By César Aira
Translated by Chris Andrews
“Puzzled, far more puzzled than at the outset of their quest, the five men came to the conclusion that all books were the Manual, and that everyone possessed the key with which to find instructions in them, fail-safe instructions for what to do and how to succeed in life.” So ends the penultimate section of César Aira’s newly translated novel “The Divorce,” a characteristically slim 98-page volume that presents as many riddles as answers, in which, in fact, the riddles are the answers.
Aira, an Argentine who has (inevitably) been compared to Jorge Luis Borges but also to the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, is known for playful recursions that frustrate attempts to outline anything like a plot. Aira has described his writing technique as “fugia hacia adelante” — writing without revising the previous day’s work — and in this novel, deftly translated by Chris Andrews, the titular event is merely a pretext for a chain of connections, rendered as a series of surreal, often hilariously absurd vignettes.
Reading Aira can feel like being inside a picture, sliding from one plane of color to another, only to find yourself following a figure that suddenly slips outside the frame. Modes of seeing — paintings, mirrors, silhouettes, shadows — figure prominently in “The Divorce,” which slides vertiginously between the mundane and the fantastical, delighting in “the bafflement produced by doublings and parallel universes.” A school engulfed in flames is preserved in all its detail as “a translucent edifice of dark moth wings” that remains in place after the building has collapsed; members of a society devoted to Charles Darwin come to realize that “the whole world might be one giant Evolution Club, within which theirs was a scale model”; a sculptor’s fumbling gestures produce a fretwork of shadows that become his abused apprentice’s “private, secret work.” As in earlier novels, like “Ghosts” and “The Hare,” Aira captures the texture of the world by flying away from it. Rather than a rejection of reality, his dreamlike sequences are an acknowledgment of it, “confirming, had there been any doubt, that there is no other world than this.”
“The Divorce,” finished in March 2008, presciently predicts that Argentina’s brief boom will be as ephemeral as the ice that keeps drinks cold in the trendy bars of Palermo Soho, the Buenos Aires neighborhood at the center of the era’s economic bubble. That center happens to be, as Aira notes, the very place where Borges spent his childhood and discovered literature. It is also where we, as readers, discover it — or at least this novel, a collection of disparate histories linked by a suite of coincidental encounters that begin (and end) at a restaurant in Palermo Soho.
One day, the narrator, having traveled to Buenos Aires to escape his ex-wife, is sitting at the restaurant with a young woman when a deluge of rainwater from an unfurled awning drenches a passing bicyclist. The bicyclist turns out to be the boy with whom the young woman once fled a school fire. This chance encounter is the first spoke in what Aira describes, in the last lines of the novel, as “that ‘little steel fairy,’ the bicycle, from whose spinning stories are born.” We come full circle, to the “delicate machine” that put everything in motion. In someone else’s hands, this might feel like a trick, but in Aira’s it is magical. With characteristic lightness he encapsulates, with a final narrative twist, the small, often funny turns that shape his captivating tales. If, as Aira writes, “the games that Borges played with space-time in his work were secondary to his art of storytelling,” so too, it turns out, are Aira’s.