory of error as applied to fiction and memory. He violates the very rule he introduces in the beginning. In Your Face Tomorrow, it takes Javier Marías's verbose protagonist all of three volumes of dense brick prose to reverse his admonition to contain all careless talk and keep secrets from anyone forever by admitting that "there comes a point when one has to tell things, after a lot of time has passed, so that it doesn't seem as if they simply never happened or were just a bad dream ... "

In a much shorter span of time, Aira's reminiscing narrator changes position about the perfect co-incidence of memory in the "real" and "fictional" levels. He finally confesses that everything remembered may, after all, be fiction. He is a fearless practitioner of fiction.

Whatever was improvised and stuttered and stammered, sometimes without proper syntax when we got carried away in the excitement of the discussion, I then polished and smoothed out and varnished during my nocturnal repetition.


When I go over conversations at night, alone, I turn into the artist or the philosopher who works his material at his will, like the director of a movie who does what he wants to or can do with the script. I, like all of them, have to face the superior unity of collective creation.

In Katherine Silver's winning translation, Aira's miniaturized philosophical meditation on the nature of fiction, perception, and reality somehow codifies or integrates together his preoccupations in his other books. It is a unified theory of fictional memory that he brings afresh here and that subsumes his general ideas on the continuum, improvisation, spontaneity, and (dare I say) world domination.

Also for the Doom at Caravana de recuerdos.


  1. What a very Airean story, and what a perfect situation to present given Aira's rumored habit of writing a page then not revising it, such that he must certainly be spending his nights polishing and smoothing out and varnishing - but paradoxically doing it for what will come next, not for what he's just written. I'll certainly be picking this one up.

  2. Scott, this book provides a refreshing way to approach his other books (though his other books do that too). I haven't really described the whacky plot of the movie in it, which could only have been concocted by a free spirit. I would want to watch it on the big screen.

  3. These have been great. You've let me catch up on Aira vicariously.

  4. Thanks, Tom. With the gradual accumulation of Aira translations, some patterns emerge and readers can get a better feel for his literary worldview. Conversations = novels? Maybe, but there's always a lot being left behind and the reader can produce his own nocturnal representation of the material.

  5. I've been looking to pick up something by Aira for a while now. May have to buy new or from the net. This sounds like my cup of doom sweetened tea.

  6. Haha. This tea's flavor of doom is easy on the system, with agreeable aftereffects.